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Dan Neil tests L.A. Times' safety features

GM pulls ads after critical column


For obvious reasons (many of you not generally being "car" people), some of you may have missed the continuing antics of former Indy writer and former sometime drinking buddy Dan Neil in his career with The Los Angeles Times.

Dan, some of you may remember, distinguished himself by getting fired from the N&O for writing about screwing his wife in the back of a Ford Excursion and then went on (nyah, nyah) to win a Pulitzer Prize in 2004, not for political or social commentary, but for a friggin' car column, an achievement that induced in this writer a howl of dismay and a violent shredding of the morning paper. "The biggest baddest fin de siécle in history, and we're reduced to talking about cars?" I hissed.

Now I'm beginning to see. Old Danny, in his April 6 column "An American Idle"--a refreshingly corrosive column about the new Pontiac G6 (a typical General Motors wheeled turd) and a whadafug about the sagging fortunes of "The General"--says the best medicine for GM would be the immediate sacking of North America Chairman Robert Lutz and Chairman/CEO Rick Wagoner, a statement that probably caused the gold dust twins to collectively turn the color of raspberry Popsicles.

An excerpt from the column:

It was Lutz, after all, who candidly averred at a Morgan Stanley meeting last month that GM might have to phase out some of its product lines, even using the word "damaged" to describe Pontiac and Buick. In the ensuing furor, Lutz claimed his remarks were taken out of context and over-hyped by the sensationalist media, like that scandal rag Automotive News.

Wagoner memo to Lutz: Stop making sense.

GM is a morass of a business case, but one thing seems clear enough, and Lutz's mistake was to state the obvious and then recant: The company's multiplicity of divisions and models is turning into a circular firing squad. How can four nearly identical minivans--one each for Pontiac, Buick, Chevrolet and Saturn--be anything but a waste of resources? Ditto the Four Horsemen of Suburbia, the Buick Rainier, Chevrolet TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy and Saab 9-7X. How does the Pontiac Montana minivan square with Pontiac as the "Excitement" division? Why, exactly, is GMC on this Earth?

GM responded, canceling its advertising with the Times, a feat that made me giggle when I learned of it. The Wall Street Journal reports that "GM, not counting local GM dealers, spent around $21 million on ad space in the Times in 2004, up from about $9.9 million in 2003." That's out of the Times' $1.13 billion in operating revenue in 2004, the Journal reported.

"Twenty-one million bucks," I whistled lowly. Talk about the power of the pen. He should be paid by the word.

More to the point, this was just another sign of what big business is capable of--a rash maneuver that showed corporate America at its typically graceless and stupid worst. Talk about muscle-bound crybabies. In this one blunder, GM has shown the lack of respect for honest opinion and a paranoid desire to only have "good" news presented to their current and prospective customers--and it blew up in their faces like a peanut butter grenade, chunky-style.

In a call to Dan (and a promise that he wouldn't be quoted), he was remarkably sanguine about the whole affair. He is the consummate and unflappable professional, and when I spoke to him he was breezy and relaxed, global notoriety being a real bell-ringer in the writing business. As soon as the arbitrators get through putting out the wildfire, he promised to talk.

Who's right, Dan or the General? How 'bout this news on Tuesday from Reuters:

"General Motors Corp. on Tuesday posted a first-quarter net loss of $1.10 billion, its worst results since the industrial icon skirted bankruptcy in 1992, due to weaker U.S. sales and growing costs for employee health care and goods to build cars.

"The world's largest automaker, which alarmed the markets last month when it slashed its outlook, said its automotive operations lost $1.98 billion in the quarter, with a loss in North America alone of $1.56 billion."

Stay tuned.

To read Dan Neal's April 6 column, go to www.latimes.com/classified/automotive/highway1/la-hy-neil6apr06,0,4322283.story?coll=la-class-autos-highway1

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