The Chevy Volt went out of production last week so it’s a good time for a belated apology to the extended-range hybrid electric car. he Volt actually was built and sold by General Motors. The cars I was paid to promote contained similar technology, but were as real as testimony by Paul Manafort.
Here’s how it went down. For 11 years I was the head of electronic communication at the various permutations of DaimlerChrysler, Chrysler Group LLC, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. My duties covered video, our media website, social media and broadcast media. It was my actions under that last area of responsibility that leads to this mea culpa.
In 2008, when our company was caught in the gates of hell under ownership of corporate slumlords Cerberus Capital Management and on a straight path to bankruptcy, it came up with a trio of extended-range and electric vehicles. They were known as the ENVI vehicles. ENVIronment…get it?
One was a sporty Dodge built on a Lotus body, one was based on a Chrysler Town and Country minivan, another used an extended version of a Jeep Wrangler. Cool, huh?
One was a sporty Dodge built on a Lotus body, one was based on a Chrysler Town and Country minivan, another used an extended version of a Jeep Wrangler. Cool, huh?One was a sporty Dodge built on a Lotus body, one was based on a Chrysler Town and Country minivan, another used an extended version of a Jeep Wrangler. Cool, huh?One was a sporty Dodge built on a Lotus body, one was based on a Chrysler Town and Country minivan, another used an extended version of a Jeep Wrangler. Cool, huh?One was a sporty Dodge built on a Lotus body, one was based on a Chrysler Town and Country minivan, another used an extended version of a Jeep Wrangler. Cool, huh?One was a sporty Dodge built on a Lotus body, one was based on a Chrysler Town and Country minivan, another used an extended version of a Jeep Wrangler. Cool, huh?One was a sporty Dodge built on a Lotus body, one was based on a Chrysler Town and Country minivan, another used an extended version of a Jeep Wrangler. Cool, huh?
We staged a big unveiling of the vehicles in front of Chrysler World Headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., live on CNBC, followed by a news conference and ride/drive opportunity for the media on our test track.
It was a major deal and the press dutifully reported the company’s stated intentions to put at least one of these on the road by 2010.
My team and I even trekked to SoCal where we were hoping to stoke the “green” media out there with our environmentally friendly “production intent” vehicles–staging a dog and pony at the Rose Bowl parking lot, which included a series of drag races between the Dodge ENVI car and a Dodge Challenger. The electric Dodge won every time.
From there we schlepped the cars to Irvine for the weekly Cars and Coffee event, then up to a Huntington Beach dealership for further fawning. I produced two video features on the attendees at both going gaga over the green vehicles. Apologies on the quality of the videos. They were shot on tiny digital videotapes and have deteriorated over time.
At some point I get a call when I’m back in Michigan from a contact at NBC. I won’t name the person because that person is still working. The contact says, “hey, we’re gonna have the Chevy Volt on the Today Show day after tomorrow out on the plaza. If you can get that sporty Dodge ENVI car here I can probably get it on the show too. I hate for the Volt to have the spot to itself.”
I make the calls to the people who can make it happen….and it does! Next thing I know I’m off to NYC to manage the Dodge EV’s appearance. By that time we were calling it the Dodge Circuit.
Sure enough, Circuit is sitting next to the Volt on the plaza. Matt Lauer comes out to do the spot with CNBC’s auto beat reporter Phil LeBeau. The Circuit is bright yellow/orange. The Volt is a darker green. Phil explains both vehicles to Lauer and everything’s going well. I’m standing next to the PR guy from GM and we’re both happy. Then, as the spot is about to wrap up, Lauer makes some comment about how cool the Dodge Circuit is and that’s the one he’d want! The GM guy’s face drops. I’m smiling because I know neither Lauer, nor anyone else in the world will ever be able to have a Circuit or any of the ENVI vehicles because, well, it’s all bullshit. The chances of any of them actually being produced and sold to consumers was roughly the same as the Unabomber’s shot at parole, but they sure made a good case to Congress and the American people that the company was right on the leading edge of new technology, and therefore worthy of financial help from the taxpayers.
The gang back home watching was ecstatic and, I have to admit, I was too, initially. But once the company finally announced the ENVI program was being killed, and therefore exposed as the vaporware it really was, I felt a bit guilty that, for a moment on network TV, we fooled some folks that what we were doing was real while the innovative Volt was actually being built and sold to consumers. I always wondered if Lauer, now himself exposed for being a creep, would have preferred the Volt if it was painted in a brighter, more exciting color, since that seemed to be his deciding factor.
In all honesty, the whole episode was quickly forgotten. I only bring it up to clear my conscience and tip my hat to Karma. Long after ENVI and Lauer were both shitcanned, the innovative Volt was the last thing rolling.
Today, May 7, is the 20th anniversary of the announcement of the engagement that would lead to a wedding, and ultimately divorce in one of the worst corporate marriages in history.
At the time, I was the Detroit Bureau Chief and correspondent for CNN, so this was a big story for me to cover. I had no idea that nine years later I would be caught in the middle of the stormy split as a DaimlerChrysler employee. Indeed, disastrous corporate tieups seem to follow me.
The first was the 2001 merger of CNN parent company Time Warner with AOL. The result was laying off about a thousand CNN employees and shutting down bureaus. That’s how I lost my job there after 20 years of service.
I found my way to the print world, first as national auto reporter for the Associated Press, then General Motors beat writer for the Detroit News. Three years into that stint, I got a call that the head of PR for the Chrysler half of DaimlerChrysler was looking to start a media-oriented blog and wanted an auto writer to ghost write and manage it. Sold. Cool job. That job later was broadened to heading the company’s digital communications team, which included broadcast and social media.
Fast forward to October, 2006. Plans were being made for DaimlerChrysler’s annual global news conference. This was always held at the company’s Stuttgart, Germany headquarters, but they were going to “trust” us to pull it off at Chrysler Group HQ in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Two members of the Daimler PR staff flew over to meet with us to start the communications planning. We knew things were off to a bad start when we were told the date chosen was Feb. 14, 2007 and that all communications with the media would be by fax. One of the announcements planned included plant closings and layoffs. We warned our German counterparts such an announcement on Feb. 14th would lead to headlines blaring, “Valentine’s Day Massacre!” They were unmoved. We also explained no one used fax machines anymore, but they remained steadfast insisting that’s how they did it in Germany. We suggested the use of fax machines was effective in guaranteeing no one would show up. Tough scheiss.
Planning went along and on the appointed day I showed up at 4 a.m. to help direct the broadcast satellite and microwave trucks where to park and to help the crews set up. The first truck had barely arrived when I got a call from a reporter who could barely contain himself as he asked, “Hey! What’s going on. German publication Handelsblatt just reported they’re gonna announce they’re selling you guys off. Comment?” I was totally blindsided. We had heard not a word. I called my boss who at first stammered then promised some sort of statement shortly. It was not shortly. By then my phone was ringing off the hook asking about the Handlesblatt report. When I finally received the statement it was a non-committal corporate collection of words that didn’t completely spill the beans, but didn’t deny the reports. Things quickly got out of control. Now we had two disasters. An impending announcement of plant closings and layoff AND, with regard to the possible offloading of Chrysler, in the eventual words of DCX Chairman and CEO Dieter Zetsche, “all options are open.” Easily decipherable code for, “we’re ditching the Americans. Divorce is in the air.” Yes, it was a Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Ironically, only a few weeks prior, the company decided we Americans should learn to speak German and contracted with a local outfit to hold classes in our offices. After being told the marriage was headed for splittsville we all declared, “aufwiedersehen!” to the classes. When the poor teacher showed up to find an empty room, one of us gently informed him of the news and our last German lesson was how to say “that sucks.”
Truthfully, we were relieved knowing within some period of time we’d be out from under the thumbs of the German management, but would miss many of our German colleagues who became good friends. We had no idea our new owners, Cerberus, would be an even bigger disaster.