Sunday, May 21, 2017

MAZDA MAGIC

It’s hard to reconcile the Mazda car company that Ford Motor acquired a 35% share of in 1996, when Mazda was sort of bumping along the bottom, to the confident, globally successful company it is today.

Ford sold down its holding by 20% in 2008, which meant it surrendered its effective control of the company. Ford retains 13.4%, which means it gets dividends from what is now one of Japan’s most profitable car companies.



In Australia Mazda vies for number one, but seems content to be a consistent Number Two or Three in the sales race. The magic word at Mazda Australia is ‘margin’; it does not appear to want to chase mass volume.

Its April sales show it’s keeping pace with the 2016 results Year-to-Date; but a wider dissection of the 2017 sales data shows that in effect each of its models has plateaued, until the launch of the much-revamped CX5 SUV this month. That event proved the old car industry adage that to stay among the leaders, companies need a constant flow of new, attractive products.

Consumers are fickle, and with car affordability at record levels, they will pick and choose, confident that whatever they buy today, it will be safe, reliable, and competent.

For me, the main attraction of the Mazda products is the investment in design, engineering and innovation, whilst to some degree eschewing a lot of the very intrusive technology which most companies lavish on their cars; and ‘soak the customers’ with option pricing.

Remember this is the company that persevered with developing the Wankel rotary engine, very successfully.

Using this powerplant Mazda competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, with distinction - although the noise of the Mazdas changing gear just as they passed the pits was truly abominable.
I think Mazda scores with many buyers because of the outstanding dynamics of its cars and SUVs.


It has evolved its segment offerings with the current Kodo design aesthetic, and its SkyActiv technologies, resulting in lighter, stronger cars, delivering greater fuel efficiency and real driving pleasure.

Yes, I hear you say, other car companies are doing the same thing, so what makes Mazda different? I think Mazda has discovered a mojo that is delivering consistently on many fronts – engineering, design, driving dynamics and quality.


Thinking back over the range of Mazdas I have driven in the past year and a half and I would be happy to have any one of them in my garage – that is if I actually ‘liked’ SUVs – but the issue is the same – they are outstandingly good cars and Mazda well and truly deserves its strong position in the global car maket.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

WHEN THE PERSONAL CAR WILL DIE!

Readers of this Blog know I am a diehard enthusiast for cars, and the personal enjoyment of driving. Many times I have moaned about a move to autonomous cars, and lack of personal mobility options in the future.

However, I am enough of a realist to know that the end of the car as an independent and personalized mode of transport does have a use-by end date.

To inform this view, according to GoAuto News Premium, the American think-tank, ReThinkX, says that the industry will be in its death throes by 2024. The ReThinkX crystal ball-gazers say that the end of the car will follow the same disruptive processes as film cameras and CDs. It says this development is inevitable, and I agree with them.

ReThinkX says the 10 years beyond 2024 will shatter the car industry by deconstructing the car dealership model, eradicating the used car business, shrinking the number of private cars on the road, slashing oil consumption, insurance revenues and also killing the car servicing/repair industry.

In Vancouver, and many cities around the world, we have seen the rapid growth of car-sharing services, which make a lot of sense. It's hard to find parking for your personal car in constricted cities, so paying for the use of a car only when you need it make perfect sense to me.

Yes, autonomous cars will/may come along to further disrupt things, but I do foresee major disruptions ahead outlined by ReThinkX which will decimate the car industry as we know it today.

If your life, income or potential fortune relies on the success of the car industry as we know it, then make sure you have reset your financial horizons consistent with this doomsday vision, because I believe ReThinkX are on the right road to predicting the end of the personal car.

TALES FROM THE GREAT SMOKIES

In 1998 Bentley sold 314 cars in the USA; that same year VW Group acquired the company, with a grand plan to double U.S. sales in two years. VW appointed a new President, and hired a team of executives to develop Bentley’s image and sales growth, prior to investing in a completely new product range.

In fact VW Group Chairman Dr. Ferdinand Piech told me when I was first introduced to him in Wolfsburg in February 1999, that the USA would be the main driver to reinvigorate Bentley’s global sales resurgence. There would be no budget for marketing, advertising or promotion – the entire budget was to be dedicated to public relations. No pressure then.

In 1999 our new American division began to build an image for the brand around three words – Power, Performance and Presence – and every activity was devoted to highlighting those qualities.



Our first big media event, in 2000, was The Bentley Grand Tour, bringing together the current Bentley range and a group of 1920s Cricklewood Bentleys, kindly brought along by willing members of the Bentley Drivers Club of North America.



The idea was that we would follow a route of around 220 miles, with journalists swapping from modern to vintage Bentleys through the course of a day, to inculcate them in not only the Bentley legends, but also the impressive performance of the Arnage sedan and the Continental R coupe.



Our media group was top drawer, comprising the Chief Editors of all of the USA’s significant automotive publications, and our special guest for the Grand Tour was America’s first F1 world champion Phil Hill.



Our base for the Grand Tour was Blackberry Farm in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains just south east of Knoxville, Tennessee.

This 5-star resort is one of Tennessee’s major health and foody attractions, and its tranquil location provides not only beautiful mountain scenery, but access to some of the finest touring roads in the USA.

Departing Blackberry Farm via the Foothills Parkway, we dealt with one of the area’s favourite sections, the ‘Tail of the Dragon’, a twisting, switchback hillclimb of more than 10 miles snaking up into the Great Smokies.

From there we swept along the ridges above the Fontana Dam, before crossing into North Carolina, and a lunch stop at Lake Santeelha on the edge of the Nantahala National Forest. 

The Cherokee Indians named it Nantahala, meaning 'Place of the Midday Sun', because the forest canopy is so dense, the sun only penetrates to the forest floor at high noon.

The media group were amazed that the trio of vintage Bentleys not only matched the pace of the current cars, but provided exhilarating driving experiences as well.

Our return took us back down through the ‘Tail of the Dragon’ and back to Blackberry Farm, where Phil Hill regaled the group after dinner with tales of his long and impressive racing career.

Which included a little-known personal connection to Bentley.













He revealed that at one time he owned the original supercharged 1929 Bentley which Amherst Villiers used to develop and build the superchargers for Capt. Tim Birkin’s Bentley 'Blowers', which were entered in the 1930 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Phil Hill driving Amherst Villers' prototype Bentley Blower

This 'Bentley Grand Tour' became the foundation for building Bentley’s image in the USA, and was followed by a Grand Tour each year as the company reached out to a wider net of automotive and lifestyle writers.




The decision to marry the role, image and performance of the vintage Bentleys, with the current production cars became a successful template on which to establish Bentley’s credentials in the buildup to the launch of Bentley’s most successful car ever – the Continental GT coupe in 2003.



In 2001, two years after establishing the new company in the USA, Bentley Motors North America sold 592 cars.

POSTSCRIPT: About an hour’s drive from Blackberry Farm is Dolly Parton’s extravagant resort, Dollywood. Obviously word travels fast in the Great Smokies, because whilst we were out driving, Blackberry Farm’s manager took a call from the lady herself.

The owner of a pristine 1952 Mk.6 Bentley saloon, Dolly wanted to drive over the following day and check out the range of Bentleys we had assembled. Sadly we had broken down our program, and the trucks had already departed with all the cars on board.


The manager said Dolly is every inch the lady, with perfect manners, and a keen interest in the history of the marque.

I later discovered she had indeed placed an order with our dealer in Nashville, joining a list of very talented women who are Continental GT coupe owners.

Friday, May 12, 2017

IS MINI STILL COOL?

In 2000 when the world woke up to the fact that the Germans owned a very-British icon, we waited to see what BMW did with ‘The Mini’.


What they did was something very un-German. BMW appointed a switched on agency that positioned Mini with a carefree, cheeky anti-establishment image that poked fun at conventional marketing, and the result was that the brand took off, like no-one expected – even BMW!

They made Mini ‘cool’.
It has been a wildly successful ride, and Mini today has repaid BMW’s investment many times over!

In prosecuting the franchise so successfully, BMW has stretched the original concept in ways impossible to imagine 17 years ago.


From hatchbacks to cabriolets, and even a station wagon.


The innovative inventor of the first Mini, Alec Issigonis, would never recognize his original idea today! By the time the first Mini was launched, in 1959, Issigonis still had plenty of revolutionary ideas up his sleeve to expand on his first car. However the suits at British Leyland prostituted Alec’s invention and instead launched a succession of very ordinary cars that exploited the original concept.

BMW has been up to the same tricks, but its efforts have brought more profits and created a devoted fan club that laps up new models, whilst helping to cultivate even more new buyers. It’s become a license to print money.

The latest model to carry the Mini badge is the Countryman, which is nothing like the original Countryman, because it’s bigger and more powerful, but unfortunately is not the most attractive model in the range.

The 2017 FWD Countryman Cooper D, has a 110kW/330Nm 2.0-litre turbo-diesel engine that uses a claimed 4.4L/100km of fuel, with a 0-100km/h time of 8.8sec. It offers identical specs as the base Cooper, but adds an eight-speed auto from the Clubman. The price is AUD$43,900.


However, I think it's more likely you'll see it outside The Coffee Club, than outside a country town feed store.

Whilst it’s no swan, it’s practical, rides well, handles confidently and this diesel version returns fuel economy that Alec would approve of.

It’s capacious, but it ought to be, because for a Mini it looks to me like it’s been on a diet of pork pies and kranskis. It’s BIG. In market terms it has a wide variety of competitors, like compact SUVs and bigger hatchbacks, so it’s hard to nail its most significant competition. In a way I guess it’s a pretty unique offering, which should assure its commercial success.

I’ve had a look at the ‘extensive’ options list and quite frankly if I was buying one, I’d just settle for the basic car – it has everything you need, and nothing you don’t.

But, it’s from the BMW stable, so the slick, smooth-talking sales suits can always find ways to ‘soak the customers’ by dangling shiny bright options with obscene pricetags.


Is the Countryman ‘cool’? Nah, I don’t think so. It’s certainly not cute, it’s too big for that; but it definately delivers on its promise, so you either ‘desire’ to join the Mini fan club, or you’re looking at the wrong badge.


The finish is exemplary, and the doo-dads on the dashboard are weird, wonderful and way-out, design-wise; so, yeah, maybe it’s ‘cool’ after all.


I’d love to hear Alec’s response.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

AMICI AMERICANA DELLA MILLE MIGLIA

As I arrived in the land of the Mille Miglia, I recall a good friend from California who brought the essence and the spirit of the famous Italian endurance race to the USA, with an event known as the ‘California Mille’.

Martin Swig was one of those guys who gave back more than he took out of life.

The complete car enthusiast, he began selling European cars in San Francisco in1969.

In 1989 he began ‘collecting’ cars, but not just cars, they were classics: 1925 Lancia Lambda, a 1928 Alfa Romeo 6C 1500 and a Tatra T87.
 
Martin Swig with his Alfa Romeo 6C at Pebble Beach


A few years later he said: “When I found I had about forty [vintage cars] I made a deal with my wife.”  Each time I bought a ‘new old’ car, I agreed to sell one. I’m running slightly behind on my half of the bargain.”

Love of cars and car history turned Martin into a guy who found his mojo putting together events which ‘car guys’ loved. He kidded sedentary TV-sofa sports types with his annual January 1st Anti-Football Drive; and with his Double 500 (five hundred kilometres in a car not worth more than $500).

Then, after participating in the historic 1982 Mille Miglia, he got the idea of creating the ‘California Mille’ in 1991– 1000 kilometres along back roads in California.

I talked with him often, and he enjoyed the fact that he could chat to an Australian about old cars, and I knew what he was talking about. Martin and I were kindred spirits, but as I worked in the East, and he lived in the West, we only actually met once face-to-face. We greeted each other like long-lost brothers.


I used to loan him a Bentley occasionally for the use of the ‘Clerk of the Course’ (the manager of the event during its running). As fellow Alfa Romeo enthusiasts we had a lot to talk about, and Martin ‘enjoyed a chat’, which is code for; calls that rarely lasted less than 45 minutes.

Many of the participants in the annual California Mille were friends of mine, and they all agreed that Martin’s event offered a number of things very different to the historic Italian re-creation.

Martin’s event was well-organised; with excellent organiser-to-competitor communications; very clear route directions; and permission to have fun and enjoy without a care!


Martin Swig (Photo: Zach Hammer)
Martin passed away in 2012, but the event is carried on by his family and is still very much worth considering – for the fun of it.