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Dumb And Dumber

Jerry Flint, Forbes

NEW YORK - Dumping on another reporter isn't easy. We're supposed to stick together through thick or thin. But I'm going to dump on a column written about General Motors by Dan Neil of the Los Angeles Times.

Neil won a Pulitzer Prize last year, and anyone who wins this award is a hero. Then again, my former and late father-in-law won the Pulitzer for the Detroit Free Press, and I argued with him when I thought that he was wrong. I take no backseat to anyone in criticizing General Motors' managers.

But Dan, your attack was mean-spirited and off-base. GM answered by pulling its ads from the L.A. Times, which wasn't a smart move either. You see, GM pulled its ads once before, in 1954, over a spy story--sketches of upcoming GM cars--by John Williams of The Wall Street Journal.

Until then, most people had never heard of the Journal or thought it was some stock market tip sheet. But suddenly the Journal became a lighthouse of journalistic integrity. People began to realize it was one heck of a newspaper. GM made the Journal. GM said Neil's column had errors. Fine. The company should have asked to have Neil's space in the newspaper to write its own column in response. That might have gotten GM some sympathy. Right now, General Motors doesn't need this distraction, either. Detroit cars already have a below-par market share in the big California market.

Mr. Neil, I found a lot of disturbing things in your column. Your headline called the new Pontiac G6 car a sales flop. And your first paragraph ended with the words "Dump Lutz," referring to GM Vice Chairman Robert A. Lutz. Then you sort of recant that comment later on, when you direct your venom toward Chief Executive Rick Wagoner.
(Click here to read the full column.)

So what's wrong? Wagoner recently took over North American operations. In doing so, he put his head on the line. If he turns GM around, he stays. If not, he goes. But he bought himself some time when he took over NAO. Mr. Neil, you can speculate on successors if he fails, but saying Wagoner should be fired is just showboating. I don't think that is going to happen anytime soon. What really cooks my engine oil is your knocking of Bob Lutz. Do you really think that Wall Street would be happy to see Lutz fired? Wake up. Lutz is the only one at the top of GM who knows anything about cars and trucks. You don't like the designs of some of the new cars. Well, Bob Lutz doesn't, either, but it's the best he's been able to get, given the time constraints, designs locked in before he came to GM, the company's policy of reusing ancient platforms and GM's bureaucracy.

Look what GM was designing before Lutz: vehicles like the Pontiac Aztek. I have talked some people on GM's design staff. No one listened to them until Lutz joined the company. He raised morale down the line. If Lutz goes, forget morale and forget about empowering the car guys. That's all over. You don't like those old pushrod engines and four-speed automatics in new cars? Neither does Lutz.

Dan, can't you figure it out? Former GM Chief Executive Officer Jack Smith let it be known that GM wasn't going to spend on stuff that he couldn't see. Well, he couldn't see pushrod engines and old transmissions under the hood. That's how GM saved money--by shortchanging the product.

Lutz can't just snap his fingers to come up with billions of dollars needed to put 5 million modern automatic transmissions into production. Mr. Neil, you are one of those guys who wants to kill Pontiac and Buick. That's 800,000 sales last year. Kill them and GM is done. Any fool can say, "Fire this guy, kill that car, shut that plant." But the art is in building cars and trucks for which people are willing to pay list price.

Some of your complaints are real: no hybrids, the cancellation of the Zeta rear-drive project, the old engines and design weakness. But I can't believe that you wrote, "Why, exactly, is GMC on this earth?" Holy mackerel: 683,084 GMC vehicles were built last year! Mostly profitable, too! The way GM makes money is to spread the cost of a new platform over a variety of nameplates. A great example is the T-800 architecture. With the T-800, GM built up to 1.8 million big pickups and sport utility vehicles a year for Chevrolet, GMC and Hummer.

You are right: Cars like the new Pontiac G6 aren't good enough to turn the tide. Yet even you grudgingly admit that the G6 is an "adequate" car. It is premature to call this new car a sales flop. Besides everything else, it was launched with just one body style and motor, but more choices are coming. All of GM's new passenger cars are superior to the vehicles that they replaced. That walk of 1,000 miles starts with a single step. Lutz is behind these improvements.

He can't do everything alone. He's building a team. If Lutz goes, it's over. Personally, I don't like to see anyone making fun of someone's age. You called Lutz "the Great White-Haired Father" and referred to "the numinous white noggin of Lutz." You don't fool me. That was a knock because he's 73. Well, so am I, and he drives better than me, and I'll bet he's a better driver than you, too. If you're going to knock GM, swell, join the gang. But don't be nasty. Hit hard but clean.

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Jerry Flint is usually hard on GM. Read the LA Times article when it came out -- and it was a total hatchet piece. This time, Jerry was right on.

Regarding GM pulling advertising from the Times, I'm all for it. If they have a writer taking wild eyed potshots at them -- why help pay his salary?

I was having lunch with my Dad the day before -- and we were talking about what a crock the C/D "gotta have it factor" article was -- and I was saying GM should have pulled advertising from all publications from C/D's parent company. After all, GM supplies those clowns with free cars, flies them all over the world on press junkets, blah, blah, blah -- only to get screwed for a magazine's own political reasons (can't have one of their 10 Best selections get beat by a competitor in the same issue).
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