Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ford Australia - Fall Into Line!

Apparently the body language at this year’s auto show in Detroit said much more than the words uttered by Alan Mullally, J. Mays and the Media Minders. Get used to it Australia, the rear wheel drive Ford Falcon is really on its last legs this time!

I can only say, “About time.” Ford’s new CEO Alan Mullally has been spruiking the ‘One Ford’ policy for quite a while, but Ford Australia doesn’t seem to be listening. And, it should. The local offshoot of the Dearborn giant has made many serious missteps in recent years, all for the sake of keeping these indigenous Fords alive - and ultimately it will have been a waste of time, as well as money.

It’s not rocket science, really. The large passenger car market has been losing share every year for more than a decade, and despite the valiant efforts of Marin Burela to breathe life into Ford Australia, and designer Scott Savage’s brilliant attempt to keep Falcon relevant, the company has wasted time in not developing a coherent strategy for the future.

What’s wrong with a ‘One Ford’ sedan that’s all-wheel-drive?

One could be forgiven for thinking that the Falcon has been treated like a rare religious icon - its existence sacrosanct, and to be preserved at all costs. Clearly, Ford Australia has been guilty of too much Falcon-centric thinking.

Ford Australia is not only deeply in-debt to Dearborn, but also deeply in denial. Let it go, for heaven’s sake. Preserving this anachronism has just staved off the inevitable.

There’s been too much deference to populism, emotion and plain old sentimentality. If past Ford Presidents had been truly responsible they would all have been playing a part in planning a post-Falcon future over the last ten years. Instead they’ve kept the old dear on life support, and cost the company valuable time in re-planning, re-resourcing and re-invention.

So what’s the current situation? It has Falcon (old, irrelevant, outdated and not selling); it has Territory (a great product, poorly-marketed); Mondeo (almost a Falcon, and even more expensive); Focus and Fiesta (relevant, fuel-efficient and VERY expensive). This is a company that’s driven itself into a corner, and now doesn’t have much of a chance of driving out of it.

A very brave Alex Trotman tried his own version of ‘One Ford’ back in the mid-90s, and tragically left the execution to a team you could only describe as the foxes in the hen-house. Trotman’s vision was defeated internally, and Mullally’s survival scenario should not be allowed to suffer the same fate.

Alan Mullally has proven the value of hiring him away from Boeing, but he needs a lot of support to re-shape Ford Australia. Personally, if I were him, I would simply dictate the company’s future direction, and tell them to get on with it.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Driven Personalities - Franz-Josef Paefgen

Ing. Dr. Franz-Josef Paefgen joined Bentley Motors at a crucial time in 2002. It was almost four years after Volkswagen AG acquired it, and the company was floundering under management by an engineer whose ego, many said, exceeded his expertise.
Dr. Ferdinand Piech & Franz-Josef Paefgen 
VW AG Chairman Ferdinand Piech needed to put VW’s billion pound investment in safe hands, and he chose the highly experienced and aristocratic Paefgen. VW had committed funds not only to acquire the British carmaker, but had also signed off on the project which would make or break it - the Continental GT. In addition VW AG also committed to underwrite Bentley’s very expensive return to racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

There was a great deal at stake for Volkswagen. It may have been a giant corporation creating lots of revenue, but the Bentley exercise was destined to become ‘Ferdinand’s Folly’ if it’s lack of direction wasn’t corrected.

Having already enjoyed an impressive career as Chairman of Audi, Paefgen would have his work cut out for him, dealing with a slightly eccentric British industrial mindset.

Fast forward eight years, and as Franz-Josef Paefgen relinquishes the Chairmanship to another distinguished German auto executive, Wolfgang Durheimer, both VW AG and Bentley Motors can be grateful that Paefgen proved to be an outstanding combination of maturity, determination, integrity and experience.

 F-J Paefgen and Wolfgang Durheimer, Detroit 2011
There is a fallacy perpetrated (and perpetuated) by car companies, and usually driven by the bean counters, that it’s more cost-effective to keep the production line rolling, building cars they can’t sell, and then give the dealers hoards of cash to move them off the dealers’ lots. This does two things - first, it signals to the buyers that the original price is artificially high, and it seriously damages resale values.

This was one of Paefgen’s first challenges. The previous chairman had overseen over-production, and dealers were stuffed with cars.

Within weeks of taking over at Bentley, Paefgen cut production, and restored order.  This would not be the only time he was required to temper output in order to balance fading demand. He had to do it again when the GFC hit the luxury car business.

Franz-Josef Paefgen is an Anglophile, and appreciates much about England, but far from being a dewy-eyed romantic, he is tough and disciplined. The workforce at the venerable Crewe works recognised a leader when Paefgen began making decisions about Bentley’s future.
F-J Paefgen launching the Bentley Continental GTC 2006 
He became Bentley’s unstinting champion in the Volkswagen Boardroom, and whilst his personal style suggests aloofness from the daily grind, he is always across the detail.

Of the many challenges he faced in his eight years, there is one moment that truly delighted him - the victory at Le Mans in 2003. Posing with the winning drivers, and Derek Bell, at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Paefgen celebrated with the knowledge that Bentley had pulled off an incredible gamble.
 Team Bentley in Paris, June 2003
The Le Mans program had been announced in 2001 as a three year project, win, lose or draw. As the huge Rolex clock at the circuit showed 4pm on Sunday afternoon in June 2003, Paefgen, Bentley Motors and the entire team breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Paefgen is not a racer, but he has enjoyed many track experiences, none more special than in 1999, when as Chairman of Audi, he drove one of the great Auto Union monoposto race cars. As I watched him take this roaring, crackling beast onto the Laguna Seca circuit in Monterey, California, I realised this would be one of the great ‘car experiences’ of Paefgen’s career, and I grabbed some photos to commemorate his drive.
Paefgen at the wheel of the 1937 Auto Union 
The car was the only remaining ‘original’ Auto Union Silver Arrows V16 single seater from the 1930s. It was built in 1937 as a ‘mountain climb’ car, as opposed to a circuit racer, and the delicacy of the situation - “Audi Chairman drives priceless original relic” was not lost on anyone that day.
 Paefgen lapping the Laguna Seca circuit, August 1999
Thankfully, Paefgen completed his laps without incident, smiling broadly as he returned to the pits. This was an event in his life which must surely have been close to nirvana for an automotive engineer like Paefgen.

Another great moment for Franz-Josef Paefgen was the launch of the first all-new British-designed-and-built Bentley in more than 70 years, the Mulsanne. This was an oustanding achievement for both the Chairman and the Company, and it also highlights VW’s confidence in the management of the Bentley brand..
 Launch of the Bentley Mulsanne, 2009
At the 2011 North American International Auto Show in a cold and snowy Detroit, Paefgen handed Bentley Motors over to the ‘new guy’, launched the new Continental GT coupe, and stepped back from a job well done.

Franz-Josef will stay on at Bentley Motors as an ‘advisor’ for a while, but he and Sigrid plan to spend considerable time relaxing at their lake house in northern Italy. However, I suspect his brain will still be traveling at ‘work speed’ for the rest of his life. Sir, it has been a great honour and pleasure to know you.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Driven Personalities - Alan Jones

My friend Stirling Moss once said to me, “By golly JC, that Alan Jones is a racer, isn’t he?” Coming from the great British champion driver, that’s quite a compliment, because Stirling really respects those guys who just get on with it, and give no quarter.

For me I reckon I’ve distilled all of Alan’s talents into two very key elements; he was a great starter, and a great overtaker. He was also tenacious, determined, calculating and resolute. These skills and character traits, and the great Williams FW07, were the elements which combined so well in 1980 to make him World Champion.
 Pre-race in the pits, Monaco 1981
In 1981 I was in Monaco as a guest of the Williams F1 team and spent a lot of time with AJ in the pits and paddock, and during the race I watched him from several vantage points - St. Devote, Mirabeau, Loews Hairpin and La Rascasse.
 Exiting La Rascasse onto Pit Straight
However, the most memorable spot was Mirabeau, on the run down from Casino Square. Memorable, because it was here that Alan put all his skills on show. For around 15 laps he was frustratingly tucked up behind Nelson Piquet’s exhaust pipes, watching and waiting.

Showing his patience, planning, determination and opportunism he pushed the Brazilian lap after lap, feinting down the inside at Mirabeau, to ‘spook’ him. AJ told me later that he was so close, he could see Nelson’s eyes in his rear view mirrors as big as saucers. AJ stalked him, waiting for the opportunity.
 Alone at Mirabeau
Next time around, at Mirabeau, Alan Jones was alone. Piquet had lost concentration on the previous lap, and crashed into the wall near the ‘swimming pool’ chicane!
 Loews Hotel Hairpin
Sadly, a fuel feed problem in the last couple of laps robbed AJ of a much deserved win, and he had to settle for second, but after that race I was convinced I’d witnessed just why Alan Jones was a World Champion.

For all the F1 races after that I followed his career on TV, and time and again watched his lightning reflexes win the drag race off the starting grid.

Alan made a brief return to F1 with the Beatrice-Lola team, but sadly the team and the car were simply not up to the standards of performance AJ could deliver, and despite his warm welcome from the locals at the 1985 AGP in Adelaide, he did not continue with the Carl Haas team.
 At Adelaide in 1985 with Channel 9's Ken Sparkes
There’s a truth in racing, as true today as ever. If you don’t give the driver the very best car with which to do the job, he will not be able to realise all his potential, nor reveal all his talent. In 1980-81 Williams provided the BEST car on the track, and Alan Jones did his best with the tool at hand.

I’ve had the pleasure of a friendship with Alan Jones since 1980 and over many cold beers, and many glasses of an excellent Argentinian red, I learned that like all of us, champions are both simple and complex, but on the track Alan Jones was simply an awe-inspiring racer. Stirling Moss was on the money with his assessment.

 At Glenburn, Victoria in 1983
We need to continue to pay tribute to both our world champion drivers, Sir Jack Brabham and Alan Jones. They stared down the greatest teams and drivers in Formula One, and through skill and application they carried off the greatest trophy in motor racing. No mean feat!

Well done AJ! You are, and always will be, a true champion!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Touring: Amalfi Coast

The diversity of the Italian countryside offers no better example than touring from the eternal city of Roma, to the Sorrentino Peninsula, and along the Amalfi coast to Pompei.

From Fiumicino airport’s rental car desk, it’s a quick 20 minutes drive around the Circonvallazione Meridionale, joining the Autostrada del Sole (A1) south. Then, 270km later, you’re on the outskirts of Napoli. Take a tip, and skirt the birthplace of Pizza, and take the SS145 via Castellammare di Stabia to Sorrento, where you can stop for a coffee. That trip will have taken you around three and a half hours, and you’ve earned a break.
 Marina del Cantone
However, Sorrento is just a pit stop, because the eventual destination is a tiny fishing village on the south coast, called Marina del Cantone. This is a 45 minute journey along tiny, twisting, provincial roads, to what is essentially a dead-end. It’s what is at this dead-end, that’s so inviting.

Our lodging is in a ‘restaurant-with-rooms’ known as the Taverna del Capitain. It is the only 2 star Michelin restaurant on the Costiera Amalfitana with 12 charming rooms dal mare ...
and full pension means three glorious meals a day and a room overlooking the bay, for about USD$400 a night. It’s worth every penny.
 To dinner, at Taverna del Capitain, by boat
Because of the difficulty of reaching the village by road, many diners arrive by yacht, and moor off the beach, taking a tender to the restaurant. Dinner is classicly Italian, takes about four hours, and leaves you well-satisfied.
 Isle of Capri
This is also a good starting point for an easy day trip to the isle of Capri. Hiring a local boat and pilot for the day from Ciuffitiello will set you back about €200, but once again it’s an experience you’ll remember for a long time to come. A casual lunch at the Ristorante da Gioia at Marina Picolo, could only be matched by a buffet at the Quisisana Hotel just off Capri’s main square.
Ristorante da Gioia, Marina Picolo, Capri

 Hotel Quisisana, Capri
Returning to the Sorrentino Peninsula, and back on the road, it’s just a 50 minute (25km) trip to the beautiful town of Positano, which seems to tumble down the hill towards the water.  Positano is stacked with great hotels, and restaurants and definitely worth a pit stop.
However, our destination is Amalfi, on the Gulf of Salerno and another 20km further east. It’s the biggest city in this region of Campania, with a population just over 5500. In medieval times it was an important naval and trading city, once boasting a population as high as 70,000.
View of Amalfi

 Beach at Amalfi
Today, it’s bit sleepy and offers a great variety of hotels. The ‘beach’ is like many on this coast, and is composed mostly of tide-tumbled stones, but the water is inviting and the scenery pretty interesting.
 Town Centre, Amalfi
Amalfi is definitely worth a couple of days, but after that you should head for a look at Pompei, just 50km away – a one hour drive.

The modern city of Pompei looks a bit down at heel, but the people are very friendly, the restaurants are great, and a useful visit to the ruins would easily soak up two days.
 Ruins at Pompei, Monte Vesuvio through the arch
After you’ve wandered, and wondered, at the surprising preservation of the ruins, and considered the forbidding Monte Vesuvio, you’ll need to get back onto the Autostrada del Sole, and return to Roma. The 260km trip should take about three hours, and then you can plan your days in the city of popes. But, that’s another story.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Vale BLS

News is in about the demise the Cadillac BLS, ruefully known either as (tick own choice box): ‘Better Looking Saab’ or ‘Bob Lutz Special‘, as GM’s car czar at the time was one of its proponents.

The Cadillac BLS was a clumsy attempt to dress up a Saab 9-3 platform, with a US-designed body, and provide Cadillac with a low-price entry to the European premium market, and (wait for it) a challenger to the BMW 3-Series!

It didn’t work on either front, although it wasn’t a bad-looking car. This photo from the 2005 Geneva Auto Salon was ironic, because the BLS display was immediately in front of the Saab space, and once the Euro media discovered the Cadillac’s provenance it scored nothing more than a glance as they passed by.

As always, the numbers tell the story. Just over 7500 of them were sold in around three years, and even the arrival of a wagon version in 2007 couldn’t convince continental buyers that this was a truly premium competitor.

I can’t believe professional GM suits could honestly conjure up a proposal for a 3-Series fighter with:

1. An old Vauxhall platform
2. Front wheel drive
3. Egg crate grille and garish interior

and expect Euro consumers to embrace it. Well, maybe I can, and that’s why the Americans keep failing in Europe, or in GM’s case, almost failing to survive at all.

Unfortunately, I’m reminded, there’s more. In the USA the Subaru Imprezza was rebadged as the Saab 9-2; and the Chevy Trailblazer rebadged as the Saab 9-7. They didn’t work either.

Not that American consumers couldn’t see through the disguise, they just didn’t buy these cars dressed up as Saabs because most Americans don’t know what a Saab is! The brand simply doesn’t rate. GM was never able to make Saab work in the USA.

On a different tangent, it does make you wonder whether Spyker Cars can really revive Saab, or are we just waiting for the death notice?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Toyota The Brave

I think the Australian arm of Toyota deserve a medal of sorts. The local division has shown initiative, innovative thinking, opportunism, realism and confidence in themselves - all qualities reflected in the appreciation of the ‘Toyota System’ in the book ‘The Machine That Changed The World’.

Mind you, after the fumbles and failings of the parent company this past year, I think a few people at Head Office better re-read the book, and rediscover why Toyota was so highly praised.

Why a medal? In comparison to Toyota’s worldwide operations the Australian activity is tiny, miniscule, hardly worthy of note in numbers terms. However, not only has Toyota HQ recognised the incredible foothold Toyota Australia has created Down Under, the Australian division has done itself a lot of favours for courageously fighting its own corner at the annual HQ bunfight, known as the ‘Forward Plan’.

Faced with limited resources TMCA (Toyota Motor Company Australia) took the decision to stop offering a V6 version of the Camry, and instead ‘created’ the local Toyota Aurion, using the V6 engine, to replace the deadly dull, uninspiring, Avalon.

Using the same basic platform (with a few unique bits hung on the outside) TMCA bred a two tier model structure overnight, and whilst the diehard Holden/Falcon tragics didn’t see the Aurion as a rightful competitor in the ‘Big Six’ market, Toyota dealt itself into the segment with a refined, competent and competitive car. It’s also very nice to drive.

Then, with the energy crunch coming, TMCA managed to convince its parent that it should have a Hybrid version of the Camry. Did they need it to compete? No, not really. Was it a good idea to jump into the ‘Green Car’ segment so quickly? Yes.

This is self-confidence in its purest form. “We’ve got the technology; we’ve got the platform; we can do this, and score big PR and brownie points.”

I say, "Go For It. Why not?"

Whilst the competitors are struggling to keep up, put the boot in. That’s business.

While on the subject of confidence, let’s visit a situation TMCA may not want discussed, but it’s something that highlights the company’s commonsense.

Okay, Toyota tried the whole TRD thing with an Aurion and a HiLux, and it didn’t work. What’s staggering is that the company had the balls to say: “That didn’t work, let’s kill it.” Brilliant! For that decision alone they should have a medal.

On top of that, they’ve still got the Corolla ending up in more garages than anyone else thought possible. Good work TMCA, don’t lose your cool!

Driven Personalities - Spen King

In 2009 Charles Spencer (Spen) King died, and the British motor industry, indeed the global motor industry lost one of its most original thinkers, one of its most innovative engineers, and a man whose achievements represent an enviable legacy.

The easiest way to place Spen King in the minds of most ‘car people’ is to say he was the man who brought us the Range Rover. However, over a 57 year career he contributed much more than the world’s most successful luxury SUV.

I first met him in 1978 when his employer, British Leyland, sent him to Australia to promote the newly-launched Rover 3500 (SD1). We became firm friends at our meeting in Canberra, and over the next 33 years I had the pleasure of staying with him and his charming wife Moyra, many times at the Old Manor House in Cubbington, in the English Midlands.

On those visits we often talked about his life in the automotive industry. He was apprenticed to Rolls-Royce in 1942, later moving to Rover in 1945, working for his uncles, Maurice and Spencer Wilks. Spen worked on the famous P6 Rover, helped develop the Rover-BRM gas turbine-powered sports car which competed at Le Mans (and also setting a land speed record), then later he worked at Triumph on the Triumph Stag and the Triumph Dolomite Sprint.

One of the projects he was most proud of was a concept car called ECV3, a three cylinder small car – about the size of a Toyota Yaris, but fast and economical. At its first press outing in 1962 it accelerated from 0-100km/h in just over 10 seconds, but at a steady 60 km/h returned almost 100 mpg! Sadly, British Leyland at the time said no-one would be interested in such a car! Would that Spen was here now – the industry would be begging him to develop the concept! He was way ahead of his time.

In the mid 60s he was given responsibility for developing an SUV, which was faster, roomier, more powerful, more comfortable and more habitable than the utilitarian Land Rover. The result was a car often described now as the iPad of the car business – meaning “Everyone had to have one “.

Spen was an original thinker (in fact, a true genius), and after he retired he was snapped up by the aluminium industry to help develop new technologies. He died as a result of a cycling accident near his home. It is a sad end to a life of monumental achievements.

New Cars For Cuba?

Images from Havana showing a colourful variety of ancient American cars still in use is a common stereotype of Cuba, more than 50 years after the revolution led by Fidel Castro.
 (Photo - Robin Thom)
Now it appears that Cuba might be about to get some new cars! Cuba could be looking at a form of private enterprise to prop up the communist model, and that might mean Cubans can go shopping for new wheels.

Taking a breather from his usual fiery outbursts and tirades against the west, and the USA in particular, Fidel, now 85, is reported as saying "The Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore." The interview in the magazine The Atlantic more or less endorses moves by Fidel's 80 year old brother Raul, now Cuba's President, to allow citizens to own their own businesses, set prices, make profits (and pay hefty taxes), to get some cash into the government's coffers.

However, ordinary Cubans don't seem ready to completely embrace fully-fledged capitalism yet, with many citing the social schisms in Russia after the fall of communism, like the rise in gangsterism and corruption, and control of wealth by oligarchs. Cubans are rightly proud of the success of their state healthcare, their state education, and the relative safety and stability of life there, despite unrelenting ranting from the vocal minority of expatriate, right-wing Cubans in the USA.

Tourism to Cuba is on the rise, and foreigners are now able to lease land for up to 99 years, which all means more cash for the fragile economy. There may even be an opening for some entrepreneurs to start importing new cars.

Mind you, with Havana the last outpost of some real classics, there might also be room for opportunist restorers to grab an ancient Yank tank, and put it on the lawn at Pebble Beach!
This could be good business for Cuba, especially if it follows the Bermuda model. The Bermuda government won't allow a new car to be imported, until one old car is exported. Makes for a very modern car parq!