Marchionne steals a line from Iacocca

Cutting though the din of debating how to save Opel, Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne’s message to the German government was blunt: “If you can find a better deal, take it.”

Now, Marchionne softened this by saying it during an interview with British newsweekly The Economist, but it summed up his pitch for Fiat to take over GM’s European auto operations: Is there a better offer?

Before we proceed: Yes, that phrase did sound familiar. Right down to the cadence, Marchionne sounds like he’s channeling former Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca hawking 1980s K-cars on television: “If you can find a better car, buy it.”

And yes, the parallels go far beyond the Chrysler connection. Two Italian-surname auto CEOs. Each bold, charismatic and dynamic. Each taking over a car company in crisis. Each really good at nursing capital. Each crafting and executing a dramatic rescue. Each with a vision of creating a global auto company.

Iacocca and Marchionne are the kind of guys who are at their best in a crisis. And they sure know how to deliver a line.

But here’s a critical difference. Marchionne has the better line – because he has the better circumstance.

Iacocca’s line sounded bold, but he was simply trying to get folks to consider buying a Chrysler. His dare just came across better than, “Geez, we didn’t go bankrupt, this is better than what we used to make, we’ll make better stuff in the future, so please take a look.” People looked, and enough bought for Chrysler to get the time it needed to invent minivans and turn a profit, so it worked for Iacocca.

Marchionne’s statement works better because it cuts through the clutter to a truth.

There may be no better offer for Opel. GM lost $2 billion in Europe last quarter. And Marchionne’s offer boils down to a willingness to haul away Opel if Germany pays him enough. You can pardon German politicians for dithering. This is nightmare time for an elected politician.

Do nothing and watch the whole thing detonate and trash the national economy. Or bet your career that you give enough taxpayer money for an undercapitalized Italian automaker to keep some part of Opel going. Even if it all works, German politicians will hear from irate voters. You spent my tax money to help Italians take over Opel and fire thousands of Germans?

Some choice, huh?

Of course, the U.S. government just made the same choice on Fiat and Chrysler. The feds looked at what an outright Chrysler failure meant, gulped and agreed to pay Marchionne’s haul-away fee.

It helps when there’s urgency. Don’t think of this as paying some tow-truck guy to remove a junker from your driveway. It’s more like hiring a bomb-squad veteran to defuse the ticking nuclear bomb parked next to your economy.

This isn’t over. It’s just getting started. And Marchionne needs a lot more than a good one-liner to turn this mish-mash of cast-off parts into a coherent automaker.

But if he keeps getting major governments to pay him bomb-defusing fees, Marchionne could end up running the kind of Global Motors Iacocca could only dream of.

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