We only really cared about the paint on the Saudi sedans

Now is the right time to tell you that I’ve been fighting against a gang of supervillains for pretty much my whole life. As far as I can tell, they call themselves the Anti-GSD League Of Evil and they meet either in a secret underwater base or via Facebook Group Chat. Their sole purpose is to stop effective people such as myself from GSD, which is, of course, “getting stuff done.”

I know some of their names—like the dean at Miami University who single-handedly stopped me from staging a sanctioned, AlpineStars-sponsored mountain bike race on campus back in 1992 after I’d gotten all the contracts signed because “we already have enough bicycle stuff here.” Others work behind the scenes somehow, like the unnamed functionary who kept me and Alex Roy at the very last minute from doing the so-called Cannonball in reverse using a 600-horsepower exotic press car. We’d both landed in Los Angeles only to find the car missing. So we borrowed Matt Farah’s “Million Mile Lexus” and drove back to the East Coast, almost dying on the road when I looped said Lexus on an icy mountain road in front of a tractor-trailer that was also out of control. But that’s a story for another time.

The Anti-GSD League has much bigger fish to fry than your humble author, of course. Many years ago, I worked for an automaker which made a highly-regarded sedan in the United States for global consumption. It was a great car, every bit as good as the critics said it was, definitely one of the 10 best vehicles you could get, wink wink. There was just one little problem: the paint on these sedans was complete and utter trash. Not quite “1996 Chrysler clear coat” bad, but not much better.

After many years, my fellow GSD-ers had identified three major issues. First issue: the bumpers and body used different prep stages but the same paint, so the cars left the factory as inadvertent two-tones and only got worse as time went on. Next issue: the “orange peel” of the finish was astoundingly bad below the bumper. The final issue: the paint didn’t last, fading and disintegrating over time.

Problem One was solved on my watch, and I’m personally proud to say that I came up with the final part of that solution. So starting in 2013 we got that right—mostly. We got the cars painted all the same color at the factory. Long-term, there are still some issues. But the Anti-GSD league was pretty strong, and they marshaled a lot of power to keep things just the way they were. They didn’t want us shutting down the line long enough to get it really fixed. They said it would cost more than it was worth. Team GSD pointed out that the cars were sold largely based on perception of quality—in 2012, they were not what you would call handsome—and that it was worth taking whatever time was necessary to get it right. We lost that part of the battle.

Problem Two was brought to our attention because Saudi Arabia started sending the cars back. You see, most of the sedans going to Saudi Arabia were painted gloss white. This shouldn’t have been a problem, because white is absolutely the easiest color to paint a car. Easy to match, easy to lay down, easy to bake. But the Saudi dealers were finding dozens of small flaws on the cars, most of them below the beltline. They didn’t feel that the customers should have to take the sedans, which were not considered premium products in the United States but which sold for premium prices in the Middle East, thanks to various aspects of tariff and taxation.

Why did the cars have paint flaws? Apparently, back when I was just a sprog, there had been a massive battle between the Forces Of GSD and the Anti-GSD League about paint quality below the beltline. Team GSD said that the cars should be painted to a high standard no matter what. The League said that it took too long to dry the extra paint layers that were necessary to get the below-beltline finish correct—and that nobody would notice anyway, because when you look at a car your eyes are somewhere between four and six feet off the ground. It’s tough to paint the bottom half of a car correctly, and the EPA mandate to use environmentally-friendly paints increases the difficulty factor five-fold. It would have taken more time and effort to do it right. Cost a few more bucks, too.

The League won that battle. The bottom half of our cars always looked crummy, but the League said it wouldn’t cost us a single sale. Weren’t people paying their dealers thousands of dollars in extra markup just to be owners, bad paint or no bad paint? For decades it looks like they’d been right —until the white sedans started coming home on container ships. The GSD-ers spotted an opportunity to re-open hostilities. Appeals were made to the C-suite. People screamed at each other in halls from Japan to the Midwest. And all the while the cars were coming back.

We thought we had the upper hand. Finally, we’d get the paint quality we wanted. We even knew how we could do it. We had two kinds of sedan—let’s call them the Friendly and the XYZ—and the XYZ was already using a higher-quality process than the Friendly. All we had to do was paint the Friendlys like the XYZs at the cost of… I don’t know, but it wasn’t much. Maybe two hundred bucks, tops. There would be an extra benefit to this: we could then paint the Friendlys in a bunch of really great, but more expensive, colors.

I swear that Team GSD was on the five-yard-line, but that’s when the League unveiled its most dastardly idea. We will make a special inspection and rectification line just for the Middle East, and we will send the white cars down the special line. A team of employees will buff, correct, and refinish the white cars, using a 270-degree array of fluorescent lights. We don’t sell that many cars over there so it will be fine. 

Any sane person could see that the right thing to do was just to paint all the cars like you gave a heck about them, not just the Saudi cars. But the League said it would take all sorts of time to do that, and there would be all these approvals and delays, and wouldn’t it just be easier to build a whole special paint inspection line? At that point I truly felt like I was seeing the actual face of evil. Yeah, it wasn’t life or death, it was paint quality… but what kind of person comes up with an idea like a special inspection tunnel just to keep us from doing a better job of painting sedans?

I had lunch recently with a fellow who had seen the Anti-GSD League in action elsewhere. About 20 years back, there was a push to do “crystal” or “jewel” headlamps on cars. These headlamps had clear lenses instead of the opaque lenses used up to that point. Instead of using the lens to focus the light, they used the mirrored surface behind and around the bulb.

This man worked for a company that spent millions of dollars on supercomputer time to design a perfect focusing mirror shape. The shape looked smooth to the human eye but it was actually extremely complex. The direct competition didn’t want to spend that money. So it used much less computer time to make a headlight with a bunch of visible facets in the mirror. Then it prepped the salespeople with a line about how the headlights looked like a diamond, instead of the perfect headlight which just looked like a shiny bucket.

Naturally, my fellow was furious about this bit of deception—and wouldn’t you know it, the Anti-GSD League representatives in his company took advantage of this situation and started pushing for cheaper “jewel” headlamps for future models. He decided maybe he’d had enough of the headlight business. Now that computer time is cheap, we apparently use it to make perfect shapes that look like the old flat-facet jewel lamps, because that’s what people expect. They’d been trained to accept the imperfect solution.

When I walk through parking lots I look at the cars I helped paint. I see their flaws instead of their beauty. This was a fight that the good guys lost. It makes me really angry, enough so that I find myself squeezing my nails into my palms. Then I think about all the battles that Team GSD won in the years afterwards. The drivetrains which last hundreds of thousands of miles without much service or attention. The rustproofing which went from “nonexistent” to “you can pay it off before the first rust repair.” (Still a ways to go there, really.) The safety of these cars which have protected so many children and other vulnerable people in collisions because Team GSD made sure we owned our own crash testing facilities and used them to improve the product. I see the sedans with 120,000 or more miles on them and generally they look pretty good.

I also think about the best paint job I ever had on a new car. It was a special and very expensive thing I had made for me. The owner of the company made a big deal about how they painted outside the USA so they could use all the old paint compounds which lasted forever. There wasn’t a hint of orange peel anywhere on the thing. It looked the way I imagine a new Rolls Silver Shadow looked in 1970: no expense spared in material or manpower. I could shave in the reflection of the fenders.

Around the 11,000-mile mark, a weld in the frame failed, nearly putting me and a friend into pine boxes well before our time. We missed a concrete barrier by inches. When I let some of my fellow owners know about this problem, one of them said, “Well, I trust the company. They work so hard on the cars. Look at the paint.” It was a lesson for me: when you’re locked in a life-long war against the Anti-GSD League, you have to pick your battles carefully—and make sure you win the ones that really matter.

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