Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Thinking Outside the (Chocolate) Box

Nestled in its lakeside headquarters in Vevey, Switzerland, Nestlé, the world’s biggest commercial chocolate maker is not so much innovative, rather it caters to conventional, somewhat pedestrian tastes in chocolates.

Whereas, not far from the shore of the Zurichsee, in Zumikon just south-east of Zurich, sits RINSPEED, one of the smallest, and most innovative makers of concept cars, automotive technology solutions, and out-of-left-field ideas.

Begun by Frank Rinderknecht in a small Küsnacht garage in 1977, this very small, but clever and energetic company has managed to fund an appearance at the Salon Internationale d’Auto in Geneva every year, since 1979, which was also the year of birth of RINSPEED, Inc.
To better fund his advanced thinking, Rinderknecht’s commercial business centered on relationships with AC Schnitzer; Mercedes-Benz; AMG; and many after-market companies to build vehicles for the disabled, sell sunroofs, go-faster kits, speed equipment and modify cars for private owners.
Meanwhile, he and a small team developed new concepts in mobility, sustainability and automotive innovation.

Regular visitors to the Geneva Salon became used to seeing something new and different on the RINSPEED display every year, and given that he has been an exhibitor at more than 30 Salons I don’t have room to show all the different concepts.
Often it would be something based on a commercial production car, like a Golf GTi with gullwing doors, in 1981.

Or, the sQUBA, in 2008, “the world’s first diving car with zero emissions, zero pollution in the seven seas”.

This year Frank and a team of only five fulltime employees showed the RINSPEED  xCHANGE, a driverless car, with a very innovative interior, where the occupants can drop the front seats to almost Business Class-style flat beds and rest, whilst telematics and advanced technology pilots the car to its destination, and deals with traffic along the way.

If the car looks familiar, that’s because it’s based on the Tesla Model S, itself being exhibited just 50 metres from the RINSPEED Stand.

Something tells me Frank and RINSPEED are, as usual, way ahead of the curve with this concept.

Although many car and technology companies are developing advanced telematics to guide cars; national authorities also need to be investing in accompanying telematics technology to provide guidance systems on every road, so that the cars, plus the  traffic and guidance systems, can ‘talk’ to each other.

In June this year, the 14th Annual Telematics Update Conference will be held in Novi, Michigan – where almost 80% of the auto industry’s USD$12 billion Telematics R&D budget is being invested – and I hope the organisers invite Frank and the RINSPEED xCHANGE along for the attendees to look at. Sadly, it appears they haven't!

I watched Frank Rinderknecht giving dozens of interviews in Geneva, and he bubbles with passion and energy when talking about the concept car.

The xCHANGE bristles with smart thinking and clever ideas, but the automotive world has a lot of catching up to do to be in-sync with Frank’s latest concept car.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Driven Personalities - Alasdair Stewart

The global automotive industry values top-shelf achievements from executives seasoned by age and experience, and the best evidence of that propensity is the outstanding career of American Bob Lutz, who has only recently retired – although I suspect that means just from a mainstream role.

Bob Lutz

I am fortunate to be able to call Bob Lutz a friend, and knowing him as I do, he is still exerting influence, and counseling colleagues from his bolthole near Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Mark Fields
However, there are some young upstarts about who stand tall – like Mark Fields, who is tipped to take the top job at Ford Motor, when Alan Mulally steps down.

Another very bright young automotive exec is Brit, Alasdair Stewart, who has been handed some big challenges in his 12-year career with the Volkswagen group.
Alasdair Stewart
I first met Alasdair when he was named President of Bentley Motors North America in 1998, shortly after Ferdinand Piech swooped on the British luxury car company.

That year Bentley sold just 330 cars in North America, but by 2005 Bentley sales topped 3700 cars, after Alasdair’s team had spent the previous nine years chopping-out the poor-performing dealers, signing up more energetic retailers, trimming and refining the model line, and promoting the marque heavily with some innovative marketing and public relations programs.
Alasdair presenting Ralph Lauren with a bespoke Bentley Arnage
Meeting the US auto media at Sardi's, NYC
It was then he was hauled to Wolfsburg to be handed what some might have called a ‘poisoned chalice’ – heading up sales for Bugatti, which was then in big trouble, trying to move 300, million-dollar-Veyrons.

Ferdinand Piech's 'Baby' - the Bugatti Veyron
Taking the challenge in his stride Alasdair Stewart applied his American market savvy, and some shrewd marketing and PR tactics to move a number of the 1000hp sportscars to new owners in the USA, and then began developing limited editions of the Veyron to increase the appeal of the last cars off the production line.

Alasdair Stewart with Limited Edition Veyron Super Sport

One of the most inspired creations was the Veyron Super Sport, which was revealed at the annual auto spectacular at ‘The Quail – A Motorsports Gathering’ in 2009, at Carmel Valley’s prestigious Quail Lodge.

Following success selling off the last of the Veyrons,
Bentley Motors Chairman
F-J Paefgen and Alasdair
Bentley Motors Chairman, Ing. Dr. Franz-Josef Paefgen appointed Alasdair to the Board of Bentley Motors, in charge of Sales & Marketing at a critical time when Paefgen had been forced to fire the ineffective incumbent.
It was the post-GFC era and all luxury car sales were in the toilet, so Alasdair was again thrust into the spotlight to ‘move some metal’ and fortunately, both the Chinese market was about to lift-off, and American buyers had decided it was safe to come outdoors again and spend some of the cash they had squirreled away, on a new Bentley or two.
Alasdair Stewart at the 2011 Salon Internationale d'Auto, Geneve

All this frenzied global marketing can take a toll on family life, so Alasdair decided to vacate the rarefied air of the global luxury car market and settle on a domestic challenge back home in Britain, becoming head of Skoda UK.

Leading the Skoda UK team 2014

The Czech brand has done reasonably well since being acquired by Volkswagen AG, and it has spent its limited marketing budgets wisely in a number of countries, by focusing on them one at a time and fine-tuning the available Skoda models for specific markets.

In Australia this macro approach, paid off and the marque is steadily moving its sales north, towards its relatively humble target.

In the UK, Alasdair Stewart and his team have done the same thing, but the larger British market has delivered very impressive results as this graph shows, from 2011 when Alasdair took over the British division of Skoda.

Not yet 50, Alasdair Stewart can look back on a good track record, achieved by tackling some daunting sales challenges across a wide range of brands.

However, he’d be the first to tell you that his most important learnings came from time spent ‘on the ground’ in a variety of markets where the biggest benefits came from constant communication with dealers, and sampling, testing, shaping and fine-tuning ideas and initiatives for success.
Success has also been boosted by tapping into impeccable high level connections with people like Lord March, the Goodwood owner and impresario.
Lord March with Alasdair, Geneva 2014
Plus great photo ops with stars like Jay Leno and former Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
At Pebble Beach with Arnie and Jay Leno

The car industry is certainly glamorous, when you're at the sharp end, but as Alasdair Stewart will testify, it's also a hard slog to bring the numbers in - regardless of the car!



Friday, April 25, 2014

Marchione Nixes Mazda-Alfa Spider?

Tiny details coming out of the New York Auto Show and some well-placed friends in Milan suggest FIAT-Chrysler Chairman Sergio Marchionne has decided that the suggested Alfa Romeo Spider built over the next MX-5 platform will now not happen!

It appears that Marchionne is discussing using the Abarth badge (which FIAT owns) to develop another revenue stream for the struggling Fiat division, and to inject some more verve into the domestic marque, and maybe even export potential.

Tom Tjaarda
Fiat 124 Sport by Pininfarina
In 1966 Tom Tjaarda, working at Pininfarina at the time, designed the 124 Sport. The car shared the numeric title of the 124 sedan and coupe and a lot of the mechanicals; and it was very popular - especially in the USA.

Fiat 124 Spider by Abarth

At the time, Abarth (which was a separate company) developed the its own version, which was mainly used for competition.
2015 Mazda MX-5 powertrain and platform

The 2015 Mazda MX-5 powertrain and chassis which was revealed last week in New York may now form the basis of an Abarth Spider, made entirely by Mazda in Japan, alongside the MX-5.

Whilst disappointing for the Alfisti, I can see a broader strategy at work here. Marchionne knows that it would be possible and more lucrative to export not only Alfa Romeos to the USA, but also Fiats (if there was a sexy model range).

The Abarth badge would juice up Fiat's proposed U.S. range, because those old enough to remember Fiats being sold in the USA years ago, thought of them as interesting, but bland.

Today FIAT-Chrysler now has the clout to expand the previous low volume (Alfa Romeo-only) export plan, with a choice of more American dealers; import processes which could efficiently handle bigger volumes; and the development of two revenue streams based on Italian cars.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Marussia's Money Pit

A couple of years ago a new team turned up in F1, naming itself Marussia F1. The spin was that Marussia was a manufacturer of Russian designed-and-built supercars, and the F1 investment was intended to 'sell' Marussia cars to the world at large. Okay, so far.

The owner of the sports car company,  Marussia Motors founder, Andrej Cheglakov, was determined the sport would be the stepping stone to world supercar domination. Sound idea, right? Okay, so far.

However, after a dismal finish in 2013 (battling for 10th place with Caterham), Marussia Sports Cars has apparently parted company from the team.

So what, you ask? Marussia F1 was created from an F1 licence owned by a company called Manor Holdings (who?), which then became Virgin F1, and then became the marketing arm for the sports car company.

However, decent results were not forthcoming, so the CEO of Marussia, has pulled the plug.

What does all this mean?

Battling for the final places for both the starting grid and places is an expensive business, and Formula One is a money-chewing machine. If you don't have the cash, or the sponsors with cash, who can 'feed' the machine, then you fail to get results which can help you achieve your objectives.

That certainly seems to be the situation with Marussia Cars. It appears we shall not be seeing Supercars bearing the Marussia logo around the world in the hot spots like St. Moritz, Pebble Beach and Lago di Como anytime soon.

It also seems to me that 2014 will be the last time we will see the Marussia F1 team on the grid - Maybe Gene Haas will buy it, to give the US-based team a leg up in 2015?

It just shows that if you don't have a big enough cheque book then you can't play in the F1 game. Does this mean a cap on spending may help the sport? Who knows?

As long as the owners of the sport (plus Ferrari), and the other teams get a decent revenue flow, then F1 will continue. It's still a very effective advertising and marketing vehicle, so why shouldn't it stay on track?

The Monza Mash-up

M-Sport Bentley brought both its two GT-3 Continentals home in the Top 10 in the first race of the Blancpain Series at Monza in Italy, on April 13.

Car #8 finished 7th and Car #7 finished 8th; after Car #8, driven by Steve Kane, clocked fourth fastest qualifying time. Unfortunately that joy was short-lived as he put the car into a fence nose-first on his final practice lap. An overnight rebuild saw both cars start from mid-field, but they ran strongly to stay on the pace.

M-Sport Bentley Director Brian Gush was reasonably happy with the result, but says a host of small improvements could see them leading the series before too long.

Just as the racing season gets under way Bentley Motors announced another change at the top, with current Chairman Wolfgang Schreiber leaving to take up a senior post at VWAG headquarters in Wolfsburg - and past Chairman, Wolfgang Durheimer returning to Crewe to take over. 

Durheimer, who has worked at both BMW and Porsche is a motor racing enthusiast, so I'm sure Brian Gush will have the pleasure the new Chairman's company in the pits at the next round of the Blancpain Series.

Wow! Just what you need during high pressure racing, the Chairman looking over your shoulder!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Driven Personalities - Louis de Fabribeckers

In almost 50 years of messing around with cars - selling, driving, mechanicing, competing, writing about them and working in the industry I guess the most vivid element of my enjoyment is that I am a ‘styling junkie’. I am fascinated with car design and engineering, and fortunately for me there are a large number of designers among my car industry acquaintances.

It’s been my good fortune to know people like Fabrizio Giugiaro, J. Mays (Ford), the late Geoff Lawson (Jaguar), Adrian Griffiths (Bertone), Walter de Silva (Alfa Romeo, VWAG), the late Roy Axe (Rover), Ian Callum (Aston Martin, Jaguar), Dirk van Braekel, Raul Pires, Robin Page (Bentley), Peter Horbury (Volvo), Jack Telnack (Ford), Gordon Sked (Rover), Leo Pruneau (Holden), Scott Strong (Ford Australia) and many others.

They’ve all been totally different personalities, and from a variety of backgrounds. However, one of the most interesting people I’ve met in just the last few years is the Belgian-born Louis de Fabribeckers. He is currently the in-house designer for Touring Superleggera of Milan.

Geneva 2014

Touring has a long and illustrious history and I’ve written about them when the company showed the Bentley Flying Star Shooting Brake in Geneva in 2011; and later when Louis’ latest creation, the contemporary Disco Volante, debuted at the Geneva Salon in 2013.
1938 Alfa Romeo by Touring

This year in Geneva, Touring displayed not only the new Disco Volante, which is based on the platform and mechanicals of the current Alfa Romeo 8C Competitizione, but it was granted the privilege of showing the original 1952  Disco Volante coupe, specially released by the Alfa Romeo museum in Arese for the occasion.

1952 Disco Volante coupe

On the second of the two press days in Geneva it is much quieter on the Show floor, and you get the chance to enjoy longer and more involved conversations with many of the personalities who attend.

Ambling up to the Touring display I found a relaxed and talkative Louis de Fabribeckers, who was very keen to discuss the creation of the latest Disco Volante.

Standing next to the 1952 car, he said the toughest part was to ‘emulate’ the original theme without copying the lines, or making a retro-looking modern version. He also eschewed blending some of the original themes with new ideas to make a ‘design pastiche’.

LdF: “The main problem was proportions. You can ‘feel’ the car’s character thanks to the proportions, but from 1952 they are completely different – length, width, wheel diameter, engine position. It was very challenging, to do something new, but retain the original character.”

JC: “It seems that when you look at the new car in Plan View, it’s possible see a version of the ‘Coke bottle’ shape of the outline, and how has this manifested itself in the 2011 design?”

LdF: "This allowed us to cover the front wheels, without increasing overall width. It was a combination of brave design elements, and very tiny and subtle changes. I think we achieved the finished result with many small details."

JC: “Looking at the new car here on the Stand, it seems you got the proportions exactly right.”

LdF: “I think so. The bonnet appears longer than it actually is, and given that we have to provide excellent space in the cabin, we did not increase overall length out of proportion with the overall design, nor did we have to have an abrupt rear-end design. I think this car has a great flow, and sense of speed in its static form.”

That this car is a design tour de force I believe is unquestionable, because it arouses interest from
a lot of well-known car buffs, including one of the world's great enthusiasts - Jay Leno.

I was so impressed with Louis’ obvious design skills and his air of confidence and yet he has an attractive humility too. Like Touring Superleggera of Milan, Louis de Fabribeckers boasts an impressive lineage. Although Louis enjoys a long, and impressive family line descending from Belgian royalty.

In fact Louis can directly trace his lineage as far back as the Knights of the Holy Roman Empire of 1705, and subsequently the family name of the ‘Fabribeckers of Cortils and Grace’.

Despite this grand family tree Louis is charming and self-effacing. He is at pains to remind me that his design can only be brought to realism by the outstanding craftsmen he works with at the Touring of Milan production facility.

Of course, cars like the Bentley Flying Star and Disco Volante are only built to special order, and thus the buyers of these cars have the pleasure of owning a unique and very limited production classic.

Bentley Continental Flying Star by Louis de Fabribeckers

Last year Louis de Fabribeckers accepted a major award at the Villa d’Este Concours d’Eleganza for the Disco Volante – which spurred more interest among wealthy collectors.

Villa d'Este Concours d'Eleganza 2013

It’s great to see that there is still enough taste and desire for beautifully-crafted automotive designs among the current crop of collectors and enthusiasts.