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Driving it Home

Auto journalist didn't pull punches Add to ...

A decade ago Jerry Flint walked into General Motors' proving ground in Milford, Mich. - at GM's invitation - and proceeded to accuse GM leadership of "ignorance, myopia, negligence -- practically everything but treason," noted Automotive News in a report.

GM's decision-making was a calamity, he said. Killing Oldsmobile was a colossal mistake. Saturn was bungled almost from the start. Why did it take GM so long to introduce four-door pickups? The 1998 labour strike was unnecessary and costly. And how on earth did the Pontiac Aztek ever pass a design review?

GM’s decision-making was a calamity, Jerry Flint said. Killing Oldsmobile was a colossal mistake. Saturn was bungled almost from the start. And how on earth did the Pontiac Aztek (pictured here) ever pass a design review?

I'm going to miss Jerry Flint, even though I knew him only well enough for a passing "hello" at auto shows and various other functions. He died of a stroke at age 79 last weekend, and the auto industry in general and journalism in particular are poorer for it.

Jerry Flint covered the auto industry for 52 years and because he was born in Detroit, he also has great instincts for everything Motor City. He wrote for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Forbes magazine where he was managing editor before retiring in 1996.

His mind was incisive and insightful (working in intelligence in the U.S. Army helped, no doubt) and he never seemed worried about offending anyone in authority. That's a good quality in a journalist. He used those strengths to pen some of the most scathing critiques of the auto industry. And he did it employing a clear, concise writing style that would have made Ernest Hemingway proud.

Consider this excerpt from his last column for Forbes:

"When the latest attacks on the automobile industry began, car lovers got the feeling that their glory days were over. Kiss goodbye fast cars, roaring engines, jackrabbit starts, drifting. All the fun might be lost in the battles against global warming and oil-based energy.

"We would end up driving little putt-putts, maybe even electric putt putts like golf carts, or hybrids as boring as Toyota's Prius, or baby cars like the Smart. And we'd be told to cruise at 55 miles per hour tops for better mileage. What would real men do for excitement?"

Or this tidbit in a column about why Americans don't like small cars:

"Then small cars sometimes aren't that attractive. They may even look cheap. Toyota's Yaris is a perfect example. It's sold around the world, but it's got zero sex appeal here, and the sales numbers, only 2,412 in June, show it."

Or this from a commentary on Ford Motor killing the Mercury brand in the U.S.:

"Kill Mercury?

"Why not? Ford's present management doesn't seem to understand the brand. It's been starved of new product for years, which is why its sales collapsed.

"Some in the company have tried to kill the line for years. The last time the kill order was reversed by William Clay Ford Jr. himself after he fired the company president. Now it seems another death sentence is about to be passed.

"Will Ford Motor Co. be better off without Mercury? No, but it will be smaller."

Jerry Flint knew the auto industry inside and out. Moreover, he was willing to air hard truths and trenchant observations throughout his career. His kind don't come along often and they will grow scarcer still in an age of media consolidation - where technology allows the same story based on the same research to be delivered over multiple media platforms, all with an eye to maximizing profits and minimizing costs.

That's not the kind of journalism Jerry Flint practised and that's why we all should be sorry to say good-bye to him - especially those in the auto industry who benefited from his work even as they suffered from the sharpness of his pen.

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