Why 2013 Mattered Even More Than You Think

It’s easy to reflect on 2013 and boil it down to the year that started with the new Corvette and ended with the new Mustang. That’s actually a pretty fair assessment of the year that was—product-wise—and 2013 will indeed go down as one of the best years ever for enthusiasts. It was positively glittering. But sports cars aside, 2013 was a seminal time for plenty of other reasons. Here’s three key storylines that will resonate long after the exhaust notes fade.

Tesla’s Power Surge: The California electric car company is the best story in the business—for good and bad—on an ongoing basis. Co-founder and bossman Elon Musk generates headlines seemingly every time he speaks. It’s an awesome soap opera for the press to witness and write about. But the news this year was really the stock price. As of this writing (who knows what it will be by the time you read this) it was hovering around $147 a share. It closed 2012 at $33.87. Wow. Even as I type this, the stock has fluctuated $1.50 or so.

Yes, it’s a gaudy spike in price and shareholder value, but it’s really intriguing for this to happen in the automotive segment. It’s without parallel in recent memory. Stocks in car companies just don’t have wild upswings like that. My guess is Tesla’s success is based not so much on the strength of its products, but its potential as a “technology company.” It’s a label Ford has used to describe itself and its connectivity strategy, but it really applies to Tesla. Yes, Tesla makes electric vehicles. So do plenty of other companies, but Musk has helped elevate them to true status symbols. Hollywood stars clamor for a Tesla like normal people want the newest iPhone. It’s different than what Toyota accomplished with the Prius, though who knows if Tesla will have anywhere near that kind of staying power.

I have no idea what will happen next with Tesla’s stock price, but the fact that it has displayed so much upward movement demonstrates a true energy in the automotive sector.

The Rise of Mary Barra: The first female chief executive of a major automaker probably got as much, if not more attention than the 2014 Stingray or 2015 Mustang. She was on the front page of The New York Times, and all kinds of pundits from both inside and out of the auto world weighed in on the landmark event. This is as big, if not bigger, than it has been portrayed in the media. It’s truly an historic milestone for Detroit and international carmakers.

I briefly met her at a General Motors holiday party last year. Obviously, that’s not enough time to get to know someone. But, she spent far more time talking to this journalist than she needed to, and she seemed truly interested in speaking with the writers. While it’s a watershed moment in the auto industry, I think the breadth of and scope of her experience will make her a success at the helm of GM. Think about this: she’s an engineer by trade who’s led such varied departments as human resources and product development. That takes a lot of different skills and an ability to adapt. I mean, Bob Lutz is a supernatural car guy, but can you imagine him running HR? In this view, Barra’s expertise will steer GM into a new, successful era.

What Happens in China: Auto sales are growing in China, leaping 14 percent to 19.9 million through the first eleven months of 2013. It was a good year. That’s nothing new. China’s auto industry has been on the rise for years, and there’s still plenty of untapped potential for growth. Its success is an on-going storyline. You’ll probably read a column at the end of 2014 talking about another sales jump. The trick for foreign car companies will be to capitalize on the opportunity China presents. Despite its sheer size and sales volume, it’s still a developing market in many respects, with a growing population and infrastructure. Now is the time to judiciously add capacity, develop products that specifically cater to the market, and craft a long-term strategy for expansion. General Motors and Volkswagen are among the early adapters that have made the most of China’s burgeoning market. Their success has reaped a range of benefits and fortified them against downturns in their home markets. How other companies react will be the storyline of 2014 and beyond.

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