Entries in GM (8)


The DeKon Chevy Monza: Unsung IMSA hero

I'll never forget the moment I first noticed the Chevy Monza. I was at Laguna Seca with my dad watching the vintage races. And there was this sleek red 1970's car I had never seen before that was utterly owning a field filled with 911's 935s, not to mention a few BMW 3.5CSL racing cars.  This guy was seconds a lap faster than his competitors. And when I found out he was driving a Chevy Monza, I was in shock.The Chevy Monza production car was powered by a hearty V8 but its styling has been relegated to the dustbin of forgettable malaise-era GM designs. The chassis surely was nothing to write home about either.  So how could an exemplar of late 1970s GM engineering end up as a competitive racing car, embarassing the finest GT machines Europe had to offer at the time?In partnership between GM and DeKon Engineering of Illinois, these racing Monzas were prepared from the ground up for privateers to compete in the IMSA GT Championship.

At the DeKon workshops, the cars took on massive tires, stuffed into aggressive fender extensions. The chassis was a spaceframe, so this was really a purposebuilt racing machine with only a passing resemblance to the showroom car. The appearance of these cars, with their low, agressive stance, is really menacing. The rear view is particularly awesome.After finding their feet, the Monzas went on to win the IMSA GT Championship in 1976 and 1977, beating Porsche.  One customer even campaigned his at Le Mans in 1978, but did not finish the race.

Primary Source: Sharch.org

Images, various sources.


Grand Sport Moment of Zen

Just paid a visit to the Simeone Foundation Museum's "People's Choice" Demonstration Day.  The Corvette Grand Sport sounded sublime. The real showstopper was the Shelby Daytona Coupe, however. More pics to come.


Book Review: Bob Lutz's "Car Guys vs. Bean Counters"

Bob Lutz, the cigar-chomping, fighter jet-flying, tell-it-like-it-is septuagenarian retired auto executive otherwise known as "Maximum Bob," has released a new book about his time at General Motors. As a longtime Lutz fanboy, I had to rush out an buy a copy. At $26.95 I found it a tad steep, but I was so eager to read what Lutz has to say that I forked over the cash anyway.

The 232 page book is part memoir, part political diatribe, and part business philosophy.  The writing is informal and direct, but Lutz's tone is relentlessly cocky and self-serving, punctuated with moments of feigned modesty or introspection that only serve to reinforce the overriding arrogance of the author.  I admire Bob Lutz, but not as much as Bob Lutz admires Bob Lutz. Let's just put it that way.While it was interesting and frequently entertaining to read the author's humorous and intelligent anecdotes about why and how GM got into the deplorable state it was in for so many years, the narrative was tainted by personal bias. In Lutz's brief history of GM, the people he admires or knows personally are the "good guys" and the incompetent, pencil-pushing, left-brained losers --Lutz's enemies-- are "the bad guys" who wrecked the company.  In short, there is little dispassionate analysis of the way GM went from the most successful automaker in the world to purveyor of...shall we say...crap. Instead, Lutz seems to take the gloves off selectively, letting the UAW off surprisingly lightly, and pulling many punches at people who were managing GM during the bad old days, but with whom he is personally friends.  For someone so famous for being controversial and saying what he thinks, I got the feeling he was being very precious about who he chose to attack and defend.Lutz saves the bulk of his venom for auto industry outsiders.  He rants, as silver-haired FOX News watchers are wont to do, about the "liberal media" (he tellingly singles FOX out as more objective than other networks) and the "green zealots" who undermined GM at every turn while fawning over Toyota.  While I share his disgust at the way many journos (most notably Thomas Friedman) praise and defend Toyota with blind devotion, he utterly glosses over the real reason why journalists, and frankly much of the American public hated GM and the big three: Because they made shitty, poorly-designed, gas-guzzling cars for nearly 30 years, all the while fighting any new labor or environmental regulation tooth and nail --and made boneheaded strategic and marketing decisions on top of it all. Honestly, is there any GM car worth a damn between 1973 and 2001 when Lutz returned to the company? Ok, maybe the Fiero--once they solved the engine fires.

Today's GM is more enlightened on every front, and their products are now truly world class (ask any friend of mine and they can attest to my proselytizing for GM and Ford products!) but Bob seems to act as if the vitriol poured on GM from the left were undeserved. It was not. The real problem was that as GM changed for the better, those haters and enemies failed to recognize the real, palpable changes afoot and give credit where credit was due. Furthermore, they ignored or forgave the increasingly bad behavior of Toyota and other imports, who filled the market with equally massive and profligate SUVs to compete with domestic offerings. But Lutz's counter-attacks on the supposed "green left journalistic establishment" ring terribly false. That Lutz defends the SUV as the "workhorse of the American middle class family" is one of the more blatant and disappointing moments of shilling in this book.  That Lutz--the evangelist of the sports sedan and European driving dynamics--would defend and even ennoble these ugly, monstrous, wasteful body-on-frame vehicles is really a sign that he isn't being truly honest with the reader here. The SUV craze of the 90s was a despicable and wasteful fad. And just saying, as Lutz does, that "we just made the cars people wanted to buy" is the disingenuous language of an apologist. For someone so brash and opinionated, Lutz again seems to pull his punches where a solid left jab to the gut is what's called for.If you carve away all the fat, bone, and gristle, the really choice part of the book is towards the end, when Lutz expatiates upon the state of American business thinking and makes some very salient points about why American companies have lost market share in a wide range of product categories.  He rightfully points out that business leaders have become so rational, and so pseudo-scientific in their approach to product development that there is no place for a real, messy, non-linear creative process that leads to disruptive innovation and desirable products that people will covet.  His essential argument is that GM wallowed in mediocrity for years not due to lack of talent or capability. They failed because their management was obsessed with measuring and quantifying the wrong things, while ignoring the important stuff and imprisoning its most creative people within bureaucratic fiefdoms run by numbers crunchers, not visionaries.

Lutz explains that many product executives at GM were evaluated and rewarded based solely on whether their cars came out on time and within budget, and actual sales results--poor as they inevitably were--were blamed on other outside factors giving the execs deniability of responsibility.  But in fact, the line executives were the only people with access to the results of consumer testing, and were well aware that the cars they were developing were likely to fail in the marketplace.  They simply didn't care because as long as the car came out on time, and within budget they'd get a bonus.  Lutz came in and changed the process, saying he'd rather have a great car come out a few months behind than rush out a sub-par product to the public.  He also made consumer testing results "public" within the upper management so that the line executives no longer had anywhere to hide.  He also consolidated and politically re-empowered the design studios at GM, restoring them the powerhouse they once were under Bill Mitchell.  Seems like a no-brainer, but that is essentially the crux of Lutz's argument in this book: American business has over-intellectualized and over-rationalized things that to most ordinary people are "no-brainers" (see also Pontiac Aztek).  Lutz argues cogently for an enlightened despot to run a company rather than consensus building and team-oriented approach that will inevitably lead to watered-down results.photo credit: new york timesFor too long, GM took their customers and market share for granted, whittling down to the minimum of what a consumer would "accept" rather than "desire." This drive for minimizing cost and maximizing efficiencies at the expense of quality and desirability is Lutz's antichrist.  He argues and indeed demonstrated in the market that when given high quality product offerings, people not only recognize the quality, but will pay more for it.  As a product designer who has seen many a client hobble an otherwise promising new product with artifical launch deadlines and ever-tightening cost targets, it was music to my ears to hear a seasoned business executive articulate this point of view. I sincerely hope that leaders of other consumer-facing companies will have the same epiphany.  So many of them seem to want to be a Steve Jobs without really walking the walk. Lutz, during his tenure at GM, did walk the walk, and worked tirelessly to teach others to walk that walk, changing the culture at the company in the process. He deserves tremedous credit for doing so.

If you can stomach the page after page of self-congratulation, climate change denial, and attacks on the "elite" media, there is a lot of good food for thought in "Car Guys vs. Bean Counters." I would love to see it edited down to a tight, powerful, apolitical 75 page business manifesto stapled to the door (or forehead) of every B-school dean, professor and student. Maybe then, we'd see the real cultural shift in our business community that is so urgently needed to surpass foreign competition and make American products winners in the marketplace once again.


In defense of GM's Saab?

I think a lot of people have hated on GM's management of the Saab brand.  And with good reason.  Some of the cars were lackluster, and their overpriced WRX-based 9-2X, and bloated Envoy-clone 9-7X were boneheaded line extensions par excellence.  However, just as Pontiac bowed out with the surprisingly refined and competent G8 sedan, it seems like GM finally nailed it and produced something really gorgeous and compelling with the latest 9-5 sedan right before selling off the brand(Saab, you owe me big time for this plug!).

The new 9-5 really carries off the Nordic cleanliness that Saab should be about (clear influence from the stunning Aero X concept car can be seen throughout), while exuding the gravitas and presence that its German competitors have down to a science.  It's a pity that in both Saab and Pontiac's cases, the cumulative effects of years of mismanagement proved too great a burden to be saved by one great design. 

You don't see that many brand new Saabs on the road these days, but this 9-5 on the street in midtown stopped me in my tracks and took my breath away.  The stance, the detailing, the distinctive look. They really got this one right, at least from the outside. If Saab ever re-starts production, (they currently are so broke they can't pay their suppliers and are awaiting a government bailout in Sweden) it's a shame that Jason Castriota will probably ruin this understated, elegant new brand language before it even can spread across the whole product line. I'm glad GM survived the "carpocalypse" but it's a shame that Saab might be robbed of its potential as a result.


Yes Jason, but why is it a SAAB?

The new Saab PhoeniX concept unveiled at the Geneva auto show is the first product of designer Jason Castriota's leadership at the post-GM Saab styling department. The obvious connotation of the term Phoenix is of a bird "rising from the ashes" but let me just say this is one overcooked bird. What a hot mess Castriota has made from the formerly clean and sober Swedish brand! And I'm not the only one to question Jason's egotrip here. The car clearly has many "trademark" Castriota touches that can be seen on his Bertone Mantide and other prior concepts, but where are the trademark SAAB brand hallmarks?  Let's watch as former BMW design director Chris Bangle asks Castriota that very same question!

So Castriota claims that Saab is trying to "re-capture" its Aero heritage. But isn't that what GM-owned SAAB was up to in 2006 when they made the "Aero-X" concept car?  Didn't this car also have jet turbine-inspired wheels as well? And the rear end treatment has some similar elements too. Only this car was hyper-clean, very nordic, and basically sex on wheels. Castriota's bizarre C-pillar "flying buttress" appendages, on the other hand, make me so mad I want to rip them off and snap them over my knee.

Of course Castriota wouldn't dream of referencing one of GM's star-crossed concepts though, nor carry on with the brand continuity they carefully built into all their show cars of the last 10 years. (Let's leave the production cars out of this!)  Instead, he attempts to parry Bangle's professorial assault on his cover story by claiming to reference the original UrSAAB, from way back in the old days. Well, I'll leave it to my fairminded readers.  Is there anything about this PhoeniX concept that in any way resembles the car below? I can see the vestiges of a teardrop shaped greenhouse in the PhoeniX but that is about it.

I do think I have an idea where the tail light treatment on the Phoenix came from though. And although it isnt from a previous GM Saab concept, it is from another GM car we can all remember with fondness:

I think that Castriota has believed his own hype for a little too long, and now that he is actually a design director at a real automaker rather than a struggling carrozzeria, he is going to have to really buckle down and learn to put the brand story ahead of his own signature flourishes, otherwise he could be on his own once again in the not too distant future. Welcome to the big time, Jason!


PhoeniX images via Autoblog