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January 5th, 2012 Comments off

It’s that time of year – when we all get to enjoy the bounty which was bestowed upon us by family and friends for the holidays…  By that, I mean presents. And in my case, those presents are quite often automotive-related.

This year, I received a copy of Bob Lutz’s book Car Guys vs Bean Counters – The Battle for the Soul of American Business.  It’s a pretty interesting inside-look at Bob’s final tenure at General Motors, beginning in 2001, up through and including the bankruptcy and restructuring of GM.  Once the reader gets past Lutz waxing moronically about the left-wing-socialist-media propagating the great hoax of global warming, and ignorant government bureaucrats promulgating regulations which favored foreign manufacturers (which, in his mind, played a role in the events that led to GM’s demise), there are interesting tidbits about the inept product-development practices within GM that led to mediocre cars that didn’t appeal to consumers.  Lutz’s focus is product design – creating vehicles that people want to buy – and he disparages what he calls the overly academic, data-driven analysis approach that the glut of MBAs that infested the ranks within GM espoused.  His bottom line is that you must create a great product in order to succeed.  Developing streamlined, efficient business processes to produce perfectly pedestrian vehicles will lead to failure.  Cars should be created by car guys. With this, I agree.  (Lutz’s book also gives an interesting GM-centric perspective on the government bailout of the company, which is a nice counterpoint to [while being consistent with] the version contained in Steven Rattner’s book Overhaul.  Which I was given last Christmas…)

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Coincidentally, I also received another book this year:  Cars: Freedom, Style, Sex, Power, Motion, Colour, Everything, by Stephen Bayley.  This mini-coffee-table book views automobiles as art, and the vast majority of its pages contain black-and-white photos of Bayley’s list of the most beautiful 86 cars ever produced.  The first 30 pages, however, contain text that set the stage for the reader, and describe how the automobile was at one time designed to appeal to the senses.  These moving masterpieces were metaphors for personal achievement, and captured the essence of what people aspired to be.  They moved people, rather than just moving them around.

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…Which I think is sort of what Lutz was trying to get GM back to.  It’s sort of ironic that the beginning of Bayley’s book effectively summarizes the point that Lutz is trying to make:  “…It was art that really made the car America’s primary product.  And later Europe’s, then Japan’s.  The management consultancy pioneer, Alfred McKinsey, believed everything can be measured and if you can measure it, you can manage it.  But art is as notoriously resistant to both measurement and management as it is powerful in its effect.  From the moment car manufacturers discovered art in the 1920s, there have been attempts to manage it, to systematize it, but none has been successful.  Even in an industry as hierarchical and stratified as automobile manufacturing, the great cars have been products of creative genius – aberrant, cussed, irreverent – not of scientific management.”

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As a final note, I also received a copy of Peter De Lorenzo’s book Witch Hunt: Essays on the U.S. Auto Industry and the Blithering Idiots Who Almost Killed It.  I’ve only just begun reading it.  While De Lorenzo, too, makes the point that, in the car business, product is king, the lesson that I’m really taking from this book is:  Bloggers shouldn’t publish their work in hard-cover.