Smithology: Scout Walliser Duratrash, and other thoughts
Greetings and welcome! Today’s Smithology is a divergence from the usual. It’s also quite long, so thank you for the patience.
I was standing in the shower this morning and thinking about the car business. Said thinking was prompted by three separate events:
1. Volkswagen announced last week that it plans to produce an off-road vehicle under the Scout badge, as in International Scout. Recall that the VW Group owns a company called Traton, which bought Navistar International in 2021. Navistar owns the intellectual property once owned by International Harvester, so VW now owns all the IH trademarks. Whether the new vehicle will in fact be a “true” Scout depends on your definition of “Scout,” and “true,” and “possible history-mining cynical cash grab.”
2. Ford CEO Jim Farley and GM CEO Mary Barra were recently each the subject of a feature story in the New York Times. One and two. Two stories, two Detroit executives, each person discussing the challenge of changing the course of a massive carmaker while fighting more nimble competition. And tradition.
3. Several nights ago, while relaxing on my couch and investigating the quality control of a large bag of Haribo Star-Mix, I stumbled onto an advertorial interview with BMW’s design chief. You may recall that the German sport-sedan giant recently rejiggered its entire design language. Depending on perspective, the result is either a forward-thinking bold move or a cross between tasteless enthusiast trolling and what the internet calls a shitpost. In the interview in question, the designer said, “good design isn’t about pretty or ugly.” (I happen to think the company’s new look is try-hard tacky, but there’s no accounting for taste.)
The thoughts that follow are broken into three sections. Those sections are not a reaction to the above so much as a swirling gyre of acknowledgment that change is weird as hell. You can’t go home again. Car companies shift and move and refine their identities, same as people. These shifts can present as cynical fraudulence, or the work of what Peter “Autoextremist” DeLorenzo calls “the true believers,” or somewhere in between. How we react says a lot about us; personally, I take a great deal of issue with the behavior of several carmakers you probably know and love, but professionally, I try to look at their work through a cold lens.
Except when I don’t, because I love cars and driving and people and design and clear eyes full hearts can’t lose. And because a Volkswagen Scout seems cringeworthy for reasons I can’t quite explain or justify.
All I kept thinking, among the suds this morning, is that you have to find some joy in the madness, and in the notion that change is both perpetual and often inscrutable. You can rage against the dying of lights or drink the Kool-Aid, but in the end, stasis is generally poison. The key is to keep laughing—even if only at yourself.
ONE: Driving $10 Million of Electric Racing Porsche
Last fall, while on assignment at the Los Angeles auto show, I drove the Porsche Mission R for another outlet. This is not something most people, even most journalists, get to do. The Mission R is a prototype, what Porsche calls an “investigation” into the feasibility of a one-make electric racing series. The car is constructed of various composites and a stack of factory 911 race-car (RSR) parts, and it produces 1073 hp.
Engineers told me that the car cost around $10 million. I tried it on the track at Porsche’s Los Angeles Experience Center, in a HANS device and full Nomex. Participation required either a racing license or extensive experience testing competition iron; I’m lucky enough to possess both. More to the point, the Mission R is really a foreshadow for the next 718 Cayman, due in 2025 as an EV.
An electric Cayman may or may not fit your image of Porsche; what’s important is how that car fits Porsche’s image of itself.
Spend enough time in this business, cars and badges can feel like family. Family earns certain treatment: you make fun of them, you learn from them, you ask them questions. At some point, if you’re paying enough attention, you also realize that they really do mean well, except on the few occasions where they don’t.
It is a strange thing, being a person into cars while reporting on the industry. You strive for objectivity but also hope you never reach it, largely because cars and driving prompt emotion by nature. You get attached to ideas and periods of time that align with your beliefs or passions. (Ask anyone at this institution how they feel about the 1960s. The answers will not be identical, but they will be passionate.)
What do you do with an electric Porsche race prototype? A device aimed equally at emotion and hard numbers? Same as with a Ford Mustang SUV or a Toyota Supra built by BMW: You consider reality as clinically as you can, and then you set that aside and chew on how the thing feels. This inevitably collides with what you feel like a given car company “owes” its customers. Or its fans, or the lucky folks in the Venn overlap between the two.
The truth, of course, is that these companies do not owe us anything other than what the law stipulates. (Safety, a minimum of carcinogens, and so on.) And yet it is possible to get so emotionally tied to a certain reality that it seems as if a giant corporation should listen to your feelings.
I think a lot these days on the history of Ducati. That company has built and depended upon a version of a widely loved engine since my father was in high school. That engine is currently in the sunset of its years, to the point where motorcycle people raise eyebrows pondering what Ducati will be without it. Do most of those people consider that the great marque existed long before that engine, or that the engine’s designer, Fabio Taglioni, was simply inventing from whole cloth a device to help keep his company solvent?
The meta version of the story: Road & Track’s Peter Egan is generally held up as one of the world’s most talented automotive writers. When I joined the R&T staff in 2012, we got letters saying that no one in the building could hold a candle to Egan’s work. And yet, the first time I met Peter, he told me that, when he started, they got bags of letters saying how he wasn’t fit to shine the shoes of the magazine’s contemporary humorist, Henry Manney.
It is so easy to grow attached to certain ideas. To give them weight without context. Humanity can be an awfully forgetful steward of history.
Side note: The Mission R was a damn riot. So that’s encouraging.
TWO: A Chat With Porsche’s Sports-Car Chief
Second chapter: A short while after that Mission R drive, I had a chance to speak with Frank Walliser, Porsche’s chief of sports-car development.
The following is an excerpt from that discussion, edited for clarity. Walliser is an interesting and complex man who happens to be hugely passionate about his work. Before running Stuttgart’s sports-car division, he was director of Porsche’s motorsport efforts. Several years ago, during a press conference in the run-up to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, I stood 20 yards away as he broke down in tears trackside.
In Los Angeles, we discussed the difficulty of making anything emotionally worthwhile in the modern car market—but also how you work to distinguish your efforts in a world where homogeneity is too often the most profitable answer.
SAM SMITH: When a brand orbits on a certain form of feedback—a specific sound, vibration, and so on—and those sensations go away, how do you reinvent what your cars mean without losing the center?
FRANK WALLISER: We talk a lot about harming the brand, pushing the brand. But times are changing. And you all remember when we sacrificed air-cooling—doubling sales numbers, by the way, over the years!
We have different paths. The 911 will stay combustion-engine as long as possible. Maybe the 718 is quicker on electrification. Offering both variants, like having a combustion engine and a battery-electric vehicle in, for example, the 718, this does not really make sense. Because I expect a clear statement.
Weight is crucial. We are always talking battery weight. And then for sure you have a defined voltage. By that you have a defined number of cells. You have to make the right choice in the energy content. Power is for sure not a problem. The biggest problem, cooling, is an issue. How do you make the package … as light as possible?
I know everybody’s asking for a 1200-kilogram sports car. I very often say this does not exist any more, those times are gone.
SS: Cars get heavier every year, EVs especially. Do you see this as the raising of a waterline that will eventually recede, or is it just the new floor?
FW: It’s the new floor. From a certain level, it will not come down. For me, it’s the question, when we can be with the electric car in the same league as a full-spec-technology combustion engine. We are coming closer, and when we are very close, then it’s the right point. But an electric car with the weight of the Cayman GT4? I do not really see that.
Without spending tons of euros and carbon-fiber, magnesium, titanium. That’s different, but I’m talking normal technology.
SS: Would it ever make sense to give up weight—to sacrifice range and power—for involvement? Say, make an enthusiast model, a premium product, where you’re paying for focus and feedback, not speed?
FW: Could be. But why did the screen of your iPhone get bigger, and the battery larger, and the computer more storage?
SS: But you can’t go up indefinitely. Roads aren’t getting wider, speed limits aren’t going up.
FW: I won’t deny, it’s very nice thinking that I really like. And honestly, we scribble cars like this down sometimes, and we say, It should look like this … how much energy can we collect by braking, and then the battery’s smaller, how does that work?
Will the world go in this direction? Is there a market big enough? It’s like, a Lotus Elise … do you really need more? Very nice. How big is the market? Very small.
Enthusiasts, in the moment when you have to make the decision to [actually] buy the car, [that decision] changes tremendously. I go for full leather interior, I take the extra air-conditioner … I like the idea [of smaller and lighter], don’t get me wrong! I would like to have such a car. Also to have it in the model line, in the range. But I also know the realities of the market.
SS: There are so many factors at work. Building cars is so often written off as so simple.
FW: Regulations change quick. The biggest challenge for us is to fulfill all these regulations and still make a proper sports car. This is our main driver. And we have these boundary conditions that don’t make it easier.
We have to protect our sports-car feeling. This is the challenge.
THREE: A Bunch of Dumb Jokes
Last but not least: A while back, I found myself discussing the industry with Hagerty’s digital edit staff. Naturally, because our digital staff is a loose collective of bright-eyed loons, the conversation descended into a series of corny one-liners regarding notable carmakers.
I have reproduced a selection of those jokes here, mostly because I can. This website make no promises as to their accuracy or humor. Imagine them in the voice of each company, complete with comically bad accent impressions where appropriate. Feel free to add your own joke efforts in the comments.
Ferrari: We sell sports cars to finance racing. No SUVs, never.
World: Hey, we mostly like trucks now.
Ferrari: Did you know that we have mummified Enzo’s office in the “farmhouse” at Fiorano? That Enzo himself famously called Bentleys “the fastest trucks in Europe?” Our hearts are lightness and focus. Luca di Montezemolo once said that—
World: TRUCKS TRUCKS TRUUUUUUUUCKS [entire planet collectively hyperventilates and passes out]
Ferrari: Le sigh.
BMW, for years: M cars should not be all-wheel drive! Or turbocharged! No SUV will wear an M badge! Manual transmissions are key to driver involvement! Subtlety!
BMW, now: Pretty and ugly don’t matter.
Maserati: We exist! Please clap.
Chevrolet: You want a mid-engine Corvette? Been asking for decades? Fine. Have it and shut up already. Anybody want to talk about the Chevy Bolt? What if we put a supercharged V-8 in a $150,000 Cadillac SUV? Can we talk about the Bolt then? No? Nobody?
Toyota: The guy in charge of updating the Tacoma retired in 2011, but due to a clerical error, we’ve only now learned that he’s no longer with us.
Mini: We! Are! Having! So much! Fun! You just can’t! Tell! From all! The tears!
Ford: WHAT’S THAT?
Ford: YOU SAY WE … WE CAN’T CALL A DERPY-LOOKING EV A MUSTANG?
Ford: WHY WOULD WE—
Ford: HOLD ON, HOLD ON. SORRY FOR ALL THE YELLING. CAN’T HEAR YOU OVER THE SOUND OF THE … I MEAN … THIS THING IS REALLY HARD TO TURN OFF, YOU KNOW?
Ford: WHAT’S THAT?
Ford: OH, THIS IS JUST THE F-150 MONEY PRINTER. IT SEEMS TO BE STUCK ON. REALLY NOISY. ACTUALLY, COME TO THINK OF IT, YOU MIND IF WE JUST KEEP YELLING?
Mitsubishi: Hi! We’re Mitsubishi! Wait, come back!
Tesla: Elon wants you to buy stock. Elon says you should pay for this four-figure option that you cannot have until we invent it, which is at least ten years off, if ever. Nobody would let Ford get away with this crap, but Ford is lamestream and so are you. Elon says our next car is an actual meme, just a printout of a gif with wheels. Elon says order now or Joe Rogan will doxx you.
Volkswagen Group: Wait who said Dieselgate no one said Dieselgate look over there [Points into distance, then turns, runs away]
Buick: Just three cars, all SUVs. Eat your heart out, Mercur—wait, what do you mean they “went out of business?”
Porsche: That will be $1400, please.
You, answering the doorbell in the middle of the night: Huh? For what?
Porsche: Purple seat belts. Didn’t you want the optional Porsche Exclusive thread-to-sample purple belts?
You: Uh … no?
Porsche: [Checks notes] Are you not John Doe, of 4504 Cayucas Way, Albuquerque, New Mexico? Did you not, for five minutes on the third Wednesday of last September, briefly consider ordering a new Cayenne GTS Turbo S Weissach Carrera 4 Fuhrmann RSR 918 Sportomatic Jacky Ickx Edition? A consideration we were informed of through Google records, satellite reconnaissance, and Facebook scrape?
You: How did you get in my house?
Porsche: [Checks notes again] Are you sure? Our urinalysis people say you’re the guy.
Porsche: Look, what if we just bill you the $1400 anyway? Nobody’s getting hurt here.
You: That’s ridiculous! I’m getting hurt! I don’t have $1400!
Porsche: We’re the most valuable luxury brand on earth.
You: I mean, I guess? The 911 is pretty cool. When did it get so big and fat, though?
Porsche: NEXT IN LINE, PLEASE KEEP MOVING, PEOPLE, THE CASHIER DOES NOT HAVE ALL DAY
Alfa Romeo: Your local Fiat-Alfa Romeo dealer is now closed, and we apologize for the inconvenience. Please drive to Pittsburgh for the recalls—ahem—I mean oil change—required by your new Giulia.
Giulia Owner: Pittsburgh? That’s the nearest Alfa store? Did you really axe everything closer?
Alfa Romeo: No. There’s one in Indianapolis. We just like watching you suffer.
Jeep: What if we made a Wrangler the size of the Large Hadron Collider? A V-16 hybrid EV radial turbo … compound? With, say, a pickup bed, and eight doors, and a hot-dog cart on the rear bumper, and a frunk, and drag slicks, and … uh … Dua Lipa, and … whatever else kids like these days, you know? We launch the whole thing at the Moab McDonald’s! Just spitballing here, but everything else has worked, right?
Hyundai: So then I said, “We’re basically trying to build great cars that last and are fun to drive,” and the Bavarian guy laughed! Can you believe it?
Lexus: Ladies! Gentlemen! Stockholders! Good news! This 2007 customer survey says trackpads are in.
Infiniti: Doctor, it’s like I don’t even know who I am any more. Everything feels pointless.
Doctor: Mr. Ghosn, for the last time, I cannot hear you from inside the instrument case.
Mercedes-Benz: The best, or a G-Wagen full of Kardashians. That’s it. That’s the tweet.
Acura: Remember that time we made a car whose name you actually remembered?
Dodge: Remember when everyone said we were real dumb for wanting to put the Hellcat motor in everything we make? [Drops mic, makes out with your sister]
Hummer: See, electric means it’s efficient.
World: Right, but you’re literally building a 9000-pound EV.
World: You don’t see a problem with that?
Hummer: Hypothetically, would you see a problem with me and Fat Tony here breaking your legs?
World: Uh …
Hummer: There will also be a Hooters edition.
Jaguar: [E-TYPE FILE NOT FOUND]
Lamborghini: [FILE CURRENTLY OFF LEERING AT SOMEONE FROM BEHIND A GOLD-CHAIN NECKLACE]
Land Rover: [FILE QUIETLY HOPING YOU DO NOT ASK ABOUT YOUR FRIEND’S OLD DISCOVERY THAT SOMEHOW MANAGED TO EAT THREE REAR AXLES BEFORE 30,000 MILES]
Lincoln: Oh, thank God for SUVs. You think anyone was actually buying the MKZ?
Lotus: Simplify and add lightness. Except when the market says you’re screwed if you don’t get with the program and pull a Lincoln.
Mazda: The passionate budget transport solutions that Zoom-Zoom people want. Everyone else? Please stop buying Hondas.
Ram Trucks: Number two in pickup sales, number one in the hearts of people who actually work on things and know why you want a Cummins. Eyyyy, amirite? Get stuffed, Powerjoke! Pound sand, Duratrash! San Dimas High School football rules!