Taycans, Teslas, player-haters, and tall poppies
It was, to be charitable, a perfect storm of idiocy, credulity, and mercenary pragmatism. The automotive media’s reaction to the Porsche Taycan was little short of what you’d expect should someone find a universal cure for cancer. I saw the best(-ish) minds of my generation destroyed by eagerness for overseas press trips, pounding hashtags breathlessly into refurbished iPhones, pushing online thesauri to the limit, sweating in a doomed effort to counteract the antibiotic resistance their readers had already built up over tiresome years of hyperbole to the degraded word AMAZING!
Nobody’s driven the electric Porsche yet—not much, anyway, and certainly not without adult supervision. Yet we have already been assured that the Taycan will be the perfect automobile. #MissionEcomplished, am I right? This 5200-pound-plus vehicle—that’s a ‘76 Fleetwood Brougham, for those of you who have never run a vinyl-roofed C-body across a CAT scale in the upper Midwest—will surely break the laws of physics to provide the best driving experience ever. The term “sports car,” only recently recovered from having been bent, folded, spindled, and mutilated into describing everything from the Mustang GT350 to the Bugatti Chiron, is now having its seams violently burst as the Twitterati attempt to pull it over a car that resembles a Silver Shadow more than it does an MG TC.
All of this can be forgiven, I suppose. The auto media is notorious for tongue-kissing the rings of highline auto manufacturers early and often, largely because to do otherwise is to court disaster in the form of future disinvitation from new-car drives and long-term loans. We have a long history of saying good things about bad cars, particularly when those bad cars are expensive. The worst thing that happens is that you get to poke fun at yourself in retrospective, like the car magazine that lampoons its previous support for the Chevrolet Citation while glossing over the fact that NHTSA had documented at least 18 unnecessary fatalities related to rear-wheel lockup in that car’s early production.
What I find a bit harder to forgive: the inexplicable desire on the part of various American auto bloggers and self-anointed industry experts to see the Taycan “destroy” and “humiliate” Tesla. Some of this is related to the so-called “TESLAQ” group, those people who are short-selling Tesla and who are eager to see the company fail, but the same sentiments are shared by people who do not stand to profit in any fashion from a Tesla bankruptcy and/or closure. They just want Tesla, and its founder, to be humbled by any means necessary.
I can certainly understand having some animosity towards electric cars. It’s easy to become frustrated with the coastal chattering classes whose attitude towards American drivers on this subject can verge on the Antoinette-esque: “The Model S P100D works perfectly for my three-mile commute to Brayden and Jayden’s private school in San Jose, and it only costs me $25,000 a year to own and operate! Why can’t veterinarians in rural Montana use one? Why don’t I see the whole parking lot at my local Arby’s filled with Model 3s? Can’t the minimum-wage crowd understand that a Tesla is very affordable once you calculate in all the free energy from your 500-square-meter rooftop solar array on the cabana next to your guest house?”
This eagerness for Porsche to displace Tesla as a purveyor of expensive electrics to the one percent, on the other hand, confounds me. Or at least it did, until I happened to read the results of a scientific study regarding success and jealousy. The study gave people two scenarios and asked which one they’d prefer. In Scenario A, you were given $250,000 and everyone else in your immediate circle of friends was given $25,000. In Scenario B, you got a million bucks—but your friends all got 10 million.
Any sane person would choose Scenario B, right? Who cares what your friends have if you’ve just had your financial dreams come true? In practice, however, people chose Scenario A. They were far more worried about their relative financial position, as opposed to their absolute one. In particular, they were more than willing to forfeit $750,000 of extra money if it meant that their friends would each forfeit $9,975,000.
This odd human desire plays out in all sorts of other ways, many of which cannot be adequately described in this family-oriented publication. American culture has internalized it as “player-hating”; you see your friend in a new Ferrari and you’re quick to point out that it’s the wrong color, or the wrong transmission. More broadly, it’s called “tall poppy syndrome.” We resent the success of others, and the closer we are to them, the more we resent it.
The converse of this is that we rarely think too much on the success of distant people. I was in Singapore a few weeks ago and I happened to see “Superyacht A” in the harbor. The owner of Superyacht A, Andrey Melnichenko, is half a year younger than I am. He started with nothing and now has several billion dollars. I started with a good family and a first-rate education, but I spend most of my evenings eating fast food in a hotel while wearing $28 Dickies shorts. This disparity doesn’t bother me all that much. I bet it bothers Melnichenko’s high school classmates quite a bit.
Many of the people who carp and complain about Tesla have a serious case of player-hater syndrome when it comes to Elon Musk. He feels real and local to them, somehow. He’s an American citizen, he goes on podcasts, he interacts with people on Twitter. It’s possible to meet him and shake his hand. If you’re a 30-something fellow who hasn’t had much success in your life, it’s easy to dislike Musk. Many of the TESLAQ people seem to be obsessed with the idea that they are smarter than Musk and that they secretly deserve the success he has had. The less they’ve actually accomplished, the stronger that feeling is. Musk must occasionally feel like a great white shark being endlessly scoured by dirty little garbage fish eager to swallow anything that comes out of his orifices.
Porsche, on the other hand—that’s a bunch of white-coat-wearing German engineers in a lab somewhere, speaking a language you don’t know. They aren’t dating supermodels or playing with flamethrowers or doing anything to excite your envy. You’ll never get disrespected on Twitter by one of their board members or senior executives. Most critically for those of us in the auto business, you’ll never have to deal with your personal dislike of a Porsche employee, because the company interacts with us through a cadre of seasoned, and often generous, professionals.
By contrast, I can vividly remember driving a new American car back in 2008 and conceiving an intense dislike of the engineer with whom I was sharing the vehicle. He was arrogant, he was unpleasant, and he had a variety of openly expressed opinions which would have prevented us from ever being friends. Yet in the end I had to swallow that distaste and report that the car in question was pretty good. Even though it would elevate the career and prestige of this fellow whom I detested. It was more important to be truthful with myself, and the readers, about the situation.
Why am I getting worked up about this “tall poppy syndrome” as it relates to Tesla? It’s simple. I’m an American and I’m interested in seeing Americans succeed. I like the fact that Tesla is an American car company that employs American workers to make a world-class luxury product right here in America. We don’t have a lot of that anymore. There are very few American brands which command respect on a global basis. Tesla is one of them. No, the panel gaps aren’t always great—but somehow the auto writers who can quote chapter and verse on Tesla’s quality failings always seem to get amnesia when we discuss things like Nikasil engines, IMS failures, or the Black Screens of Death that pop up pretty regularly in a lot of European luxury cars. How much of that is player-hating, plain and simple?
If the Taycan is better than whatever Tesla is putting out in that segment next year, it deserves to succeed. But it should succeed on its own merits, not on the back of frankly reprehensible personal sentiment on the part of Americans in and out of the auto business. I’m reminded of what Tom Wolfe said about Norman Mailer’s criticism of his work: “The lead dog is the one they always try to bite in the ass.” When it comes to the Taycan-Tesla throwdown, some of us would do well to try brushing our teeth a bit before we open our mouths again.