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June 19th, 2009
11:56 AM ET

Detroit, Pimp My Ride

David Gewirtz | BIO
AC360° Contributor
Editor-in-Chief, ZATZ Publishing

I've been thinking a lot about Chrysler and GM lately. This isn't quite as ripped-from-the-headlines as it might sound, because I often think of cars. I'm what you might call a "car guy".

Car guys fall into all sorts of sub-categories, but mine is the one where the middle-aged guy who really couldn't fix a car to save his life finds himself dreaming of building a hotrod. Yes, I'm over 40 and I like things that loudly go vroooooom.

One thing us car guys like to do is plan the future for all of our favorite car companies. It's kind of like we used to do when we were little boys in school, drawing pictures of cars with crayons, adding an air scoop in the front, and maybe some flames coming out of the exhaust.

Except, most of us mid-life car guys have given up the crayons and either taken up the online forum or hold court around a Weber grill - and the closest we ever really get to flame jobs is cooking the oh-so-well-done burger that Dad always likes.

Good old American iron

But now we really do have something to talk about, because the good old American iron is showing more than a few signs of rust. Chrysler, for example, just had a shotgun marriage with Fiat Fiat of all companies - you go to their Web site and they don't even list the United States on their list of countries!

Regardless of how most of us Americans think of Fiat, they've been around longer than any of the big three. Formed in 1899, Fiat is the world's sixth largest car maker.

But when most American car guys my age think of Chrysler, we think of that special brand of muscle car known as Mopar. Yes, Mopar is a contraction of Motor Parts and I agree it's an altogether uninspired moniker, but true Mopar cars can take your breath away.

The 1969 Dodge Charger and the 1970 Hemi Cuda convertable were cars that were all go and all show. Heck, the General Lee was a 1969 Dodge Charger and Bo and Luke could make that baby jump rivers!

Of course, Ford and GM also had their classic muscle cars. Who doesn't salivate just thinking about a classic Shelby or a 1970 Boss 302 Mustang? On the GM side, of course, there's the Goat, the Pontiac GTO (Gran Turismo Omologato) and the Trans Am. When you have a long way to go and a short time to get there, there's just nothing like a 1977 Trans Am to keep Smokey at bay.

And today, where are these heroic brands? GM has declared bankruptcy and the Pontiac brand will cease to exist after 2010. Of course, there's been precious little life in the brand for years. Chrysler's also been dead for years, but no one's really known it. Bought by Germany's Daimler almost a decade ago and dumped in 2007, the company has long been a brand without a mission - and hasn't really been an American car company for years.

What if you ran the car companies?

So, what if we got rid of all the suits and let some car guys run Chrysler and GM? Would it herald a return to the heyday of the Bandit and the General?

Sadly, the answer is no. It's no coincidence that all the classic muscle cars are 30 years-old or older. Back when they were at the top of their game, gas was incredibly cheap and the world's oil reserves were presumed by most to be infinite. Global warming was an unknown term, and, often, so were the concepts of reliability and safety.

The thing about the muscle cars, back in the day, was they were generally affordable by the regular Joe. Sure, some of the biggest engines were a stretch on the finances, but if you wanted a Hemi badly enough, you could get one.

Chrysler still makes hot cars. One of its hottest is the failure known as the Dodge Viper. So far this year, Chrysler's sold a little under 300 of them. Total. This 600-horsepower, V10-powered bad boy gets barely 16 miles to the gallon with a tailwind and costs more than $90,000 - and this is the first car that the management at the new Fiat/Chrysler have decided to put back on the road.

Talk about missing the point! Sigh.

Grabbing a slice of Kielbasa off the grill before it had completely turned to charcoal, I asked some of my buddies what they'd do if they were faced with revitalizing Chrysler and GM. Together, we came up with a plan that even Joe the Plumber could love.

First, we agreed that fuel economy is important. This is where good ol' American engine-uity can shine. There are now amazingly long-lasting and high-performing batteries and the technology for fuel cells and hybrids is well understood. Get the best technology for environmentally sound get-up-and-go, scale it up to keep the cost down, and don't look back.

Yes, we agreed, there are issues of charging, infrastructure, new fuel distribution, and all that. Ignore it. Make a hot, fast, affordable car and the rest of the infrastructure will take care of itself. Apple made the iPhone. Do you have any idea how many other companies jumped on the bandwagon behind that blazingly hot product to fill out the offerings? The same will happen with a hot car - just as long as it sells. So make something that will sell.

Next, make the car look cool. Most family cars look the same, but you can tell a Mopar from a mile away (and not just because some dude pulled off the muffler). Make it look really, freakin' cool. Don't hold back, don't try to meet everyone's needs, don't try to be middle of the road. You want a car that looks so darned good that your toes curl just staring at it.

And don't make it so small that only a 13-year-old boy can fit inside. American adults are "big boned" and that's why we fit better in muscle cars than sports cars. Leave those tiny, little eggs to the Italians. We want manly-man cars.

Make it reliable and rock-solid safe. Most Americans don't buy foreign cars because they prefer foreign cars. Those Americans who buy foreign cars do so because the foreign cars seem better. And yet, we Americans pioneered the concept of quality in manufacturing. There's no reason, if we really, really care, that we can't make a car that's built to last.

Yes, last. The more cars that are out there, the stronger the aftermarket will be. And the stronger your aftermarket, the stronger the overall market for your car. Don't worry, you Detroit pencil-pushers. Those people who always turn in their car every three years will continue to do so. Your cars don't have to break down so you can make money selling more. If your car is solid, you'll make it up on volume.

Good mileage, environmentally friendly, and high-performance. Check.

So cool looking, it's guaranteed to get you laid - and roomy enough to make it possible. Check.

Reliable and rock-solid safe. Check.

What's left? Oh, yeah. Cost. The car has to be affordable. And we're not talking affordable to lease. We're talking affordable to purchase. If Apple can sell a $700 phone for $199 and still make a mint, American car companies can figure out a business model that can get these babies in the hands of any American who wants one. Be creative. It's doable.

I can see the suits shaking their heads. How can we put an environmentally friendly high-performance engine in it, make it sexy, make it reliable, and make it cheap? It's just not possible, they'd say.

And that's why the MBAs in Detroit are now bowing and scraping to an Italian company that can't even be bothered to put the United States on their Web site.

The thing is, American industry has proven it's capable of anything. After all, America - not Japan, not South Korea, and certainly not Italy - America created the Mustang, America created the Hemi, and America created the Goat.

America can do this. America must do this.

Oh, and if you're wondering, and I know you are: if I were Barack Obama and I owned 60% of a car company like GM, even for a week, I'd require all cars to have flame jobs and hood scoops. Just sayin'...

Question for readers: If you ran a car company, what would you do? Comment below.

Follow David on Twitter at http://www.Twitter.com/DavidGewirtz.

Editor’s note: David Gewirtz is Editor-in-Chief, ZATZ Magazines, including OutlookPower Magazine. He is a leading Presidential scholar specializing in White House email. He is a member of FBI InfraGard, the Cyberterrorism Advisor for the International Association for Counterterrorism & Security Professionals, a columnist for The Journal of Counterterrorism and Homeland Security, and has been a guest commentator for the Nieman Watchdog of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. He is a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley extension, a recipient of the Sigma Xi Research Award in Engineering and was a candidate for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Letters.

soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. Freedom Lover

    I had an epiphany the other day and wanted to support American workers and companies. I looked online to see what it would cost to get myself into an American car with the amenities my Honda offers. Guess what? I can't afford one! Americans are not going to pay more for the luxury of driving an American car. Why should they? Detroit has been putting out stinkers for years, so people probably want a price break to get back into an American auto. I don't see that happening at present. Their designs and quality seem to have gone up, but so too has the price! "Competing" with the Japanese/Korean makers should mean at least similar prices. Seems American cars cost MORE now???

    June 19, 2009 at 3:35 pm |
  2. earle,florida

    First ,I would get out of "Dodge" literally speaking (Michigan,Ohio,Illinois) and move to the West Coast,or East Coast. The auto-industry started in the mid-west because of the centralized demographics,easily excessible labor market pool, steel,the Great Lakes for raw materials from Canada,and also to "Pickle the Engine Blocks" that were the mainstay for the best engines built in the world. Secondly (now that were in a new paradign) ,the material to frame the vehicles can be made from "Carbon-Based High-Impact Polymer",with a uni-body under-carriage design from high strength alluninum-alloy struts,all modified to retrofit a integrated-ultra-transmission-trans-axle,consule controlled computer. The engine blocks are all high-strength-tencil aluminum compounds,that are currently state-of-art in all high end vehicles. Lastly,lithium batteries are almost ready for todays proto-type hy-brids,with little cause for a fire,or combustible reaction. Were almost there,all we need now,is to ask Mr. Steve Jobs to become the CEO! PS.As for get-up-and-go,these hybrids zoom from "Zero to 60mph" in 3/4 seconds! Fast enough,...and get approx 250-300 miles of travel time per-fill-up!

    June 19, 2009 at 1:00 pm |
  3. Tony

    Thank you for showing a picture of the 2010 Mustang, but you do not mention it in the article. This maybe the best and highest quality mustang we ever made.I am proud to work in the most flexible plant in the Ford motor company system.
    Our sales are down but we have only produced the amount of vehicles that we can sell.
    The 2011 mustang will be even better.Once all of the plants are converted to our type of flexible,lean manufacturing,then you will start to see what the US auto industry can produce.
    We must stop offshoring the parts production because it takes the quality control out of our hands,and this will bite us in the future

    June 19, 2009 at 12:52 pm |