When “new” doesn’t necessarily mean “better”

Eric Peters has a history lesson for those wanting the next innovation from their favorite carmaker:

It’s the “bells and whistles” that get the headlines – and grab your attention. But they might also grab your wallet once the warranty runs out. A classic example from long ago is the aluminum block four-cylinder engine GM trotted out back in the mid-1970s. It was a revolutionary design based on a high-silicon alloy that eliminated the need for pressed-in cylinder liners. It was also very lightweight, which promised to improve both the fuel economy and the handling of the car it was built for – the Chevy Vega. Stop me if you know where this is going…

No?

Well, the problem wasn’t the alloy block. It was the cast iron cylinder head bolted to it. And the unbalanced pistons within, which shook like a shivery dog on deliberately loose motor mounts (a Band Aid for the shivery shaking, to mask it from the car’s owner) until either the head bolts loosened up or the block warped just enough to let coolant slip past the head gasket into the unsleeved cylinders.

Hello, ‘Frisco!

Few of these atrocities ever made it to 30,000 miles without a catastrophic engine failure.

Such epic debacles are less common today. But modern cars are far from foolproof. Here’s a roster of some designs – and features – you might want to think twice about:

* AC and audio controlled by touchscreen input –

The iPad Culture craves flat screens – including in their cars. Here’s the problem. When your touchscreen LCD croaks, your AC and audio system (as well as anything else controlled via the touchscreen) will no longer work. Or rather, you won’t be able to turn these accessories on (or perhaps, off). Mechanically speaking, there may be nothing wrong with your AC. The compressor, condenser and so on all working properly. But with a dead flat screen – or one no longer responsive to your touch – you’re looking at a big repair bill regardless. A replacement repair bill, actually. Because you don’t repair dead LCD displays. You pull them – and toss them. How much does a new iPad cost? Physical buttons and knobs, meanwhile, are pretty dependable and more important, individual. One knob or switch or button controls one thing. If the little knob you rotate to adjust the radio’s volume goes out, you won’t be able to adjust the volume… but your AC will still work. If the LCD touchscreen craps out, nothing works.

You’ve been warned.

* 20 inch (and larger) wheels –

This ghetto inspired trend has reached the apotheosis of stupidity. Everyone seems to want their car – or SUV – to look like a Suge Knight Special. Leaving aside the aesthetics, these oversized “rims” dramatically increase rolling resistance, which dramatically hurts gas mileage. They also dramatically increase wear and tear on front end components – which you’ll find out about around 30,000 miles down the road from new. They muck up ride quality – which the car industry crutches via elaborate (read: expensive) suspension systems in order to make the cars livable. “Twennies” mounted on 4WD SUVs are the absolute height (depth?) of idiocy. The last thing you want on a 4WD are short/stiff sidewall tires and a steamroller tread that rides up on rather than cuts through the snow.

Gnomesayin’?

*Cars with poor rearward visibility (due to sloped rooflines/small glass).

This is now a common problem in new cars. Caused – ironically – by the government’s “safety” edicts and crutched (rather than fixed) with Band Aid technologies such as back-up cameras and blind spot warning systems. Washington issued an edict requiring all new cars be fitted from the factory with “anti-whiplash” headrests, which are very tall. The car companies make the problem worse by steeply sloping the roofline as it descends to the ass end of the car – which (thanks to government’s bumper impact mandates) now sits way high in the air. In many new cars, the rear glass is both tiny and only a few degrees from being horizontal – which, along with those too-tall headrests – makes it damned hard to see anything behind you. You can reduce the danger – and the aggravation – by choosing a car with decent rear glass area that’s not mounted so flat that you can only see up. And by removing the backseat “anti-whiplash” headrests and laying the buggers on the floor. Most can be popped out (and back in) without tools. If no one’s riding back there, why not? You’ll be better able to see where you’re going – which is a helluva lot “safer” than depending on two-dimensional cameras – and blinking lights and buzzers.

* Auto-stop/start –

Gas (even when it was $4 a gallon) is comparatively inexpensive… compared with an engine replacement. Or even a starter/battery replacement. Which is why the automatic stop/start technology being fitted to a growing number of new cars is arguably a terrible idea. Roll to a stop at a red light and the car’s computer peremptorily shuts off the engine. When the light goes green, and you take your foot off the brake (and press the accelerator) it spins a super high-torque starter to kick it back to life, so you can move. The object is to save the minuscule quantity of fuel that would be burned while “idling.” But here’s the problem: When the engine’s off, the oil’s no longer circulating – and even though a film of oil will still be protecting your engine’s internals, it’s not the same as circulating oil under pressure. Instead of just one start cycle on your trip to work, your engine may endure a dozen start-stop cycles. And most engine wear occurs guess when? During start-up. The frequent starts (and the high torque starters required for near instantaneous re-starts) also require higher-performance batteries and these will inevitably live shorter lives due to the many-times-multiplied start/stop (and discharge-recharge) cycling. Also, engine-powered accessories such as your air conditioner will not work when the engine isn’t running. When your engine auto-stops at a light on a 95 degree day, so does the cool air.

Avoid auto-stop/start if possible – and don’t buy a car that has it if you can’t turn the damned thing off.

* A new car that doesn’t come with at least three “e” keys –

Gone are the days when – if you lost your spare set of car keys – you could take the one you still had down to the hardware store and have them cut you a duplicate set for $5. Somehow, the car industry has gulled the buying public into believing they just have to have electronic keys. Which just happen to cost many orders of magnitude more than a simple metal key (and which, unlike metal keys, are absolutely going to stop working at some point down the road). Which is why it’s so critically important to get as many of them as you possibly can if the new car you’re about to buy comes with them. Insist they be included as part of the deal – or there will be no deal. Remember: The one and only time you have any leverage is before you sign the paperwork. You are well-advised to demand at least three “e” keys be provided with the car before you do sign. Go for four, actually. The more the merrier.

Because you’ll be a lot merrier if you don’t find yourself having to fork over $300 for a new “e” key four years from now – after losing your only other set. Don’t forget: Your car will be 3,400 pounds of useless metal without that $300 “e” key.

Get as many of them as you can up front … for free.

I’m not sure I entirely agree with the point about headrests, having been rear-ended three times (the first time in a car with no rear headrests), though if no one ever rides in the back seat I suppose you don’t need them. The aforementioned rear-view cameras are useful (but not entirely useful) when backing up. As far as rear visibility is concerned, the side view mirrors are more useful if correctly adjusted. Most drivers have them angled too close to the car, so that they see an edge of the car, which is useless; they should be angled outward farther so that the driver can see the complete lane on either side of the car.

Peters could have mentioned many other examples of technology introduced before it was ready merely from General Motors. GM was the first to introduce a catalytic converter, which generally failed about a year after introduction. GM also introduced Computer Command Control, which featured an electronic carburetor and the infamous Check Engine light. I can personally attest that CCC was a bunch of CRAP in at least its first iteration, and possibly beyond that. GM’s first electronic fuel injected engines worked fine when in proper running condition, which wasn’t often. The entire design of the Chevy Citation and its X-body cousins was a rolling (sometimes) example of Not Ready for Prime Time.

For these and other reasons, car-buyers should be skeptical of such less-than-proven technology as certain hybrids and particularly the Chevy Volt. Wait until we know how long they last, and the replacement cost (and lifetime) of such key expenses as batteries, before you become another Detroit sucker.

 

 

From Pontiac to Dodge

Automotive News has an interesting observation:

General Motors CEO Mary Barra, at the recent Automotive News World Congress, said the company doesn’t miss any of the brands that were discontinued during the company’s 2008-09 bankruptcy and restructuring — Saturn, Saab, Hummer and Pontiac.

You can take that to mean that none will ever be revived by GM, at least while Barra is in power.

But that doesn’t mean displaced customers of two of the brands — Hummer and Pontiac — have nowhere to go.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is building a lineup that would be a natural home for displaced Hummer and Pontiac customers.

Looking at Jeep’s staggering global growth and the worldwide explosion in popularity of SUVs and crossovers, you have to think a Hummer customer’s first choice would be a Jeep. (Don’t forget the two brands shared the same basic seven-slot grille.) GM no longer has a dedicated brand of rugged off-road vehicles.

But I see the biggest migration of GM customers to coming from Pontiac — and going to Dodge.

“Dodge is the American performance brand,” Tim Kuniskis boasted during a presentation of Fiat Chrysler’s new five-year plan in May.

Kuniskis, CEO of Dodge, is trimming and recasting the brand’s lineup to focus on performance — putting its tires squarely on the turf that transformed Pontiac into a performance powerhouse in the 1960s.

Pontiac’s performance image, spawned by such cars as the GTO, Firebird, Super Duty Trans Am and others, lasted well into the 1980s. It was in the midst of being reborn when GM killed the brand in 2009.

Dodge’s Grand Caravan minivan is about to join the midsize Avenger sedan in automotive history books. And by 2018, Kuniskis says, Dodge will have seven performance-oriented nameplates. That plan is already in motion with the outrageous new 707-hp Challenger and Charger SRT Hellcat muscle cars, and the V-10 Viper sports car.

I asked Kuniskis if Dodge will actively pursue Pontiac fans with direct mail appeals, discounts and other tactics, since GM no longer has a brand dedicated to performance vehicles.

“The Dodge brand is open to any buyer who is looking for performance,” he said. “Every Dodge vehicle is designed to deliver that visceral feel that reminds buyers why they fell in love with driving in the first place, and we’re open to any buyer who is looking for that feeling, regardless of the brand they’ve previously driven.”

I don’t want to give you the impression that GM no longer cares about performance cars and Pontiac customers. Cadillac is largely about luxury and tire-shredding performance. At the North American International Auto Show, Cadillac showcased the new CTS-V, a 640-hp road rocket.

And Chevrolet has some interesting cars, such as the SS, which is a new version of the discontinued Pontiac G8 sports sedan, and the Corvette and Camaro. But GM has no mainstream brand purely devoted to performance or even with a strong performance image.

Even if Dodge does capture a good share of Pontiac buyers, success is not guaranteed, says AutoPacific analyst Dave Sullivan.

For one thing, GM won’t give up Pontiac customers easily.

GM spokeswoman Ryndee Carney says GM consistently communicates with Pontiac customers, alerting them of new GM models and offering loyalty incentives to stay with GM. The company won’t disclose or quantify how successful it has been at retaining Pontiac customers, Carney said.

U.S. buyers have many performance vehicles from which to choose.

“When you look at other performance models — the Ford Focus ST, the Raptor, BMW’s M series, Audi’s S and RS models — none of those automakers dedicate a whole brand to performance,” Sullivan says. “There is a limited market for go-fast stuff. Look how many Accords, Camrys and Altimas sold last year.”

Readers fired away immediately:

The U.S. has several performance cars, but it doesn’t have a “performance brand”, least of all Dodge which is best known for being the least expensive Chrysler. Ironically, Pontiac received one of the few true performance cars pre-failed GM produced, but GM never bothered to package G8 for North American success, so it languished into obscurity with the rest of Pontiac as merely not being the lowest rung on GM’s brand ladder.

Dodge is the least expensive Chrysler because Plymouth is no more.

Some of the problem with GM is. Is that it has abandoned the “average” American buyer who doesn’t have the income to buy a Camaro that doesn’t have a V6, which isn’t cheap to begin with anymore, or any of their other performance vehicles, which price wise escalate quite quickly from there on up. Where is the direct(quality mind you)competitor to the Fiesta ST, and the Focus ST in GM’s lineup? I’m sorry GM but a Sonic RS just isn’t it! Until then GM has a lot to do to keep customers in my mind.

that´s the point, fella. Congratulations .Oldsmobile could be what Cadillac no longer is: soft american upscale luxury, beside Buick. And Pontiac, one step down, a budget performance brand. That´s not the role of Chevy. You see? There is a clear gap betweven Mercedes and BMW and Lexus, Infiniti, Acura, for example. That gap could perfectly be filled by Olds and Pontiac. The same could be sad about Plymouth and Mercury. Where are the american automotive pride without all those brands?

Basically GM has “turned their back” on the performance enthusiast who: A. Doesn’t want a Camaro or B. Can’t afford $40K+ for a new ride. To me, it’s a total failure on the part of Barra, Reuss, etc… Once a you’ve lost a customer to Dodge, Ford or whomever, they most likely aren’t ever coming back.

Pontiac‘s problem was that too many of its cars were minimally upgraded Chevrolets. Pontiac had a similar problem to Mercury (upgraded Ford, or downgraded Lincoln?) and Oldsmobile (which was supposed to fit between Pontiac below and Buick above), in that GM and Ford didn’t sufficiently differentiate those brands, so they ultimately had little reason for existence. (Plymouth was a separate issue, basically Chrysler’s deciding it didn’t want a Chevrolet.)

 

Change ≠ progress, Automotive Performance Division

Horsepower Kings asks:

Can you imagine a Mustang GT with no V8? Can you imagine Ford announcing a 2018 Mustang GT, ‘powered by Ecoboost V6?’ We can’t either, and frankly, it makes us sick to even think about. That is why the following information is disturbing on so many levels.

We spent the better part of the day on the ground floor at the COBO Center attending the NAIAS. We are back here at the MGM Grand in Detroit, and what we took away from today was all the buzz surrounding the freshly-debuted Ford GT and 2017 F-150 Raptor. Unsurprisingly, much of that buzz is in regards to the lack of a V8 in these two high profile Ford vehicles.

The lack of a V8 is concerning, especially when discussing such a high profile halo car as the new Ford GT. After all, the entire history of this car revolves around it’s V8 powerplant. Some would argue that it’s the heart and soul of the Ford GT/GT40 legacy, and we would agree.

Regardless, when Ford finally debuted the next-gen Ford GT, powered by a 3.5L Ecoboost V6, our hearts started palpitating. You see, it’s not just the fact that this Ford supercar is powered by a V6 – what is most alarming is that Ford is showing us a very clear picture of the future of their Performance Division. …

Troubled by these horrible thoughts, we were able to have a quick chat with one of the many Ford reps here at the show. You see, if you attend enough Auto Shows, you start to build professional and personal relationships with the same manufacturer representatives over the years. And while our source certainly isn’t the end-all of Ford’s future plans, the information he provided us apparently echoes the larger opinion and direction of the executives at Ford. Our source has also been pretty reliable over the years, specifically in regards to Mustangs. If you aren’t sitting down right now, please take a seat – this news might be hard to take:

“Ford is definitely phasing out the V8 motor altogether”, he said – word for word. “CAFE and EPA are working very hard discreetly to make sure of that. There is quite a bit going on at Ford that the public is in the dark about. The impression that I am getting is that Ford wants to continue it’s V8 program, but things have (rather recently) taken a new direction, presumably from CAFE/EPA pressure in mid to late 2013. Ford has invested quite a bit of money into the ‘Coyote’ program over the years, and even had plans of going DI (Direct Injection). The future development budget for the 5.2L FPC motor has dwindled, and there is talk that this motor may continue it’s life exclusively in the form of sanctioned racing series, not on the street. The next big thing for Ford at this point is weight savings. They are trying to lighten these Mustangs to get high performance numbers out of the EcoBoost, and whether we like it or not, that is the (near) future. It’s not Ford’s fault, and you can thank the Gov’t for this – not the consumer”.

Our source later went on to explain that “The rebranding/reshuffling of the Ford Performance Division is all a result of this added EPA pressure. Ford wasn’t going to fund a performance program unless it’s primary focus was on the smaller EcoBoost motors, so SVT and Ford Racing were dissolved into this new Performance Division. And unfortunately, it would be foolish to expect to see any new V8 cars coming out of this new Performance Division. Ford Performance is going to be cranking out some very fast cars for some time, but even if the new Shelby GT500 gets the green light, it will likely be the last gasoline V8 that Ford will ever produce.”

A performance Mustang without a V-8? Actually, I can visualize that …

… though to call the V-6-powered 1974 Mustang II Mach 1 a “performance Mustang” is a huge stretch. For that matter, the 1975 Mustang, which did get a 302 V-8, could hardly be called a “performance Mustang” either given that it was equipped only with an automatic transmission to harness its 140 horsepower (the engine had a two-barrel carburetor and single exhaust). Buyers of the same-size Chevrolet Monza had one of two V-8s depending on where they were purchased. California buyers and those in high-altitude areas (because of different emissions requirements) got a 350 V-8 with all of 125 horsepower, while those outside those areas got a 262 V-8 with all of 110 horsepower.

This is similar to the slow death of the manual transmission, as well as the supposed next-generation Corvette. Those of us who prefer sticks, as well as those of us who prefer V-8s to smaller engines, are derided as opposing progress. (Conservatives should favor sticks, because (1) it’s something not everyone can do and (2) they are reminiscent of William F. Buckley’s statement about National Review magazine as standing “athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”) They fail to realize that V-8s and manuals are about the driving experience as much as performance. No engine sounds like a V-8 (except a V-twin motorcycle engine), and nothing ever will. Whether an automated manual can shift faster than a human is not the point, and except for professional racers has never been the point.

 

Undeserved credit, but what else is new?

The YG Network reported one week ago:

President Obama [Thursday] kicks off a three-day campaign-style tour, during which he’s expected to claim victory on the central issue of his presidency: the economy. If this type of fly-about sounds familiar, that’s because, as the Associated Press notes, it “has long been the Obama White House’s go-to strategy” during “tough stretches of his presidency.”

But if you think it’s just conservatives who are taking note of the president’s unearned “victory lap,” think again. As Karen Tumulty reports today in the Washington Post, “[a]t a moment when President Obama is seeking to convince Americans that the economy is finally back on track,” even some of his most liberal supporters — in this case left-wing Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — are undermining his claims, publicly acknowledging that middle-class families are getting a raw deal.

As Warren put it today, “America’s middle class is in deep trouble,” a statement “the timing (of which) turned out to be awkward,” Tumulty writes, given President Obama’s high-profile attempts this week to convince Americans otherwise.

But while Warren and other Washington liberals stubbornly want to double down on the same big-government ideology that has failed working families under Obama, conservative reformers are offering a new way forward — one that addresses head-on the urgent challenges of stagnant earnings and skyrocketing price tags for top household priorities like healthcare and higher education.

Rather than trying desperately to convince working Americans that the economy is “back on track,” President Obama and his liberal allies should come to the table and work with the new, conservative-led Congress to implement this forward-looking vision for a thriving middle class.

The only thing that is better for the middle class right now is gas prices, the low level of which Obama hates and has done nothing to make happen. Obama and his environmentalist toadies favor high energy prices (remember “Electricity prices will necessarily skyrocket”?) in order to force us plebeians into his approved lifestyle choices.

So it takes some nerve for the Democratic National Committee to compile this list of Republican statements about the Government Motors bailout …

  • Rand Paul said he thought the country would “absolutely” be better off if car companies had been allowed to fail.

  • Marco Rubio stated “the jobs will be gone and we’ll still owe the money. Washington should just get out of the way,” while Ted Cruz attacked the rescue package.

  • Scott Walker said “we wasted a lot of money” on rescuing the auto industry and Mike Pence suggested “we’ve got to put the interest of taxpayers first and automotive workers second”.

  • Rick Perry not only criticized Republicans for voting in favor of the auto rescue, but he also suggested that it was a step “…in a very dangerous direction.”

  • Jeb Bush opposed the auto rescue and sided with Mitt Romney saying we should have let General Motors go bankrupt.

… because these are all correct statements. Carol Roth explains why:

Those that try to tout the bailouts’ success usually begin with a declaration along the lines of “If the government didn’t step in … then GM and Chrysler would have ‘gone bankrupt.'”

First, going into bankruptcy does not equate to going out of business. American Airlines went into bankruptcy and still kept planes flying in the sky, emerging Monday with even former shareholders getting some shares in the post-bankruptcy entity. So, going through a bankruptcy process would not mean that GM or Chrysler would have had to cease operations.

Second, a common refrain is that there were no private-equity or other firms that expressed interest in taking a stake in either company before the government had to step in. Well, that’s because the bankruptcy process wasn’t allowed to play out. The auto companies had out-of-whack balance sheets that included unreasonable liabilities, including union liabilities. No private-equity firm was going to let the UAW have any type of preferred status (although the government ultimately did, see below). However, by not going directly into a bankruptcy proceeding where these liabilities could be renegotiated, there was never a true process to solicit and evaluate interest from financial or strategic partners. That’s what the bankruptcy process was designed to do, but it never had the chance.

The reality is that GM and Chrysler had significantly valuable brands and other intellectual property, manufacturing equipment, a loyal customer base, a skilled workforce and more. There was substantial demand for their products. These were financial mismanagement bankruptcies stemming from noncompetitive labor costs and liabilities, not ones brought on by a lack of interest in the core businesses. To think that no financial or strategic buyer would ultimately have had an interest in these acquiring the assets of these companies is preposterous. Even if you could make that unreasonable and highly unlikely argument, consumer demand for automobiles would still be in place, which means that other manufacturers, like Ford, would have benefited and grown to absorb that demand, and of course a good portion of the related workforce and ecosystem.

To say that the government was the only white knight here ignores basic market principles. Does anyone really believe that the entire auto industry would have gone away or have any precedent for that happening?

Additionally, both GM and Chrysler did go bankrupt. Yes, the government took both companies through the process, using taxpayer money to sustain the companies while they moved the interests of the major union above that of the other creditors (including those that manage the retirement plans of many Americans) and only once this chicanery had been completed then went through the same process that the companies should have been in to begin with.

However, the outcome was pricey in multiple ways, even beyond the creditors losing preference to the UAW and its various interests.

On Chrysler, the taxpayers lost more than $1 billion and the company ended up in majority control of a non-US company (Fiat, an Italian company) and minority controlled by a trust for the benefit of retired auto workers. An IPO for Chrysler is planned for 2014, but the taxpayers still will record a loss and America also records the loss of ownership of an iconic brand.

On GM, the taxpayers lost more than $10 billion and now have no participation in future upside of that company.

Ultimately, we spent more than six figures per job to “save” them from a mythical end and end up with billions won’t be recouped.

What about the small businesses? Many argue that the bailout was about saving the small suppliers. But if this was about helping small business, there are many ways that they could have been helped directly. Perhaps the banks that were also bailed out by taxpayers could have been asked to extend credit to the small suppliers in the automotive ecosystem.

I have had enough with the bailouts. Our government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers and deciding what companies should receive taxpayer assistance and which shouldn’t. Moreover, they shouldn’t be prioritizing certain groups’ interests over others and shouldn’t be touting successes that aren’t real.

Let’s not pretend that this bailout is more than what it was: A mere wealth transfer that helped the unions at the expense of all taxpayers. When that type of cronyism happens, America loses.

That doesn’t include Yossi Gestetner‘s measures:

  • GM sold fewer vehicles in the U.S. in 2014 than in 2008.
  • GM had about 17.6% of the U.S. market in 2014, down from about 21.9% in 2008.
  • GM bailout had a net loss of $10.4 billion (bank bailouts a net gain of $24.3 billion).
  • GM’s 2013 profit was $3.8 billion; Ford, without a bailout, $7.2 billion.

The economy is now 8% larger than late 2007, right before the recession started, but total U.S. auto sales in 2014 were only 1.5% higher than 2007.

The only thing needed to be “saved” in late 2008 was GM (and Chrysler), whose finances had been run into the ground due to union contracts, not the weak economy. The auto industry at large had a rough ride just like everyone else, but the industry came out from the crisis depths without being bailed out. But auto sales growth is still lagging the rest of the economy, and GM is actually a drag on those numbers. Basically, the part of the industry that Obama did not “save” is actually doing better than the part he “saved.”

As for Chrysler … it was sold to an Italian company by the same president who complained in 2012 that Romney’s Bain is betting against America.

Gestetner’s numbers are low. This country lost at least $11.2 billion from the GM bailout. And for what? Thanks to our still crappy economy, millions of Americans will never be able to buy a new car. Ever.

 

The then-new New Chevrolet

In the fall of 1976, General Motors did something revolutionary for the day. They replaced their enormous (I speak from experience) B- and C-body cars …

… with smaller, more efficiently packaged cars:

The redesign worked so well (at least from the perspective of GM’s accountants) that it took 13 years for Chevrolet to redesign the Caprice.

This is a reasonable facsimile of my in-laws’ 1991 Caprice, which was a restyling, though not really redesign, of the 1977–90 Caprice. I liked it so much I wish, two decades later, that we had purchased it from them. (Even though the cars we had at the time were perfectly fine, unlike the previous, and quite possibly last, Chevrolet I owned, a 1988 Beretta, un pezzo di merda.) Like my 1975 Caprice, it was roomy, had adequate acceleration, handled well for a large car, and got decent fuel economy. (Which cannot be said about the 1975 Caprice, EPA-rated at 13 city and 18 highway mpg.)

Autos of Interest interviewed Dick Ruzzin, who as chief designer of Chevrolet designed the last Caprice:

All in all, the Caprice was a very successful car and used for many personal and commercial applications. Once I told a group of police that I was responsible for the design and they could not stop the adulation. Basically, they really enjoyed working with a car that was really neat looking, the best looking police car ever, which was their opinion. It looked fast and aggressive in police trim.

I still see some Caprices and in spite of all the cultural changes in design, over twenty five years later, they are still intriguing and stand up very well. The flush side glass and futuristic headlights for the time helped push its character into the future.

The design effort was a fun time; we had a lot of great people working in the studio and did a lot of work. The Caprice followed the design of the Cavalier, Celebrity and Eurosport, and Lumina Sedan and APV, as well as a small car program to replace the Chevette that was cancelled after it was released. We also had design responsibility for all three Japanese small cars sold by Chevrolet from Isuzu, Suzuki and Toyota, as well as the Chevette. That meant a lot of responsibility and effort on everyone’s part. The quality of the people shows through in the quality and reach that our designs had as we see them now, so many years later. …

We decided to challenge the Chevrolet engineers. Since the car was done over an existing platform our Studio Engineer, Dick Olsze, suggested a goal for them: reduce the size of all the structural criteria by 10 percent—not the strength but the size—giving us an advantage over the old car. In some areas they were able to achieve that. The biggest challenge was the small block V8 distributor that sat right under the base of the windshield. It had to be redesigned with a two-piece distributor shaft.

When the model was blocked in and in color we took it outside for the first time to participate in a large show. It included a number of cars from other studios so that our management could get a good idea of what was being done and to also see strengths and weaknesses of each program. The Caprice looked like a moon rocket compared to the others.

It was the first time in many years that a car was being done that was not being downsized. Everyone loved it; it was the newest design in the show. The further we went the more the design was cemented into place because we added a lot of detail with sophisticated surfaces that made it look like we had worked on it a lot longer. When Chevrolet saw it they loved it.

The engineer in charge of the project was so enthusiastic that Chevrolet built a running car to demonstrate the concept to the GM Board of Directors. The car was all released for production, although we were still making small changes when he drove it over one Saturday morning. We all took it for a ride and it looked incredible; it was our favorite color, dark red metallic like our fiberglass model, with a light tan interior. It was a real hit.

About a year later, I was in Cadillac Studio and we then did the Cadillac version, called the Fleetwood. I just saw a maroon one today in excellent condition. We also did the Presidential Limousine. Two years later I was in Chicago on a beautiful sunny day walking out of Bloomingdales and there parked in front of the store was the regular limousine that we also designed. Those cars were all done on the side while we were really pushing hard on the Seville and Eldorado.

Last spring I was in Detroit and there parked at a gas station were two black Fleetwoods in absolutely pristine condition. They looked great. The design for those cars, the Caprice and the Fleetwoods were done a long time ago, about thirty years.

They did look terrific.

The thing about the Caprice was that, because it was over a very old platform, the design expectations were low. The studio that had responsibility for the Caprice was Chevrolet #1. It was a shock to me when we were given the assignment but we were really doing a lot of great work at the time and were very well respected by Chevrolet Engineering for how we did things, how we helped them do their job. We had sold the Celebrity Eurosport program to Chevrolet and that was something that they really admired, that is, how we accomplished it.

The Caprice profile was like no car ever done at design to that point because it broke fifty years of tradition. The car was taller than it had to be. We did that to have a smooth flowing line from the bottom of the windshield, over the passengers and to the bottom of the back-lite. Our VP, Irv Rybicki, asked me about that; our internal engineers had found out and told him. I explained why we did it and he accepted it without a problem. …

Autos of Interest: What was the target clientele for the new Caprice?

Ruzzin: Caprice customers. They had to see it as their car, it had to have some touches that identified it as the new Caprice. We could not make it smaller due to the carry-over platform but we did everything possible to make it “look” smaller. Interior space was huge.

Autos of Interest: Did other GM divisions (or law enforcement) have input relative to their needs?

Ruzzin: The car originally was going to be a Chevrolet only at 300,000 cars a year. When Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac saw it they lobbied to get it also which resulted in a lot more production, some of it hard to sell.

There was no law enforcement involvement but I do know that when the car went out of production, Chevrolet had 90,000 police car orders in hand for the future; they wanted to continue building them in Mexico and the UAW stopped it. They did make great looking police cars, aggressive and dynamic. …

Autos of Interest: Was the wagon a definite model from the start and why did it debut later?

Ruzzin: It was a model to be executed from the beginning but the geometry of the sedan design had to be developed, first, before you could do the wagon. The plan view of the doors had to be capable of extension to the rear to make a wagon. It also had to enclose the carryover rear tailgate hinges. Also, for Chevrolet, as the sedan moved along they could then shift manpower to the wagon.

Autos of Interest: Was a coupe considered, or toyed with? Even in concept?

Ruzzin: No coupe was ever considered. Coupes were on a sales down-slide at that time.

There were a few changes in the last five years of the Caprice, most notably the rear wheelwells …

… due in large part to the creation of the 1994–96 Impala SS:

To me, the 1991–93 Caprice looks better. The rear wheelwells emulate fender skirts, which Caprices had, either as options or standard, until the 1977 downsizing. That design, however, resulted in a narrow rear wheel track on sedans, though apparently not on wagons, which had a different rear suspension.

On the other hand, the 1994–96 Caprice had the Corvette’s LT1 350 V-8, which developed 260 horsepower. The Buick Roadmaster sedan …

… and wagon …

… and the Cadillac Fleetwood of those three years had the same V-8.

The observant will notice one major difference between the Roadmaster Estate and the Caprice Estate: the second-row skylight, which was meant to remind buyers of the former Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser:

The 1991–93 Olds Custom Cruiser had one too …

… which is a bit ironic since the original Custom Cruiser wagon, like all the big GM wagons, didn’t have a vista roof.

As I’ve written here before, big wagons died because of EPA fuel economy regulations and resulting buyer interest in sport utility vehicles and minivans instead of station wagons. Which is too bad, because I at least would like to have one of these.

 

The year on wheels

If you have any interest in cars, or one of the biggest industries in the U.S., you have to read Peter De Lorenzo’s Autoextremist blog.

A writer like De Lorenzo is important in any field worth studying because it’s important to read someone who’s not impressed by anyone. Cynics are not popular, but they’re at least as often right as they are wrong. And as you read De Lorenzo‘s 2014-in-the-automotive industry tome, the impression you get is that De Lorenzo is impressed by no one:

Welcome to this “thing” called the automobile business. Like a Dead Air Circus twisting in the wind, the automobile business writ large here moves in fits and starts in a two steps forward, three back pirouette of ignominy, one that provides a constant thrum of mediocrity, a sinister Motor City soundtrack of “dark noise” if you will that is always there, looming in the background.

Is it all tedium? Thankfully, no, not by a long shot.

We are enjoying the finest cars and trucks in automotive history, and at every price point too. We’re also bathing in a golden era of performance, one that few thought would sustain itself as we march ever forward to a No Fun culture that pillories the automobile at every turn.

The looming societal storm clouds can’t dampen the inherent goodness and level of technology found in the average cars of today. It’s simply staggering to contemplate the advanced technology, fuel efficiency and general level of excellence available in even the most mainstream of automobiles available. If you had predicted the level of technology and efficiency that would be available in a typical Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Impala or Toyota Camry even as recently as ten years ago most people would have scoffed at the notion.

There are no bad cars anymore because the price of entry in order to compete in this, the most competitive market in automotive history, goes up with each passing quarter. Combine that with the ever-escalating regulatory demands for more safety and more efficiency, and you have a never-ending upward spiral demanding even more overall excellence that consumes this industry’s every waking hour. And all of that is wonderful and a reason to be optimistic about this business.

But, well, there’s always a “but” when it comes to the car business.

Once again we were blessed or haunted (depending on how you look at it) by an assortment of crackpots, a few actual visionaries, hordes of recalcitrant twerps, legions of spineless weasels, the obligatory egomaniacal dictators (with special emphasis on the first syllable), an unfortunately high quotient of unmitigated hacks, and of course the True Believers, because if it weren’t for their diligence, this business would implode on itself all over again.

This was the Year of the Recall, the Year of Sergio, the Year of Horsepower, the Year of Mary and for a lot of reasons, the Year from Hell.

How can that be, you say? Everyone’s making money hand over fist as the national frenzy for crossovers, SUVs and pickup trucks seems to know no bounds. It’s all good, right? Yes, until it isn’t that is.

Don’t let those supercharged sales numbers go to your heads, because in typical Detroit fashion what goes up like a rocket comes down with a resounding thud. It always has and it always will. And just as the executives at the car companies here in the Motor City begin to believe their press clippings and start to think that maybe, just maybe this blissful state of soaring sales is going to stay hot forever, well, things are bound to get weird.

Though I’ve often written about the good things going on in this business, the constant misdeeds and missteps that seem to dog this industry and its players at a relentless cadence consume most of my time. That there are three dumb moves for every two smart ones in this business is a given and has been proven out over time. And to the industry honchos who are absolutely convinced that it won’t happen – or is not happening under their watch – I’ve got news: You can’t really control it; you can only hope to contain it.

De Lorenzo writes about Chrysler, now owned by Fiat …

The name is Sloan. Alfredo Sloan. The all-knowing and all-powerful leader of the Fiat Chrysler enterprise has been anointed The Altruistic Savior of all he surveys by the bootlicking hordes in “the media,” portrayed as the man who pulled the doddering old Chrysler out of the depths of despair while giving its huddling, downtrodden masses who were facing a certain death sentence a reason to live. And it’s all unmitigated bullshit too. 

Marchionne is a shrewd, make that brilliant deal maker who happened to be in the right place at the right time and who was able to abscond with the car company formerly known as Chrysler lock, stock and barrel for the staggeringly paltry sum of $6 billion, all in. And in one fell swoop he gave the idle aristocracy who inherited the Fiat “empire” – and had almost run it into the ground once and for all – another lease on life. For that he has been granted career canonization the likes of which has never been seen before in this business, sort of an Alfredo Sloan for our times.

But then again there’s another side to Sergio that isn’t sexy, glamorous or all knowing, which is why it continuously goes unreported.

Marchionne’s brilliance when it comes to putting together big picture deals is unquestioned. Let’s face it, anyone who can walk away with the Jeep brand for the above-mentioned sum and get the rest of Chrysler in the bargain is a frickin’ genius.

But The Other Sergio is a plodding, micro-managing maniac who believes that Fiat Chrysler employees – no matter what the level – should be happy that they’re allowed to be in his presence. And for that, and the occasional opportunity to be bathed in the warmth from the glow as The Great One passes them in the hallway, they get a shockingly head-in-sand management approach – a time-tested legacy of the Fiat “empire” that’s unwanted and unwarranted – yet shoved down the throats of the Auburn Hills faithful with astonishing regularity.

The ingrained backwardness with which the Italians approach everything actually has the denizens in Auburn Hills reeling from having to dumb down the way they do things to appease their Italian handlers on a daily basis. Sergio’s espresso-swilling minions regularly ignore hard-earned and hard-won lessons that have stood the test of time in this business in favor of doing things “their” way, even if it jeopardizes the company’s competitive standing in the market or it costs the company millions in do-overs and start overs.

The arrogance of the Italian overlords running Chrysler now rivals the arrogance displayed by the German overlords back when Daimler had its crack at the keys to the Jeep-Truck kingdom. Combine that with their openly hostile attitude, which states that every supplier who brings an idea or a product to them can, as they often say, “cut your number in half and then we’ll talk.” It’s a wonderful way to build trust in the supplier community and an even better way to ensure that FCA misses out on leading-edge technology and thinking across all disciplines.

And Sergio’s latest management brainstorm is to jettison anyone over 50 (no, you won’t read this anywhere else) because they’ve become liabilities and are not forward thinking enough. Top-notch, seasoned executives are being shown the door in favor of young, inexperienced replacements with the inevitable result: The young hires are being blown out and replaced by similarly young and inexperienced people and guess why? They can’t do the work because they don’t have enough experience. It’s a revolving door of mediocrity that just keeps doubling up on itself. Meanwhile, the senior-level managers, sensing the tide, are gathering in droves at the door clamoring for a way out.

 

… Government — I mean General — Motors …

Pardon me for thinking that we’d heard the last from Dan Akerson, that loathsome and now legendary carpetbagging tool who held the reins of GM in his hands for three-and-one-half excruciatingly painful years. Forgive me for thinking that the Unctuous Prick would take his leave and quietly retreat to the friendly confines of Washington, D.C., so he could regale his cronies how he survived his near-charitable stint in the hinterlands, trying to impart his wisdom to the poor unfortunates who toiled away in such a pathetically backward business that it’s a wonder it functioned at all before he got there. And please cut me some slack, because I thought that after such an embarrassing run at the top of what was once America’s industrial showpiece, where he was simply reviled and despised at every level of the corporation, that Akerson would keep his mouth shut, especially in the midst of the biggest crisis in the company’s history (other than the bankruptcy, of course).

No such luck, however.

Safely ensconced back hard by the Potomac, the former CEO gets his chance to obfuscate, deny and continue his game of self-entitled outrage at GM’s so-called “culture” laced with his usual cloying air of superiority – his M.O. for three-and-a-half tedious and tiresome years while at the helm of GM – in an interview by David Shephardson in Monday’s The Detroit News. Why Shephardson thought it would be a good thing to let Akerson pontificate once more is questionable but in the end he did us all a great service, because the depth and breadth of Akerson’s gift of self-delusion is there for all to see. I view the interview now as yet another important entry into The Historical Document of Bullshit marking Akerson’s Reign of Terror at General Motors.

Playing his Sergeant Schultzian “I know nothing” defense to perfection, Akerson blamed GM’s culture and didn’t own up to anything, except that he was a genius for promoting Mary Barra. In one particularly telling passage, Akerson railed at Internet chatter calling the suggestion that GM could soften criticism of its mishandling of the recall by promoting the first woman to lead an automaker ridiculous, adding, “fools can say anything… We have four women on the board. You’d have to be so cynical. You’d have to be a terrible person to even (think it).” Akerson called the suggestions “hurtful.”

Well, boo-fricking-hoo, Dan. Do you really want to know what’s hurtful? Having to listen to you bob and weave and pretend you knew nothing. Having to sit there and listen to the relentless stream of unmitigated bullshit that comes out of your mouth, with you operating under the assumption that if you’re saying it, we must believe it to be true, because after all, you’re the great Dan Akerson, and we’re not.

Instead, it’s an outrageous insult to everyone’s intelligence who ever played this game (except to those you favored and promoted, of course).

That’s right, Dan, you, the Unctuous Prick who openly loathed every last inch of this business to its core, and who regularly regaled your buddies on how just backward, unseemly and pathetic the auto business really was.

You, the guy who insulted the hard-working people of GM on a regular basis and in such condescending fashion that the common refrain I heard from seasoned, talented individuals throughout the corporation was that you were an abject embarrassment that they wished would just go away.

You, who had so little respect for the history of this business or the people who came before you that you dismissed it all with a wave of the hand as being inconsequential and irrelevant, that you and your Telecommies had more smarts in your fingernails than anyone in this town or in this business would ever accumulate.

You, who professed your “love” for this city while not once living here, instead parachuting in to the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel when you had to be here while having your Chief PR Bagman, Selim Bingol (aka Unctuous Prick Jr.), try to paste together the story that you were a “car guy” who was just trying to do what was best for the company, because clearly the “little people” laboring there didn’t have a clue.

You, who held such little regard for the complexities of the business that you once bragged to an underling, “You could run product development, hell, I could run product – it’s not that hard.”

You, who followed that up by promoting Bob Ferguson – GM’s Chief lobbyist, of all things – to run the Cadillac Division globally, even though he had not one shred of perspective or qualification to do so, saying in not so subtle fashion that he was a smart guy and he wasn’t one of “them” – meaning one of the poor unfortunates who make up the backbone of this business who were toiling away at the company while you preened and pranced before them spewing insults in their direction.

How did all that work out for you, Dan?

The High-Octane Truth of the matter is that the company survived in spite of you. Those people whom you insulted and treated so condescendingly on a daily basis? Those True Believers are solely responsible for the product hits that GM has in the market today.

It certainly wasn’t you, Dan, not by a long shot. Let’s not forget that you were plucked from boardroom obscurity by the most incompetent board in corporate America because you had the temerity to raise your hand in a board meeting when the subject of running the company came up, and you deluded yourself somehow into thinking that happenstance was a mandate of some sort that simply didn’t exist.

That “Accidental Tourist of a CEO” moniker? You earned it and everyone knew it. You’re just lucky that GM’s board was so singularly incompetent, because if a boardroom coup could have been properly mounted, you would have been toast and you know it. You had only a handful of supporters and even fewer defenders. The rest? You misconstrued those smiles as meaning people actually liked you. No, Dan, they loathed you, and they did what they had to do to get by, which meant marking their desk calendars daily with big a red “X” praying that this would be the day that you would finally leave.

You were a walking-talking embarrassment from the get-go, simply a ridiculous spectacle fueled by a maniacal, runaway ego that knows no bounds, a Captain Queeg for a new age, couching everything in juvenile, bombastic, militaristic banter that had Navy people writing me embarrassed that you were dragging your naval background into the proceedings.

You are the quintessential definition of a carpetbagger. You had no affinity for the business or the people who worked in it whatsoever. You dismissed this industry as a backwater embarrassment and you were just biding your time until you could find something better, hoping there was a huge payday at the end. Instead, you made your escape back to Private Equity before the shit hit the fan. Nicely done.

“Terrible person”? That moniker happens to fits you to a “T”, Akerson.

Now, please do us all a favor and shut up. (“THE UNCTUOUS PRICK RETURNS FOR ONE LAST HURRAH.” – July 30, 2014)

 

… Ford Motor Co. …

When you live around here, it’s not uncommon to hear people talk about “working at Ford’s.” You’ll never hear that when people discuss working at the other car companies, and that is because “working at Ford’s” means working directly or indirectly for the Ford family, who still retain control and very much a vibrant interest in the family business, which, lest we forget, is one of the most important industrial legacies in America and part of the very fabric of this nation.

In the global automobile business as it is defined today the Ford Motor Company remains a unique operation, a family-owned and run business that stands out among the faceless corporate entities that make up the rest. Yes, there are family legacies at some of the other car companies around the world, but Ford is different and will always be different.

And that is because the Ford family cares. They care about the company’s role in providing for so many families in the community, they care about the family’s historical legacy, and they care that the Ford Motor Company continues to deliver a kaleidoscope of effective transportation choices for people all around the world.

And the fact that the family does care has endeared the Ford Motor Company to people around here in a way that the other car companies in town never will.

The members of the Ford family work in and around the company in various capacities, too, with William Clay Ford Jr., executive chairman, the most visible. It is simply extraordinary that the family has remained engaged and involved in the company for 110 years, and that’s due to the fact that they have never slacked off or “phoned it in” but instead have kept the flame and the family legacy alive for generations to come.

The passing of William Clay Ford does mark the end of an era, as he was the last living connection to the very beginnings of the automobile business.

But it’s also a reaffirmation of a most remarkable legacy, one that William Clay Ford Jr. and the other members of the Ford family will now proudly carry on. (“A MOST REMARKABLE LEGACY.” – March 10, 2014)

… the apparently crazy world of automotive PR:

PR brawlers, really? It may be surprising to some who are new to the whole Public Relations game, but the inner workings of big-league PR are usually in direct contrast to the rigidly controlled, politically correct images that PR handlers so carefully craft for their CEO charges.

Behind the scenes it’s a back-alley brawl stopping just short – but not always, I might add – from fisticuffs. Depending on the day, PR handlers in the car biz fight with journalists, editors, TV news show producers, other PR handlers from rival car companies, professional company irritants, pitchfork-wielding anti-car safety advocates and environmental groups, and an assortment of “vermin” – as they see it – who come out of the woodwork to threaten their boss, or the company, or both.

The modern PR handler’s array of weaponry includes scathing email diatribes and verbal threats, political maneuvers and story plants carried out through mainstream and social media platforms, and good old-fashioned finger jabs to the chest delivered in person, just to name a few. (“SHARP TONGUES AND SHARPER ELBOWS, THE ROUGH-AND-TUMBLE WORLD OF MODERN PR LIVE AND IN COLOR.” – October 22, 2014)

… and the industry in general:

There aren’t? You gotta be frickin’ kiddin’ me! I caught a lot of car companies chasing their tails at the New York Auto Show, ignoring the two most enduring tenets of the business, which are:1. It’s about The Product. It always has been and it always will be too.

2. Design is still the Ultimate Initial Product Differentiator. If you don’t have it, you can’t hide it. And if, as a manufacturer, you go all vanilla hoping to offend the fewest people, you’ll probably end up attracting the fewest people as well.

And if there’s a third, it’s this: There are no Magic Beans to be found in this business.

Instead it’s about designing, engineering and building fundamental product goodness and having the focused consistency not to waver from that mission.

It’s about creating products that are emotionally compelling to look at, fun to drive and rewarding to own.

And it’s about adhering to the core competencies of the brand. In other words, whatever you’re good at and whatever your reputation is based upon, you better deliver on that promise. Anything less and you will get lost in the shuffle, or just get lost, period.And of course it’s about not veering into niches or segments that you don’t belong in, no matter how enticing they are.

 

 

If you see a fork in the road …

Kevin Binversie:

You would think state liberals would be cheering the state Department of Transportation’s 2015-17 budget proposal and not trying to score cheap political points. After all, the budget largely reflects the success of the liberal environmental agenda. …

For those that missed the headlines, on Friday DOT Sec. Mark Gottlieb dropped a staggering request for the next state budget. Totalling $751 million, the proposal radically restructured the state’s existing gas taxes on unleaded and diesel gasoline, raises vehicle registration fees on electric and hybrid vehicles and raises fees on new vehicles sales. All of which are designed to acknowledge a reality facing all 50 states and the federal government – cars and trucks are getting more mileage, and as such, gas tax revenue is shrinking.

For years, the state’s largest source of highway funding has been the gas tax. Since it is a “per use” tax, only those buying gasoline by the gallon pay it. As cars become more fuel efficient, they need less and less gasoline and thus the tax is paid less and less. If you add in new hybrid or even electric cars, the tax is paid even more infrequently or not at all.

So as cars on the roads become more fuel efficient and less revenue comes in through traditional sources, governments are scrambling to find ways to pay for roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects. Most transportation experts will tell you this tends to go into three different routes.

1.) More and more toll roads.

Federal law forbids states to establish toll roads on existing roads. It does however, allow them to be established on either newly built roads or when existing roads go under reconstruction or increase their capacity. Given how anathema toll roads are to the average Wisconsinite, it would both take too long and be too costly to establish a viable toll road system on Wisconsin’s high use roads in Milwaukee, Madison, Waukesha, Green Bay and other locales.

2.) Mileage Use Taxes.

Imagine if you will, a state where every vehicle has a GPS tracker installed. This tracker measures not just how much you’ve driven, but also gives to government agencies detailed information in real time such as where you’ve been, how fast you got there, and any detours you took while along the way. You’re taxed by the mile and sent a monthly bill.

Could police use this data to give driver’s speeding tickets and other traffic violations? Likely. Is this all a series of extreme violations of one’s civil liberties? Probably, but many don’t want to wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to sort it out.

3.) Reconfiguring Traditional Gas Taxes / Increased Registration Fees

The old standby and the route Gottlieb seems to be going.

Given the 2005 fight in which Wisconsin conservatives successfully ended Wisconsin’s practice of gas tax indexing to inflation, one would understand legislative hesitation to go anywhere near DOT’s proposal. After last week’s election, the last thing a newly-minted legislative Republican majority wants to hang on the state is a huge gas tax increase and new user fees related to numerous kinds of vehicles.

Critics of the DOT plan will no doubt mention how Gov. Walker never proposed any of this during the campaign. Then again, Mary Burke didn’t come with any specifics herself.

While the solution is far from perfect, Gottlieb should be applauded for getting the conversation started. Because the past ways; where fund raids and indebting the next two generations with bonds so the highways of today could be paved were all too common, won’t cut it anymore.

When it comes to deciding how best to fund roads, the legislature will either have to get with the times and devise a system that encompasses new technologies into old revenue streams or learn to go with less when it comes to road-building.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports:

A $751 million boost in taxes and fees isn’t the only way Gov. Scott Walker’s transportation chief wants to keep major road projects on schedule.

Over two years, Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb also wants to borrow more than $805 million, study the feasibility of tolling and use $574 million in funds that typically go toward schools and health care.

Under another part of Gottlieb’s plan, the state Department of Transportation would gather odometer readings when drivers register their vehicles each year — a move that would help it review whether the state should create a new fee based on how many miles people drive.

Gottlieb’s proposal is in its infancy. On Tuesday, Walker told The Associated Press he would make significant changes to it before submitting a transportation plan to the Legislature as part of the overall state budget early next year.

He declined to rule out raising the gas tax, saying he was “not making absolutes on anything right now.”

Once Walker gives his plan to lawmakers, they will spend months modifying it before returning it to Walker for his final approval. The Legislature is controlled by Walker’s fellow Republicans.

Legislators from both parties have been muted in their responses to Gottlieb’s plan. They have said they see a need for more money, but also have expressed reservations about increasing taxes and fees or relying too much on borrowing.

Bonding more than $800 million for road projects is “not sustainable,” said Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), co-chairwoman of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee.

She said she would listen to her constituents on what to do when it comes to funding transportation.

“I’m all ears,” she said. “I honestly hear about two different pictures of Wisconsin. Some people say we have enough roads already. Others point to what bad shape the Zoo Interchange is in.

“We have a problem. People agree we have a problem, but when you say, ‘How about these solutions,’ they say, ‘None of the above.'”

Brett Healy, president of the conservative MacIver Institute, said Gottlieb would have a tough time persuading people to sign onto his plan.

“Everywhere drivers look, all they see is road construction and orange cones but now the department says they need more transportation funding,” he said by email. “Adequate transportation funding is critical to economic growth but there must be taxpayer balance.

“Higher transportation taxes and fees in this economy and this political environment will be difficult to justify.”

One thing not mentioned is a closer look at what WisDOT wants to fund — for instance, mass transit, which is not used by most Wisconsinites, but you’re paying for it. Gas taxes also pay for such non-motorized-transportation as bike paths. So the first thing the Legislature needs to do is to stop using the transportation fund on things that don’t benefit drivers, including drivers of tractor-trailers. Mass transit is directly contrary to people’s freedom to go where they want when they want.

The gas tax in theory is a proper tax because it’s paid by drivers in proportion to their use of roads. If you drive more, you buy more gas, and therefore you pay more gas taxes. The problem is that as vehicles become more efficient, their drivers purchase less gas. (The Obama Recovery in Name Only has also reduced driving, which also has reduced gas tax revenue.)

User fees are in theory better than taxes because non-users don’t pay them. On the other hand, making car ownership more expensive is not beneficial to users of roads. (This demonstrates, among other things, that Republicans in Madison really haven’t done nearly enough to reduce government in other areas to be able to afford higher spending in transportation. As you know, state and local government is twice the size it would be had it been had government been limited to growth in inflation and population growth the past three decades.)

The feds have a pernicious influence as well. Federal mandates to spend money on mass transit and other things that don’t benefit drivers need to be repealed by Congress. So do prevailing-wage requirements, which make construction projects, including road projects, considerably more expensive than they should be in a supposedly free-market economy.

There have been proposals for several years to devote tax revenues generated by transportation for transportation, particularly sales tax proceeds from vehicle purchases. That makes sense, particularly in keeping with voters’ wise choice to keep legislators’ hands off transportation funds for political convenience (see Doyle, James).

The toll study, however, is a waste of time, because there is no political support for toll roads, even if toll roads today aren’t like the Illinois Tollway of the 20th century. You want more recalls? Create toll roads, and you will have them.

Making driving more expensive by increasing taxes has a direct effect on taxpayers’ wallets, as we all discovered during the $4-per-gallon era of gas prices earlier this decade. Whether people drive less or not, gas prices affect the price of everything that is transported by vehicle, so if you increase gas taxes, you increase the price of things people buy at stores, particularly food.