BRADFORD WERNLE

Geoff Polites: A passion for cars and for life

Bradford Wernle is a staff reporter at Automotive News.
When I learned that Jaguar-Land Rover boss Geoff Polites had died of cancer at age 60 last week, I felt a twinge of remorse. Sitting on my shelf at home is a book I borrowed from him in 2004 and never got around to returning.

The book, called Sex and Thugs and Rock'n'roll, was a memoir by legendary Australian rocker Billy Thorpe, who led a rowdy blues-rock band called the Aztecs. Polites knew Thorpe and other Aussie rockers. He was a big AC/DC fan, but he didn't confine himself to head-banging music. He told me he also enjoyed the music of the French singer Charles Trenet, who was popular in the 1930s and 1940s.

Love for obscure Australian rock bands was just one of the many enthusiasms I learned I shared with Polites during the course of an hourlong interview at Ford of Europe headquarters beside the River Rhine in Cologne, Germany. Sports and a love of dogs were others. When the interview was over, I felt my reportorial objectivity being swept aside. I really liked the guy. A generous man to his core, he absolutely insisted on lending me the book.

At the time, I was covering Ford of Europe for Automotive News Europe, and Polites had just been named vice president of marketing, sales and service.

His passion for life and for his new job was contagious. No sooner had he arrived in Germany from Australia than he plunged into German lessons and was reading a children's book in German at the time I spoke with him. He was fascinated by Europe's complex, multifaceted car market.

Jaguar-Land Rover boss Geoff Polites, the writer says, cultivated many interests outside the auto industry. Polites died last week in Australia.

Sunny in Cologne

Polites' perpetually sunny disposition seemed out of place in the gray mists of Cologne. He was one of the most likable people I have met in 15 years covering the car business. I liked him so much because, unlike many other car industry executives, he cultivated loads of interests outside the business in which he made a living.

He was a die-hard fan of the Sydney Swans Australian rules football team and also loved cricket. He was an avid reader of history and an intrepid traveler.

During his four-decade career with Ford Motor Co., Polites grew to know the industry from factory floor to showroom floor. He ran Sydney's City Ford dealership for a decade before being named to run Ford Australia. He took that job when morale was low and sales of the Australian Falcon were sagging. It took him just two years to turn that around.

Polites scrapped the kinds of perks that car industry executives take for granted, such as in-house executive lunches, carwashes and refueling service, according to a tribute published in the The Sydney Morning Herald.

"How can our executives know what it's like to live with a car if they're not even putting petrol in it themselves?" he said.

'Chariots of Fire'

I asked Polites who his heroes were. He replied: "Winston Churchill, George Patton, Erwin Rommel, John Walker. The two middle guys I admire (because of) their bias for action and their focus on action and speed. That's the way I like to think I could operate."

John Walker was the New Zealand long-distance runner who ran the most sub-four-minute miles in history — 129 of them, to be precise.

"I'd like to have been able to have run a four-minute mile," Polites told me. Fittingly enough, his favorite movie was Chariots of Fire.

Polites had the sheer rotten luck to learn that he had bowel cancer not long after being named to run Jaguar-Land Rover in 2005. He brushed off repeated entreaties of friends to take it easy and spent hours answering work e-mails during chemotherapy sessions.

In the spirit of his heroes, he battled the disease to a standstill for a while, but the cancer returned with a vengeance earlier this year.

Polites flew to Australia earlier this month to meet his first grandchild, Zoe. But when he arrived, his condition took an immediate turn for the worse. He was hospitalized and never got to see her.

But he did receive one important visitor: his beloved Maltese Shih Tzu dog, Don, named for the great Australian cricket player Don Bradman. Family members brought the dog to the airport and even sneaked him into the hospital.

Polites had left the dog with family members when he moved to Europe in 2004 but had never quite learned to live without his mate.

"I miss him. I really miss him. I can talk to my sons, but I can't talk to the dog. Well, I can talk to him, but he can't talk back," Polites said in a 2007 interview with The Sydney Morning Herald.

We will really miss you, too, Geoff.

You can reach Bradford Wernle at bwernle@autonews.com

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