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Motor City's Motor Mouth


If it's Wednesday in Detroit, then it's likely that everyone from Ford (F) Chairman and Chief Executive William C. Ford Jr. on down is logging on to Autoextremist.com to catch Peter M. DeLorenzo's weekly rants, raves, and often astute observations about the car industry. DeLorenzo's six-year-old site draws some 65,000 readers a week and could soon rival the industry bible, Automotive News, in popularity and clout.

In a typically brash posting, DeLorenzo, a 53-year-old former ad executive, recently called Mercedes-Benz (DCX) Chief Eckhard Cordes and Toyota Motor Corp. (TM) Chairman Fujio Cho "boneheads" for making what he considered stupid public statements. Cordes said that trying to get to the top of J.D. Power & Associates Inc.'s quality ranking might be more trouble than it was worth. (J.D. Power, like BusinessWeek, is owned by The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).) Cho mentioned that Toyota might, in a rare act of corporate diplomacy, raise prices to help a struggling General Motors Corp. (GM) sell more cars. The only kind words the irascible blogger had were for GM, of all companies: DeLorenzo liked its decision to sell the 2006 HHR retro-styled wagon for a reasonable $15,990 to $18,790. "We think GM nailed it," he wrote.

NO DETAILS

You might think DeLorenzo would feel obligated to let on that he worked for GM last fall or that he lost a five-figure (per month) consulting gig with DaimlerChrysler (DCX) in 2003 after some management changes. But you would be wrong. While DeLorenzo discloses in broad terms that he consults with auto makers from time to time, nowhere does he provide any details. (Our own disclosure: In his June 23, 2004, blog, DeLorenzo favorably reviewed this reporter's book about BMW.)

At a time when other bloggers are ratting one another out for taking ad money from companies they write about, DeLorenzo hardly thinks he has anything more to explain. He doesn't charge for access to his site, nor does he get any advertising. "My readers know that I am consulting, and they know that's the only way I earn," he says.

Few want to deny DeLorenzo that. "I like the way he dishes, and I don't see any biases," says Tom Carpenter, a retired car salesman who began logging on after seeing a quote from DeLorenzo in a newspaper.

DeLorenzo isn't shy about explaining how he uses his critiques to market himself. "I'll write something that someone thinks is smart, and they'll pay me to come in and elaborate in front of a group or write a deeper analysis," he says. Recently he announced the launch of his own Autoextremist Auto Leadership Index, which will rank companies and brands based on surveys of consumers, auto enthusiasts, and industry insiders. And natch, he is setting up DeLorenzo Image Management to offer companies, especially those who do poorly in the ranking, advice on how to improve. A "Bill O'Reilly-style" TV show and podcasts are in the works, too, if he can find sponsors.

DeLorenzo is chasing consulting business from all the car companies, but it's GM he knows best. His father ran GM's public-relations office from 1957 to 1979. Steeped in what makes "The General," as it's called in Detroit, tick, DeLorenzo writes like the insider he is. "Reading Peter can be like standing in a backyard barbecue in Bloomfield Hills or Grosse Pointe," says John McElroy, host of Autoline Detroit, a local talk show.

If readers don't see potential conflicts between DeLorenzo's blog and his business, what about auto executives? That often depends on who's paying him and what they think they're paying him for. "I read his stuff every week, but it's intellectually dishonest sometimes [not to disclose who he's working for]," says Jason Vines, DaimlerChrysler's head of corporate communications. In 2003, DeLorenzo's work for Chrysler Group included retooling an auto show presentation, even persuading then-Chief Operating Officer Wolfgang Bernhard to ride a $550,000 Dodge Tomahawk motorcycle on stage. But a few months after DeLorenzo lost the job, he let loose. Of Chrysler's new marketing chief, Joe W. Eberhardt, he wrote: "Eberhardt hasn't done one scintillating thing since having that job handed to him, other than to avoid screwing up the marketing for the home-run products dumped in his lap." About that, DeLorenzo says: "The two things were not connected."

MIXED MESSAGES

Later, he tore into Chrysler's design of the new Dodge Charger and lambasted the company for recycling the Charger name. Vines says he called DeLorenzo to remind him that while on Chrysler's payroll he had endorsed the car. "I admit I changed my mind about using the Charger name," says DeLorenzo.

Maybe Vines just expects too much. Bill Ford, whose company hasn't hired DeLorenzo as a consultant, takes a more sanguine attitude toward the autoextremist's rants: "Sometimes I feel he is wrong, but other times Peter is dead-on," he says. Presumably, DeLorenzo was the former when he recently wrote about the glitch-ridden Ford GT street racer car, trumpeted by the CEO as "the pace car" of the company's revival. DeLorenzo's considered opinion: "They blew it."

It's at GM, though, where DeLorenzo may have the biggest impact and where -- for the time being, anyway -- he is held in the highest regard. "I like Peter's thinking because he is fair and doesn't pull any punches," says Mark LaNeve, GM's vice-president for sales and marketing, who doesn't mind DeLorenzo's public criticism of GM. LaNeve hired the critic for two months last year to help sort out a few things at Buick and Pontiac. As a result, the two brands will soon have as few as four models each and will be combined into one portfolio with GMC trucks. It's a strategy DeLorenzo -- surprise -- recently lauded on his site.

And in a June posting, he finally found something to praise over at Chrysler: a great conference about the German-owned company's U.S. investments. Whether DeLorenzo is bucking for another Chrysler gig, only he knows.

By David Kiley in New York


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