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Marginal: Tough Love

What are the causes of the fall from the heights of the Big Three? Well, although Peter DeLorenzo doesn’t exactly claim it, a few of the Seven Deadly Sins come to mind.

Although the new book by Peter M. DeLorenzo is titled (Inkwater Press; $37.95; available through www.amazon.com) , Toyota doesn’t appear in any substantive way until page 75. And there are 282 pages in the book, so he’s well into his stride by the time that auto company enters the picture. Even then, DeLorenzo uses the company to make a point about how Toyota has a better relationship with suppliers than the Detroit manufacturers tend to, and there probably aren’t too many suppliers who would disagree with DeLorenzo’s assessment: “Unless Detroit fundamentally changes its approach to the whole supplier issue, they will end up bottom-feeding for parts around the world and throwing their lot in with the lowest-common-denominator supplier/flavor of the month that will give them exactly what they ask for and deserve.” Of course, unlike DeLorenzo, it is unlikely that any supplier would agree with that out loud. It is not until page 117 that DeLorenzo focuses his attention on Toyota, but by then the reader could be excused for imagining that Little Tikes could have come to dominate the U.S. auto industry, given the way that the Big Three have made an unmitigated hash of the market they once so thoroughly dominated. DeLorenzo is, as you may know, the man who established autoextremist.com in 1999 and has (fairly) relentlessly taken it to the Big Three with his “bare-knuckled, unvarnished, high-octane” brand of truth since. The subtitle of the book is more telling: How Detroit Squandered Its Legacy and Enabled Toyota to Become America’s Car Compny. And therein lies the tale. It’s a tale that many of us are living through and one that we can get a better understanding of through DeLorenzo’s important book.

Although many people dismiss or excoriate DeLorenzo for being such a relentless scourge of the domestic industry and those within it who are, in his estimation, to blame (it is not like he gives the non-domestics a pass, however), he really ought to be embraced and held up as the poster boy for Automotive Truth, Justice and the American Way. Is DeLorenzo too strident? Perhaps. But maybe having to go from a well-paying job in the domestic auto industry to asking “Would you like fries with that?” wouldn’t be such a bad thing, either, which just may happen to more people unless Detroit does a better job of getting its showrooms in order. The point is this: as Tom Peters has said about the contemporary marketplace, “We are in a brawl with no rules.” Some people are going to get bloodied. Some people are going to come out on top. DeLorenzo would like the “home team” to be the winners. And if he has to be a hard-ass to call attention to the untenable nature of the status quo, then so be it.

DeLorenzo doesn’t take it to the domestic manufacturers—GM, in particular—like a wrestler jacked up on steroids in a steel-cage match because he doesn’t like them and would prefer seeing them completely annihilated rather than recovering their championship belts. Quite the contrary. DeLorenzo’s ire is driven by affection more than anything else. Dare I say “love”? His father was named vp of GM’s PR in 1957, and during DeLorenzo’s own wonder years he got to know Bill Mitchell, the man who ran GM Design from 1958 to 1977. He knew Zora Arkus Duntov, the father of the Corvette. He went on to a career in advertising, where he worked for 22.5 years, including time spent on the Chevy account. His bile is generated by his belief that Detroit vehicle manufacturers are not as innovative, creative, daring, and, consequently, profitably dominant as they once were. (He seems some hope for GM under Bob Lutz’s direction; if there is a man in the industry today who has the rebellious streak of those who DeLorenzo so admires from days of yore, it is Lutz.)

To borrow an idea from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the fault lies not in Nagoya or Tokyo, but in the RenCen, the Glass House, the Pentastar Plex, and Solidarity House. As in: “‘Engineering to the lowest common denominator’ is one of the most despicable practices in the entire automotive industry. And it is something that is deeply rooted in the purchasing-driven, profit-oriented ‘culture’ of the American automotive business.” And in DeLorenzo’s assessment—one that’s certainly held by many of us—“Good enough isn’t good enough anymore. And this just in: It never was.” 

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