Ticket to Automotive Hall of Fame: Great ideas, staying power, impact
Staying power. That’s what the four members of the Automotive Hall of Fame class of 2014 have in common.
Oh, and great ideas. Lots of them. Too many to list here.
And influence — a deep and continuing impact on the industry they loved.
Yes, this was a no-brainer class for the guardians of the Hall of Fame — as in richly deserving, indisputable, first-ballot.
On July 24, four will be inducted: Keith Crain, publisher; Ferdinand Piech, engineer and executive; Dave Power, data guru; and Alex Tremulis, designer.
How to measure Keith Crain's standing in the auto industry?
Well, over the past four decades virtually every car company CEO in the world has made it a priority to know the head man at Automotive News -- and to stay in touch. It's how you punch your ticket at the industry's highest levels.
His weekly column is essential reading. His appearance at an auto show attracts a crowd. His opinions are much in demand.
Still, Crain, 73, did not build his reputation by pontificating. He did it by traveling the world and by asking thousands of questions. He has never ceased to be, above all, an endlessly curious reporter.
Crain moved to Detroit in 1971 to become publisher and editorial director of Automotive News when the paper was acquired by his family's company, Crain Communications Inc. He is now chairman of the company and editor-in-chief of Automotive News.
Over the decades, he has grilled hundreds of senior executives and broken some of the biggest stories in the history of the car business. He also has served as one of the industry's toughest critics -- as well as one of its strongest supporters.
His achievements range from breaking the news of Lee Iacocca's firing by Henry Ford II in 1978 to a pivotal role in creating the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in 1989.
And he continues to operate at the nerve center of the industry. His one-on-one interview with outgoing General Motors CEO Dan Akerson at the Automotive News World Congress in January was highly praised and widely covered.
Akerson and other CEOs who came from outside the car business -- including Alan Mulally and Bob Nardelli -- quickly figured out that spending quality time with Crain was essential.
Over the years, his friends have included everyone from Iacocca and Henry Ford II (with whom he once shared a duck blind as a young publisher) to Ralph Nader and Jesse Jackson.
Still, he's never backed away from criticizing an industry leader, though he is always willing to sit down and hash out differences of opinion -- often over long, loquacious dinners.
Crain began attending auto shows big and small in the early 1970s. He went to every auto-producing corner of the world to talk to executives, visit their plants and drive their cars. He eagerly toured r&d centers and design studios.
And he is just as quick to engage a welder on an assembly line or a junior designer or an F&I manager as he is a CEO. He treats them all the same -- always able to talk their language, josh with them and pose the questions they weren't expecting. In that way, he serves the readers of Automotive News.
Crain took what he learned on the road and put it to good use. He set up news bureaus in Europe and Japan and launched Automotive News Europe in 1996.
After walking the floor at dozens of international auto shows he helped transform the regional Detroit auto show into an international extravaganza.
He befriended designers from Italy to Korea and brought their insights to the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, where he has been chairman of the board for more than 20 years.
He remains a leading light in the industry. His influence is far-reaching. But at heart Crain has never ceased to be a news gatherer, the living embodiment of his publication.
Ferdinand Piech might have lived the princely life of a European playboy had he chosen to do so.
Instead, the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche always took the road less traveled. Sometimes literally.
In 1979, while testing an all-wheel-drive system in a disguised Audi 80, Piech and engineer Walter Treser drove up the Stelvio pass between Austria and Italy for winter testing.
Piech, then Audi's r&d chief, spotted two men struggling to attach snow chains to a truck. He stopped and asked the men if he could help.
"When they waved us by," Treser recalled, "he took off at full speed with a big smile -- without snow chains or special winter tires. He left those guys in disbelief that such a humble Audi could drive in such poor snow conditions. He really enjoyed the fun of proving something that way."
He was proving Audi's still-secret Quattro system and he was doing it in a way that was pure Piech.
In the annals of the auto industry, only a handful of individuals -- including Alfred P. Sloan, Henry Ford and Osamu Suzuki -- have held absolute executive power for as long as Piech. His career now spans more than a half-century. He joined the Porsche sports car company in 1963 and quickly assumed a key engineering role in the company founded by his uncle, Ferry Porsche.
Fifty-one years later -- after long tenures as the CEO of first Audi, then Volkswagen Group -- Piech remains at 77 the deeply involved, all-powerful chairman of VW's supervisory board.
Family connections didn't always help. Though he rejuvenated Porsche's racing program in the 1960s, Piech was looking for a job by the time he was 34.
He was cast out of the sports car company after the heads of the Porsche clan -- his uncle, Ferry, and his mother, Louise -- decided in 1971 that no family member should hold an executive position at Porsche.
After a short period at Giorgetto Giugiaro's Italdesign, Piech moved to Audi-NSU in 1972 to head the special projects department. Three years later he was Audi's r&d boss.
A rival executive once said Piech "turned Audi into something that could compete with BMW and Mercedes and in the 1990s kept Volkswagen, from a product point of view, very much the target for other Europeans."
Dave Power, 83, is the godfather of the deeply analytical approach to customer satisfaction that has become the industry standard.
Starting as a consultant in 1968, Power began surveying new-car customers about the quality of their vehicles. He compiled and assessed the data at his kitchen table. Within a few years, the rankings he calculated would be of incalculable importance to carmakers.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business in 1959, Power joined Ford as a financial analyst. Restless in the job, he joined a consultancy that did customer research for various General Motors brands. Brimming with ideas of his own, Power moved through industry and consultant positions before forming his own firm in 1968 in Los Angeles.
J.D. Power and Associates soon won a contract to advise Toyota, which was relaunching in the United States after flopping in this market in the 1950s. Toyota executives asked Dave Power to suggest ways to impress American customers. He came up with two ideas: better braking and improved rust protection. Toyota listened.
Years later, when Power began publishing his customer-satisfaction ratings, Toyota excelled. Consumers noticed and Toyota was on its way.
Alex Tremulis began to impact the way cars look in 1933 when he joined the design team at Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg. More than a half-century later his influence could be seen in a new breed of aerodynamic cars at Ford Motor Co.
Jack Telnack, Ford's styling director in the 1980s, frequently used a Tremulis quote to encourage his team of designers to move away from the boxy, hard-edged cars favored at General Motors.
During his days as a Ford futurist, Tremulis had once asked a conference of designers: "When are all of you going to stop this torture of innocent sheet metal?"
As a 19-year-old at Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg, Tremulis worked on the classic Cord 810 and 812 series, and created a custom Duesenberg roadster. At coachbuilder Briggs-Le Baron, he helped design the Packard Clipper and the 1941 Chrysler "Thunderbolt" concept car -- a pair of vehicles that influenced postwar design.
In 1946, he was asked by Preston Tucker to sketch a radical and innovative car for Tucker's new company. What he came up with was the Tucker 48, sometimes called the Tucker Torpedo. The Tucker company flamed out, but the Torpedo forged a place in automotive history. And it attracted the attention of Ford, which recruited Tremulis for its Advanced Studio.
At Ford in 1957, he was asked to design a car that "he believed we would be driving in the year 2000." Tremulis came up with a clay model called the X-2000, a concept that would be turned into a running prototype in 1999.
Tremulis remained at Ford for more than a decade and showed a propensity for soft edges and a fascination with aerodynamics and space travel. The two-wheel Ford Gyron was a futuristic gyro-car first shown at the 1961 Detroit auto show. The car became the basis for the Gyronaut X1, which set a world speed record.
Tremulis set up his own design firm in 1963. One of his last designs was the Subaru Brat, which was introduced in 1977 and was sold in the United States for the next decade.
He also taught at what is now the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. He died in 1991 at age 77.