Once Upon a Car: The Fall and Resurrection of America's Big Three Automakers--GM, Ford, and Chryslerby Bill Vlasic
Once Upon a Car is the fascinating epic story of the rise, fall, and rebirth of the Big Three U.S. automakers, General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. Written by Bill Vlasic, the Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times and acclaimed author of Taken for a Ride, this eye-opening, richly anecdotal work is more than a riveting and insightful/b>/b>/b>
Once Upon a Car is the fascinating epic story of the rise, fall, and rebirth of the Big Three U.S. automakers, General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. Written by Bill Vlasic, the Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times and acclaimed author of Taken for a Ride, this eye-opening, richly anecdotal work is more than a riveting and insightful business history. It offers a clear-eyed view of the present day automobile industry and of Detroit, the city that spawned it, going far beyond the corporate and federal maneuverings to explore the impact the car companies’ failures have had on the overall economy, and more importantly what they have done to people’s lives. Relevant and thought-provoking, Once Upon a Car is an unforgettable journey deep inside this quintessentially American industry.
The New York Times Book Review
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Once Upon a CarThe Fall and Resurrection of America's Big Three Auto Makers
By Bill Vlasic
William MorrowCopyright © 2011 Bill Vlasic
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLarry Buhl had been planning this rendezvous for months, and
today was finally the day.
It was the second week in January, and the 2005 North American
International Auto Show was in full swing in downtown Detroit.
The Cobo Center convention floor, bigger than a dozen football
fields, was a mass of people roaming like herds among the exhibits of
the world's biggest automakers. The elaborate displays of the hometown
giants, General Motors and Ford, owned one side of the hall.
The German luxury brands Mercedes-Benz and BMW anchored the
And somewhere in the middle was the man Buhl was looking for.
He walked along the carpeted paths between the million-dollar
show stands, each one reflecting the company behind itsleek and
futuristic at Honda and Nissan, lots of chrome and bright colors at
Dodge and Chrysler, stark backdrops and pretty women in slinky
dresses at Ferrari and Lamborghini. Cars of every size and shape were
bathed in bright spotlights, polished and posed for the hordes of
journalists and camera crews and auto executives that swarmed
around the hall.
Buhl felt right at home. He lived in Connecticut but had grown
up just down the road in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. He had been
going to the show for years. It was like an extension of the holidays in
DetroitChristmas, New Year's, auto show. It was also the perfect
place to blend into a crowd and meet someone unnoticed. Buhl crossed the
convention floor, took a turn behind the man-made mountain with a Jeep
hanging off it, made a left at the Toyota exhibit, and spied the smallest,
plainest stand in the entire placethree quirky little cars surrounded by
college-age sales reps in polo shirts and khakis. And there, working by the red Scion sign,
was Jim Farley.
Since last summer, Buhl had been trying to set up a meeting
between Farley, a rising executive at Toyota and head of its new Scion
division, and one of Buhl's oldest friends, William Clay Ford Jr., the
chairman and chief executive officer of the Ford Motor Company.
The idea came to Buhl during a conversation with Farley's father on
a golf course in northern Michigan, where the Farley and Buhl families
had owned vacation homes for years. "Something struck me
when I saw Jim's dad," Buhl recalled. "I thought Ford could really
use a guy like Jim."
Larry Buhl had known Bill Ford since they were kids. They went
to private schools together, played the same sports, socialized
throughout college, and stayed close into their mid-forties. One went
on to become a successful entrepreneur buying and selling specialty
metals on the East Coast. The other became the leader of the second
biggest car company in the world.
Buhl cherished their bond, but lately he had been worried about
his friend. He saw what the pressure of running the Ford Motor
Company, his family's business for more than a hundred years, was
doing to Bill. Executives came and went at Ford headquarters, but
none of them was able to help Bill stave off the flood of Toyotas, Hondas,
and other foreign cars that were relentlessly beating Ford in
the market. Buhl saw Bill's spirits sag when they talked about it. "It's
too much for you," he kept telling him. "How can you shoulder all of
this responsibility yourself?"
What Ford needed was fresh blood. Buhl would never be so
presumptuous as to suggest to Bill that he hire Jim Farley. But if he
could get the two of them together, who knew what might happen?
When he brought it up, Bill said sure, he was open to it. It was a little
trickier to convince Farley. Buhl's brother Robbie, a professional race
car driver and fellow car fanatic, had been tight with Farley for years.
Still, when Buhl called Farley, he was cool to the idea of sitting down
with anyone at one of Toyota's biggest competitors.
"I'm not interested in going anyplace," Farley said. "I'm really
happy at Toyota."
"Come on," Buhl said. "I'm just talking about introducing you to
a friend of mine."
"I don't feel comfortable about this," Farley said. "Things are
going so well for us, and for me."
"You have to meet him," Buhl said.
"Because," Buhl said, "it's good for you."
Now as he walked toward the Scion stand, Buhl still didn't know
if Farley would ever consider leaving Toyota. What he did know was
that Jim Farley could sell cars as well as anyone on the planet.
And he was proving it every day. In just two years, Farley had
grown Toyota's new Scion brand, created specifically for younger
buyers, from zero sales in the United States to 100,000 vehicles a
year. His bosses in Japan and in Los Angeles had entrusted him to
somehow make bland and reliable Toyota hip, and he embraced the
challenge. Farley took Scion cars to rock concerts, street festivals, and
college campusesanywhere that Generation Y hung out. He was
constantly on the road, setting up Scion showrooms inside existing
Toyota dealerships, and making them cool, pressure-free boutiques
for these interesting little Japanese cars with funky designs and small
Farley inhabited the job completelyhanging out with twenty-
something trendsetters on the coasts, learning why they chose their
favorite products, from computers to clothes to cars. "You need to
love your customer, feel their joy, understand their pain," he said.
"You have to get so close to them you can smell their breath."
But as sensitive and idealistic as he sounded, Farley had an edge
to him. Other automakers were the enemy vying for the same turf,
and Farley would never give an inch. When he heard that Bob Lutz,
the vice chairman of General Motors, had called the shoebox-shaped
Scion xB "weird-looking," those were fighting words. "I could care
less about Detroit," Farley said. "Give me a break. Detroit got its ass
kicked trying to market to kids."
At the Scion stand, Farley was in his elementchatting up
reporters, showing off the cars, greeting visitors. With a mop of
brown hair flopped over his forehead and wearing a suit that looked
just a size too big, Farley seemed younger than his forty-two years.
He also was having way more fun than the buttoned-down, deadly
serious executives holding court at the other displays. The media
flocked to him, and he rarely disappointed. He was provocative,
blunt, and unafraid to criticize an older generation's view of today's
young consumer. "These kids are not Camaro buyers from the seventies
being reincarnated," he said. "These people are sharp. They have
higher expectations." He said it all with a mischievous smile that
called to mind his late cousin, the comedian Chris Farley of Saturday
Night Live fame. He even sounded like Chris, especially when he
When he saw Buhl walking up, Farley greeted him warmly, like
the old family friend he was. They walked across the convention
floor together and into the busy hallway dominated by a big bronze
statue of the boxer Joe Louis, the embodiment of Motor City muscle.
The second they entered the parking garage, Farley started shivering,
the bitter chill of January in Detroit a reality check for a guy who
lived and worked in Southern California. They hustled to Buhl's car and
headed out onto Michigan Avenue, six lanes of blacktop bisecting some
of the city's bleakest neighborhoods, and into the adjoining community of Dearborn,
the home of the Ford Motor Company.
Farley was quiet as they passed the felafel joints, strip clubs, and
discount stores that lined the wide avenue. In the distance he could
see the belching smokestacks of Ford's famous Rouge assembly complex,
stretching more than a mile long and wide, with dozens of factories,
some dating back to the 1920s. The heavy gray cloud cover
seemed to sit on top of the buildings, and everything looked frozen
solid. I'm from Santa Monica, I work in Torrance, I go to Toyota City
in Japan, Farley said to himself. That's my auto industry. This is just
so . . .old.
Why would he want to meet anybody at Ford? Farley lived and
breathed Toyota. He had loved the company from the day he joined
it fifteen years earlier, when Toyota was an underdog fighting for
respect in the American market. Farley had basically devoted his life
to winning customers away from what he saw as declining, inferior
car makers such as Ford. To Farley, the car business was a highly
refined arena of combat, and he had no doubt he was on the winning
side. "We're the good guys, the ones wearing the white hats,"
he said. Farley believed that Toyota made the safest and most sensible,
affordable, and fuel-efficient cars in the world. Ford was a
dinosaur that lived on an unsustainable diet of gas-guzzling pickup
trucks and monster SUVs. There was no question which company
was growing and which one was fading. In a few days the final numbers
for 2004 would make it official. Toyota had just passed Ford in
global sales and was fast closing in on the number one spot, held for
more than seventy years by the biggest of Detroit's Big Three,
When he agreed to this meeting, Farley had made Buhl promise
that it would be in secret, far from the auto show and certainly not at
Ford's corporate headquarters. It wasn't exactly treasonous for an
up-and-coming Toyota exec to get to know the major players in Detroit
better, and there was no one bigger in Detroit than Bill Ford. But
Farley was a little worried that someone would recognize him and
that word might get back to his colleagues at Toyota.
He relaxed when they arrived at the spot for this clandestine get
togetherthe sprawling $35 million headquarters and training
camp that Bill Ford's father, William Clay Ford Sr., had built for his
beloved Detroit Lions football team in the suburban city of Allen
Park. The Lions were never doing much in January. Their season had
ended weeks earlier, as usual, with a losing record and another year
in which they were shut out of the playoffs. The place was pretty
quiet with all the players gone. At least, Farley thought, no one would
see him here. They walked in the main entrance and checked in at
the desk in front of a wall-size mural of great Lions players of the
past. As they approached the executive offices, Buhl started getting a
little nervous. This was, after all, his idea. Should he just make
introductions and offer to wait outside? He suddenly realized he didn't
know Farley as well as he knew Bill.
Just then, Bill Ford bounded out of his office to greet them.
Farley was immediately struck by how young he wasjust five years
older than himand how animated and friendly. Bill was of average
height and trim like a runner, his custom-tailored blue suit accenting
strikingly blue eyes. He had a way of talking fast, like he couldn't
wait to share an idea or a story. The three of them sat down and, in a
flash, Bill was talking about Fordits history, its people, and how
much it meant to him. "The passion I have for this company is making
people's lives better," he said. "It's up to us, up to me, to look to
Farley just listened as Bill went on about his familywhich had
absolute power over Ford through its special voting stockand its
unwavering commitment to the car business.
"We've definitely taken our lumps, but it's never been about the
financial investment," Bill said. "We're in it for the long term."
Buhl kept eyeing Farley, who seemed transfixed. He could sense
Farley's mind racing, waiting for the right opportunity to jump into
the conversation. When Bill finally asked him about his new Scion
job, Farley was a bit defensive at first.
"You know, I've been with Toyota for fifteen years," he said. "I've
been in marketing and sales in Europe. I was the first product planner
for Lexus. I laid out the whole product plan for Lexus with the
engineering team in Japan."
Now Bill was the attentive one, nodding and asking follow-up
questions and probing for more information. After a few minutes,
Farley felt completely at ease. He had met a lot of auto executives in
his career, but Bill was not like any of them. "It wasn't like he was
happy-go-lucky, but he had a joie de vivre about him," Farley said
later. "He loved certain things."
When the two of them started comparing their favorite classic
cars, in particular the Ford Mustang, Buhl couldn't help but smile.
I've never seen such an instant rapport, he thought. It's just two guys
talking about their passion for automobiles and the business.
The discussion turned to marketing, Farley's specialty, and Bill
made a joke about Ford's latest generic advertising campaign, "Built
for the Road Ahead." Farley had to laugh. He and his Toyota buddies
thought it was one of the lamest ad slogans they'd ever heard.
Then, out of the blue, Bill popped the question. "What would
you do if you were running it?" he asked Farley.
Okay, Farley thought, here's the sales pitch. "Well, I'm not
interested in going to Ford," he said.
Bill acted as if he hadn't heard him.
"You know, I need help," he said softly. "We're looking for
someone who can help."
Farley was taken aback. He wasn't sure he'd heard him right. Bill
Ford was asking for his help? There was vulnerability in his voice, a
raw honesty that Farley hadn't anticipated. He wondered where the
pressure was, the hard sell, the lucrative financial carrot he'd expected
to be dangled to lure him to Ford. But it never came.
The hour passed quickly, and Buhl barely said a word. When
they all got up and shook hands at the end, Bill held his grip with
Farley a little long, then pulled a card from his pocket.
"I think there's a place for you here," he said to Farley. "Here's my
number. Let's stay in touch. I want you to call me. I want you to
know that I'm here whenever you need me."
Buhl did most of the talking on the drive back downtown, hardly
able to contain his enthusiasm over how well it all had gone. But
Farley didn't hear much of it. The words "whenever you need me"
were stuck in his head.
Excerpted from Once Upon a Car by Bill Vlasic Copyright © 2011 by Bill Vlasic. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
An award-winning business reporter with more than fifteen years of experience specializing in the automotive industry, Bill Vlasic is currently the Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times. The coauthor of Taken for a Ride, Vlasic is a winner of the Gerald Loeb Award for excellence in financial journalism and has been recognized for his reporting and investigative journalism by the Associated Press and the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.
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