JUST HANGING WITH JAMES GARNER, CARROLL SHELBY AND PARNELLI JONES ONE NIGHT AT LOS ANGELES' PETERSEN AUTOMOTIVE MUSEUM
Written February, 2003, for Gannett Newspapers
Buick. Chevrolet. Oldsmobile. Ford. Rolls-Royce. Toyota. Peugeot. Chrysler. Honda. Mercedes-Benz. Bentley.
And there are more. All great car companies bearing the names of their founders or important figures in their history.
Why doesn’t that happen anymore? A social event we attended in Los Angeles recently got me thinking about it.
We were visiting the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. The gala that evening was a tribute to a short-lived race team which was owned by actor James Garner, organized in the late 1960s after he filmed the feature movie “Grand Prix”, which, along with Steve McQueen’s “LeMans”, are considered the two best racing movies of all time.
In “Grand Prix”, Garner portrayed an American racer driving for a Japanese car company just getting started in Formula 1, or Grand Prix, racing. The story was borrowed from the true-life exploits of American F1 racer Richie Ginther and his association with the (at that time) fledgling Honda F1 race team. Yves Montand played another F1 driver, Toshiro Mifune’s character (Mifune his first big English-speaking movie) was modeled after the founder Honda, and Eva Marie Saint played the always-necessary “love interest” shared between Garner and Montand.
Also in the film were race drivers Richie Ginther, Bob Bondurant, Jim Clark, Bruce McLaren, American F1 World Champion Phil Hill and Brit racer Graham Hill, “Black Jack” Brabham and Dan Gurney. The 1966 movie, directed by John Frankenheimer, contains some of the most fantastic racing scenes ever recorded, featuring all the drivers mentioned above in their F1 race cars of the time.
Garner was at the Petersen Museum event, and there was a showing of a 1969 documentary produced and starring Garner called “The Racing Scene”, which was directed by Andy Sidaris, who headed up ABC-TV’s “Wide World of Sports” racing coverage for many years. Sidaris spoke at the event and introduced the film, which chronicled Garner’s road racing and more successful off-road exploits.
We spoke with Garner and also with Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones and legendary racer/race car builder/promoter Carroll Shelby.
It’s all fine and well to speak with some of the past stars and heroes of the automotive world, but when it comes to accomplishing some of the feats these men did (and there were, unfortunately, not many women in the auto business at that time), who are the future great stars? Where are the Shelby’s, Jones’s, Iacocca’s and DeLorean’s, even the James Garner’s, of tomorrow?
The sad truth is, they are few and far between.
Today’s worldwide auto industry is one of committees and stockholders, not individuals. Carroll Shelby told me years ago that what he had accomplished would never be done again, simply because no one person or even medium-sized company has the money and equipment to develop a vehicle from scratch. Even if they did, the costs involved with building and then crash-testing test cars or trucks and then meeting the safety, fuel and emissions requirements of countries around the world is prohibitive for any company except the largest.
Think about it….when was the last time anyone started a car company under their own name? There have been a few sporadic attempts over the years, and the DeLorean project got a lot of press because of the overall fiasco it turned out to be (all that interest about a not-very-good car), but today’s automotive all-stars tend to be people like Carlos Ghosn, the head of Renault, which bought Nissan a few years ago and has managed to turn the company into a money-maker.
One of the last of the “old-timers” still working in the business is 72 year old Bob Lutz, now essentially in charge of cars and trucks for General Motors in North America. Lutz, when he was a top executive at Chrysler, before Daimler took them over, gave the go-ahead for wildly successful and sexy projects like the Viper, Prowler and PT Cruiser. A former Marine fighter pilot who collects, restores and flies European fighter jets as a hobby, is just about the final executive at a major car company who has the authority to make far-ranging decisions and is willing to live with their consequences.
(Interesting aside: The “merger of equals” which Daimler claimed their relationship with Chrysler would be when they bought-out the perennially-struggling automaker a few years has turned into anything but that. In fact, on the new-look DaimlerChrysler Board of Directors, there is but a single American left. Daimler, a notoriously conservative company, now loses almost any American-style zest it may have had. One executive once told me that “casual day” at Daimler in Germany meant taking your suit jacket off during lunch.)
The auto world moved more and more towards being run by “the bean counters” in the late 1960s, when government regulations and the prospect of oil shortages hit the industry hard. Suddenly, egos were out the door (one of the prime reasons DeLorean never became president of General Motors), and executives not taking responsibility became an art form. A degree from the Wharton School of Business is now a ticket to the top of the management heap at any car company worldwide, where in the past an engineer, stylist, race car driver or slick promoter could carry a car from concept to production.
Another prime reason for this sad bureaucratic state of affairs is the sheer complexity of modern cars and trucks themselves. No one person, companies believe, can master all the knowledge necessary to bring a project to market, and therefore a committee-upon-committee system is used to create today’s vehicles. And you know the old joke about a camel being a horse designed by a committee. Think about that the next time you see, say, a Pontiac Aztek!
If Bob Lutz achieves a great degree of success at GM, perhaps the pendulum will swing back towards the power of the individual in the automotive world. But the days of John DeLorean meeting casually Saturday mornings with his engineering staff at Pontiac, taking a 389 cubic inch engine from their big Bonneville and putting it into their small LeMans and calling it a GTO, and doing it all on a lark, as sort of a “neat idea at the time”, well, those days are over.
It’s a shame, too, as I am sure we can all agree. What we can do now is learn about our automotive history, appreciate the characters who populated it and turned it into the greatest and most important industrial movement the world has ever seen. And if we’re lucky enough, sometimes sit at the feet of those who had a hand in it, as we did recently at the Petersen Museum, and --- just listen.