Vile Gossip: Detroits phoenix will rise, but from which of its car companies?

Detroit’s phoenix will rise, but from which of its car companies?

It would be easy; to just go with Ford. To say: They didn’t take the money. They’ve got the upper hand, the momentum. Market share is growing; share prices are rising. They’ve got Mulally and the others don’t. And, by the way, nyah-nyah

That’s what America has been saying for months; why, even my old aunties in New Orleans and Phoenix know that Ford didn’t take the money: “So, Ford is doing great, right?” They make the same leap of faith as most people, who still think the B-word is a bad thing, at least when it comes to one’s personal finances.

Ah, but the B-word has been bery, bery good to Chrysler and General Motors, buying them time and a benevolent Big Brother to help them do what Mulally did at Ford all by his lonesome. Chrysler showed GM how it could be done, presenting its own salvation, in the form of Fiat, to the government. General Motors (which really does need to lose its toxic name, now that disposed dealers, debt, and all things bad are attached to it) needed a kick start, with the unfortunate Rick Wagoner at the end of President Obama’s shoe. But the General has probably shocked even itself with how fast it slapped the crap out of its corporate culture and stood upright from the ooze.

So. Game on.

Fiat has the cars Chrysler needs. It has the funky 500, now in cabrio and hot-rod Abarth trim, which need only modified doors and bumpers to meet U.S. regulations. They have multiple cool Alfa Romeos, the next generation of which will arrive by 2011. And engines. Boy, have they got engines, and I’m not talking about Ferrari V-8s here. There are a number of mainstream, highly advanced, fuel-efficient, clean, four-cylinder engines that promise to blow away any four-banger efforts from Chrysler or Mitsubishi to date.

But Chrysler is not without its own charms. Last fall, before The Troubles, we said that any potential suitor for Chrysler who might be wringing their hands in despair about the company’s market share and balance sheet need only tour the design studio, where the flame was burning brightly, to see a light in the darkness. Executive editor Joe DeMatio was gaga when he saw the next-generation Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger: “No automaker in the world has come close to designing a mainstream, full-size sedan as beautiful, as stunning, as gorgeous as these two cars,” he reported. “It is unfathomable to me that these would not be brought to market.”

It wouldn’t be surprising to find that these two stunners had some role in Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne’s recent comment that Chrysler’s contribution of mid-size and large car expertise was totally underestimated.

Now, then. If anyone thought it pitiful that the new GM couldn’t come up with someone younger than Bob Lutz – who’s seventy-seven – to run marketing, advertising, brands, and communications, the laugh’s on them. His choice of forty-year-old designer Bryan Nesbitt to run Cadillac is GM’s all-time shocker. The Art Center grad is known as much for his partying ways as for his immense talent and influence at Chevrolet; on everything coming out of GM Europe, where he ran design for three years; and for his recent stint running North America design. This announcement burned up international phone lines among the notoriously cross-pollinated design community.

I called Ford’s advanced design guru, Freeman Thomas, and broke the news. “That’s like Walt Disney running Walt Disney!” he exclaimed.

Just what cagey Lutz had in mind.

“Bryan was selected because we need ‘natural’ marketing people in these jobs,” Lutz told me. “People with intuition, flair, and an innate affinity with, and respect for, the customer. Bryan is exceptional in these areas. He is also a natural leader and a brilliant communicator, one of the rare designers who can make the transition into general management.”

Ford, for its part, has amassed an impressive collection of design superstars, and they’ve had a head start, thanks to Mulally’s brilliant leadership. But the race is far from won.

Let the business press focus on balance sheets and bottom lines. To us, the game is now most assuredly design. We care about the cars, and anyone in Detroit is capable of delivering the next smash hit. You need only look back at what’s transpired in less than one year to know that anything can happen.

Game on, indeed.

By Jean Jennings

Mulally- Roy Ritchie, Nesbitt- A.J. Mueller, Gilles- Courtesy of Chrysler