We’ve named exactly 27 people Automobile Magazine Man of the Year since the award was created in 1990. If that math doesn’t add up, it’s for a reason: one year we named seven people members of a “dream team” and one year we declined to name a Man of the Year at all. Needless to say, it’s been an interesting 22 years of awards and executives…have a look for yourself to see if our awards, predictions, and assertions were right or not.
Manager of Product Planning, Mazda Research and Development of North America
The man behind the Mazda Miata, 1990 Automobile of the Year
In our words: “Hall is noted for his photographic memory, his hyperactive conversational style, and his mania for science-fiction films of the 1950′s. Best of all, he’s one of our boys who made good in a very big way.”
In his own words: “At no stage was [the Miata] presented in a clinic where people were asked to compare the features of a bunch of cars. Because when that happens, what you get is the nose from car A and the tail of car B, and you end up with the Ford Mustang II. When you design any product, from wristwatches to luggage, so that everybody likes it, then nobody loves it.”
What happened next: The Miata, Hall’s labor of love, went on to sell at least 900,000 units…and counting. Imitators/competitors like the Toyota MR2 Spyder and Honda S2000 came and went, but the venerable Miata soldiered (and soldiers) on.
President, Honda Motor Company
The man behind the Acura NSX, 1991 Automobile of the Year
In our words: “In addition to his accomplishments as an engineer and an executive, Kawamoto possesses striking intelligence, enthusiasm, candor, and good humor. All were intact during our interview in a comfortable suite at Honda headquarters.”
In his own words: ”I think the NSX is extremely well done. It is where Honda is today. Yes, it is a car we wanted to build, and it has involved a lot of new developments, a new concept, net materials, new manufacturing methods. It did not have to be a sports car, but it is the sort of project we wanted to undertake. It is not an indulgence. It is good business.”
What happened next: The NSX went on to sell fairly well, earning critical acclaim as one of the purest expressions of the sportscar, until 2006. Kawamoto’s tenure at Honda coincided with a huge increase in profitability…until Kawamoto was replaced in 1998 by Hiroyuki Yoshino.
The man who launched Lexus in the U.S.
In our words: “The elements for success were there. Lexus had one good car, the Camry-based ES250, and one great car, the LS400. Both were launched with fine advertising and backed by a clever direct-mail campaign. Initial quality was superb. If anything was wrong, it was cheerfully fixed. Lexus’ customer service became and industry model. But despite all the right ingredients, putting the show on the road took a real leader. Fortunately for Lexus, one was waiting in the wings.”
In his own words: “Leadership isn’t just measured in sales. There’s prestige, consumer perception, and profitability. Sales are one leg of a four-legged stool. All four-legs–sales, customer service, dealers, and marketing and advertising–are the same length. I don’t know how the luxury market will shake out. We have sales objectives, but our goals may be different from those of others.”
What happened next: Lexus became the poster-child for Japanese luxury, a benchmark brands like Infiniti and Acura (and Hyundai, for that matter) have long struggled to match. Illingworth retired from Toyota at age 65 and wrote a theological book, God of Hope.
One of the men behind the Viper, and part of the driving force behind the LH cars, 1993 Automobiles of the Year
In our words: “When threatened with financial ruin, lumbered with an outdated car line, and barely holding on with trucks, minivans, and Jeeps, Chrysler’s management took dramatic steps…An enviable string of interesting cars has followed. Insiders know the company’s principal architect of change has been its president, Bob Lutz.”
In his own words: ”Cars like the Viper and LH, and to some extent the Pontiac Grand Prix, prove that when there’s focus and determination, U.S. producers can do it. Of course, you have to get the quality right. But now, with the quality issue 99 percent behind us, the American car companies do seem to have a better feel for the pulse of the U.S. buying public.”
What happened next: Lutz was passed over for the promotion to Chairman and CEO of Chrysler, in favor of Bob Eaton. The move was ultimately ill-fated: Eaton is credited with assisting in the creation of DaimlerChrysler, a partnership that ended poorly in 2007. Lutz, meanwhile, coasted over to rival General Motors, where he championed such sportscars as the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Solstice, family cars like the Chevrolet Malibu and Buick Enclave, and the Chevrolet Volt, the Automobile Magazine 2011 Automobile of the Year.
Part of the driving force behind the LH cars (AoY 1993) and the Dodge Neon, 1994 Automobile of the Year
In our words: “Chrysler’s heady design momentum is largely due to Tom Gale’s enthusiasm, creativity, and ability to work cooperatively in the platform team system…Make no mistake: Tom Gale is one of us. Chrysler is much better for it.”
In his own words: About the attention: “It’s flattering. It’s really nice. But there’s only one letter’s difference between champ and chump. It happens so fast that you’d best not lose your perspective. Look at what Ford did with the Taurus and the Sable, truly benchmarks…when you see stuff that good you say to yourself, nobody goes to sleep.”
What happened next: Gale’s cars had varying levels of success–Plymouth Prowler not so much, Dodge Viper, Dakota, Ram, and Neon very much so–but he retired from Chrysler in 2000 credited with helping save Chrysler from bankruptcy with his products…twice.
Chairman of the Board, BMW
Responsible for starting BMW production in the U.S. and buying Rover.
In our words: “As chief manufacturing executive, he had direct responsibility for BMW’s decision to build cars in the United States, the company’s first-ever plant outside Germany to supply the world market. And the acquisition of 80 percent of Rover Group Holdings from British Aerospace, consummated in the first quarter of 1994, was also his initiative.”
In his own words: “Excitement in the United States really proves my personal point of view. We haven’t yet proved to the customer that we will be able to manufacture a BMW car comparable to a German product in the United States, but now the same market research is exactly the opposite–we love it, we look forward to getting it. This is thrilling to me…the pride of the American manufacturing industry has improved. There was no pride six or seven years ago.
What happened next: is either a failure or a success, depending on which way you look at it. Pischetsrieder’s purchase of the Rover Group may have been an overall failure–Land Rover was sold to Ford in 2000, Rover hemorrhaged money and ultimately went nowhere–keep in mind that the overall strategy gave us the Mini Cooper and Range Rover (at least a new version of it), both highly successful cars. Too bad the Range Rover’s successes were realized mostly under Ford and Tata’s ownership. Pischetsrieder, meanwhile, moved over to Volkswagen Group, where he Chaired Seat, Volkswagen, and Scania, before reportedly being pushed out in 2006.
Passenger car chief, Mercedes-Benz
In our words: ”Unlike many captains of the car industry, Hubbert is self-critical and willing to learn from mistakes. But since the worst risk is to take no risk, Mercedes will continue to make controversial decisions.”
In his own words: “By concentrating on high-end products, this company would accelerate into a cul-de-sac. Why? Because buyers who can afford $75,000-plus status symbols are increasingly thin on the ground. Instead, we must move where the market goes, and that’s down.”
What happened next: Hubbert chaired the Mercedes Car Group portion of DaimlerChrysler until his retirement in 2005. The DaimlerChrysler experiment, meanwhile, ended in divorce in 2007 when Chrysler was sold to Cerberus Capital Management. Unfortunately, that experiment went even worse: Chrysler went bankrupt in 2009 and was saved thanks to the U.S. government’s auto bailout and a sale to Fiat. So far, that experiment has worked.
Head of Ford Small and Medium Car Vehicle Center
Man responsible for putting European dynamics in U.S.-market cars like the Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique, and crafting the Ford Ka
In our words: ”Richard Parry-Jones was grinning from ear to ear after exploiting the tiny Ford Ka’s crisp handling and torquey engine on the challenging roads of rural Wales. Our infectiously enthusiastic Man of the Year could have traveled here in the back seat of a limousine…but RPJ won our Man of the Year award for spearheading the team that has made and is making Ford’s small and medium-size cars so good to drive.”
In his own words: “There are areas where we see opportunities to surprise and delight customers in the United States with, for instance, cars that provide European steering and handling standards. I don’t think there are many Americans who would say, “Not for me, thank you” or “I don’t like it,” after experiencing those qualities. Our experience with Contour/Mystique has been that customers haven’t actually articulated a need for that sort of thing, but when it’s presented to them as part of a package that meets other needs, it’s something they rate very highly.”
What happened next: Parry-Jones eventually became Head of Global R&D and then Chief Technical Officer at Ford. Parry-Jones was one of the men tasked with solving the problems with Ford Explorers and Firestone tires, a serious problem that threatened to sink the company in the early 2000s. That controversy did sink one other person, however: then-CEO Jacques Nasser.
CART PPG Cup winner, Racing driver
In our words: “When Zanardi wins a race, he doesn’t coast in. No, he finds an empty piece of tarmac and lays waste to the remains of his Firestones in an exuberant donut-making display. He’s an old-fashioned racing driver who obviously enjoys his work. He’s doing the job all we armchair critics want…Deep down that’s probably because, just like us, Zanardi is a fan. Except that he had the talent and the motivation to make it as a professional driver, rather than sitting around and dreaming about it.”
In his own words: ”[I enjoy racing] every time I get in the car…that’s obviously the best part of my job.”
What happened next: Zanardi was in the midst of a seriously competitive race in September 2001 at EuroSpeedway Lausitz when he suffered a serious crash that eventually claimed both of his legs. He returned to racing (with the help of hand controls) by joining FIA European Touring Car (and then World Touring Car) championships in 2004, going on to win a handful of races until he retired from WTCC in 2009.
1999: Jurgen Schrempp
In his own words: “The greatest asset we have is the star and the Mercedes-Benz name. That’s dangerous. My colleagues told me, you’re quite right, if you want to grow we really need a second brand. We started analyzing. I talked to many companies…and then in a paper we concluded that Chrysler would be perfect, both geographically and in terms of product.”
What happened next: Schrempp was named CEO of DaimlerChrysler (understandable, as he was the architect of the merger), but he was forced out in July 2005 and replaced with Dieter Zetsche. The DaimlerChrysler experiment, as you’ll recall, was a failure.
President and CEO of Ford Motor Company
In our words: “His support among the writers and editors of our magazine was unanimous and enthusiastic…we like the guy. We keep running into him at all manner of automotive events, and his enthusiasm on these occasions is palpable.”
In his own words: “There is a distribution revolution going on around the world, not only in the U.S., and it’s being driven by several factors. Technology’s changing. Communications are changing. People know more about the products, about pricing…and, finally, consumers and manufacturers are changing. There’s a lot more transparency about the products, delivery process, and cost structures. These trends are very healthy.”
What happened next: We said this back in 2000: “The Volvo S80 platform could become the much-needed and long-awaited new platform for the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable. At the same time, the Ford Focus platform could be the basis for a new compact Volvo that would have been too expensive for an independent Volvo to develop and bring to market.” For all of Nasser’s public shortcomings, those predictions came true as Nasser’s plans came to fruition: the excellent Focus-based Volvo C30 finishes its product run this year, and that S80 platform has gone on to underpin such varied cars as the Ford Taurus, Flex, and Explorer, and the Lincoln MKS and MKT.
That’s not necessarily enough to make up, however, for the fact that Nasser presided over Ford as it was embroiled in a scandal involving rollover-prone Ford Explorers and faulty Firestone tires. Nasser was reportedly forced out of the company in 2001.
President of Ferrari
In our words: “At Ferrari, they call him avvocato (he is a lawyer by training) or capo (an affectionate generic term for all Italian bosses), but the title Luca di Montezemolo most deserves is commendatore…In the three interviews I have conducted with LdM over the years, all I ever experienced was the friendly and outgoing side of one of the most charismatic captains of the auto industry.”
In his words: “No, I don’t want to leave Ferrari. Ferrari is very special, and Ferrari has been very good to me. But the pressure has become enormous; win or lose, heads or tails, be a hero or an idiot. I don’t enjoy this part of the business anymore. And that’s why I would never say never, especially if an offer came along that allowed me to work in the U.S.–a country I like a lot–in an intimate environment with the product…But that’s a castle in the air.”
What happened next: Di Montezemolo didn’t leave Ferrari–he’s still the Chairman there, among other positions. Ferrari continued its upward trend in product quality–replacing 456 with 612 and then FF; 360 giving way to 430 and 458; 550 making way for the 575M Maranello, 599GTB Fiorano, and F12berlinetta–that continues to this day.
Head of Renault Nissan
In our words: “Since he joined Nissan, Ghosn has turned the company around, a feat that made him a shoo-in as Automobile Magazine’s Man of the Year…One of the most striking things about Ghosn’s time at Nissan is that the alliance [with Renault] actually looks like one, without the bloodletting that has characterized recent ‘mergers’ such as the Daimler-Chrysler and BMW-Rover fiascos.”
In his words: “You have some basic requirements in Japanese management. If you don’t fulfill these requirements, then things will be very difficult. If you fulfill them, you can achieve a lot. For example, when you are talking about changing established practices, you have to make people understand why you need change, how you are going to make these changes, and what is expected in a very quantified and pragmatic way.”
What happened next: Like Montezemolo, Ghosn is still in a similar position to where we left him: he’s the CEO of both Renault and Nissan. One of Ghosn’s greatest recent achievements is the creation of the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle. Ghosn’s unwavering faith in the car earned him a role in the documentary The Revenge of the Electric Car.
Head of Design for BMW
The driving force behind the controversial 7 Series and 6 Series…and the “Bangle Butt”
In his words: “No other design leader has web sites filled with vitriolic personal criticism or sites where one can sign an electronic petition asking his employees to fire him. Why all that acrimony? The way we see it is it just because he is doing his job properly…Car design has been fairly stagnant for a fairly long time, with popular past models reiterated again and again….BMWs were in that class before Bangle’ they are erupting from it now under Bangle’s strong, dare we say, vital influence.”
What happened next: Bangle’s creations–the 1, 3, 5, 6, and 7 Series, the X3, X5, and X6, among other things–earned their fair share of criticisms (the term “Bangle Butt” was added to the lexicon in the early 2000s), and their fair share of sales; BMW passed Mercedes-Benz in sales while Bangle was at the helm of the design studio. Successor Adrian van Hooydonk has tempered some of Bangle’s more controversial lines since Bangle’s departure from BMW in 2009, but his touch is still seen in nearly every Roundel-badged car sold today.
Former VP of product development, Ford
The man who gave us the brilliant Mazda RX-8 and Mazda 6
In our words: “It might seem strange that we have given our Man of the Year award to a car company executive who is currently without a job, but Leach is exactly the kind of person car companies need, and his departure is symptomatic of the current problems at the blue oval. He’s a certified car nut, one of the very few visionaries of the trade, an excellent engineer and driver, a pragmatic team player, and a genuinely nice guy.”
In his words: “I threw in the towel because Ford of Europe, which I ran for almost a year, was drawn into the political ping-pong initiated by Ford worldwide. I am hugely sad about the way things went, having dedicated all my working life to this company–but these days everybody seems to be out to get everybody else at the top of the house.”
What happened next: Leach actually sued Ford, winning $2.1 million in 2005 and allowing him to subvert his contract’s non-compete clause. He briefly served as CEO of Maserati, then a string of other European companies. The RX-8, which finished its model run this year, is still hailed as an excellent (albeit flawed) sportscar. The 6 hopes to return to its Leach-designed roots with a new 2014 model.
2005: The Dream Team
Tony Kanaan, Indy Racing League champion
“While others were hitting one another and the walls, Kanaan kept it clean yet was aggressive enough to win three races.”
Jim Press, EVP of Toyota Motor Sales
“He has been responsible for Toyota Motor Sales becoming the third-largest auto company in the United States.”
“The one car designer in the United States who has truly captured the zeitgeist is Ralph Gilles.”
Mike Neal, Ride and Handling chief for Chevrolet Corvette
“Mike Neal has been lead ride-and-handling chassis development engineer on the Chevrolet corvette, which means he was responsible for the fact that the C6 matches the world’s best dynamically.”
David Richards, Chairman of Prodrive
“After David Richards took as [BAR-Honda] team principal in 2001, BAR has been revitalized to the extent that it was second to Ferrari in the world F1 constructor’s championship in 2004, beating McLaren and Williams.”
Michael Schumacher, Racecar Driver Extrordinaire
“[Schumacher] has won eighty-three grands prix and seven world championships yet shows no sign of wanting to retire anytime soon.”
“For years, we’ve been told that aston martin was going to be the British Ferrari. Only trouble is, the cars haven’t been as good as those from Maranello. But now, under chief executive Ulrich Bez, the promise is being fulfilled.”
CEO, Porsche AG
In our words: “He transformed Porsche from a money loser into one of the best performers in the industry, with the highest profit per car…[In 2005,] Porsche made $794 million–its tenth straight year in the black. Porsche now rivals Toyota and BMW for financial stability.”
What happened next: Wiedeking served as CEO until July of 2009, and is currently working for Novartis AG, a consumer health company. Wiedeking’s products–most notably the Cayenne and Panamera–are doing better than ever, despite Porschephile’s cries of brand dilution.
Owner, Penske Racing and Penske Corporation
In our words: “Roger Penske is not a character. He’s not a colorful iconoclast, he doesn’t smoke cigars or tell jokes, he’s not a brilliant enginner or a cowboy or even a very public figure outside of his beloved racing community. But Roger Penske, a promising racing driver who walked away at the age of twenty-eight to sell Chevrolets, is a hero in the automotive world. We want to make wristbands (in Marlboro red) stamped with the initials WWRD (What Would Roger Do?).”
What happened next: Penske’s failed bid to buy Saturn out from under a failing General Motors is but an aberration in a long line of successes, including his Penske Automotive Group dealership empire and Penske Racing, which continues to do well.
What we said: “We made an honest stab at choosing a person of the year…didn’t happen…Stay tuned. There will be a 2009 Man of the Year when the dust clears. With any luck, he will be a hometown hero.”
President, Honda Motor Company
In our words: “Honda’s steadfast refusal to follow the herd once looked stubborn but now appears prescient. In an era when platinum-paid executives rarely deviate from the orthodoxy of the crowd, Honda’s Takeo Fukui has successfully avoided faddish trends and instead stayed true to the founding principles of Soichiro Honda and his successors. For that, [Fukui] is the 2009 Automobile Magazine Man of the Year.”
What happened next: Fukui became a Director and Advisor to Honda, a position he holds to this day.
CEO, Ford Motor Company
In our words: “The truth of the matter was hard to ascertain [during the 2009 Senate hearings] but it ‘s now obvious: Alan Mulally was, and is, worth whatever Ford is paying him, because he has almost single-handedly saved the automaker…The company is just beginning to find its way, but with Alan Mulally at the wheel, we’re confident it will soon not simply survive, but prosper.”
What happened next: Talk of his departure (on good terms, of course) hasn’t really dampened this affable CEO, especially as Ford’s successes continue to drag it out of the doldrums of the last decade. In 2012 Ford retained control of the blue oval again, one of the pieces of collateral put down in Mulally’s risky bankruptcy-avoiding loan agreement, and a symbol of Ford’s renaissance.
Chairman of the Board, Volkswagen Group
In our words: “There has never been a more colorful, more controversial, or more powerful Man of the Year. Ferdinand Karl Piech is a direct descendant of the Porsche-Piech dynasty, the billionaire father of twelve children, a professed dyslexic, and a ruthless leader….Not other living captain of the automotive industry has whipped this business forward with the same foresight and determination as the balding, thin-lipped Austrian with the wing-nut ears and the piercing, soft voice.”
What happened next: The Volkswagen Group’s new mission: become the biggest automaker in the world. It may have achieved that goal in 2011–it’s a tricky situation–but with Piech at the helm, VW reaching this goal is an almost certainty.