Fancy German Cars and Freibier

The Smart
Here is 'Smart' at Saint-Lazare, at the beginning of its European tour.

If Engineering Can't Do It - Try PR

Paris:- Wednesday, 19. November 1997:- Mercedes-Benz' problems with its new 'A'-Klasse car go far beyond the automobile business; they are a demonstration of how we think about things we think we know - and how we can be wrong about them.

I am still thinking about the multi-million DM wager Mercedes-Benz has placed on a chance to be a major player in the small car business.

At the risk of boring repetition, here is what happened: three days before their brand-new model was to hit the showrooms, some Swedish automotive journalists were trying one out at a old airfield - and when they attempted a standard evasive manoeuvre, the car rolled over.

Despite Daimler-Benz' name, despite 100 million DM-worth of engineering investment, despite all the tests the company did itself - the car failed.

I don't really know how much 'shadenfreunde' - glee at the misfortunes of others - there is attached to this affair, both inside and outside of Germany, but I guess there is a bit of it.

With the very word 'shadenfreunde,' the Germans have a word which has no English equivalent. Why not?

When a star tennis player you don't personally care for, loses a final championship match as a result of a simple error, don't you feel 2 CV 'shadenfreunde?' 'Pride goes before a fall,' we might say, but we don't have a specific word for it in English.

When the original 2CV was launched in the '30's, it was 'smart.'

Is it that the Germans recognize this emotion and have a word handy for it, and the rest of us are hypocrites - too ashamed to admit to having this emotion, to give it a word?

BMW recently acquired the old British auto firm of Rover - all that was left of the once-mighty, and many times renamed, domestic British car industry. Rover had been kept above water for some years by the Japanese car company, Honda. It was hard to tell if cars called 'Rover' were that, or slightly face-lifted Hondas.

I don't know why BMW bought Rover and I don't know why Honda sold their stake in it - but I'm sure is wasn't so BMW could get its hands on some Honda engineering or styling - as good as either may be.

I recently read that BMW was kicking itself in the head because the Rover division, which makes the 38-year-old Mini is having a big success with it - which effectively prevents the mother company from throwing a competing model into the marketplace. BMW thinks this would be a form of 'selbsmord.'

We really are hypocrites. Some years ago - a good many now - there was no 'shadenfreunde' when the US shuttle Challenger blew up on blast-off because of an engineering error. We, the world's public, felt bad for those killed; but we didn't condemn American engineers as a bunch of arrogant fat-heads.

They might have done that to themselves in private - but otherwise after several dozens of billions of dollars and a lot of wrench and screwdriver work, they got the thing going again and it's still going strong today. If you know Americans, then you know they are 'fix-it' people.

What most of us know about Germans and what many of us think we know about Germans are two different things. We assume we 'know' and lot about them, but we don't actually 'know' them really very well.

Because of Germany's undeniable and atrocious Nazi past, not many people are willing to go and live in Germany. This is a bad thing because it allows myth to pass as knowledge; and actual knowledge is discounted as some sort of propaganda. For this we can partially thank Dr. Joseph Goebbels; history's absolute top PR man.

Fascists and Nazis were the Mafia institutionalized. Rule by fear, murder, extortion, blackmail were coupled to rewards gained by theft, lies, robbery, rape and pillage. Pure mediaeval behavior; made possible to swallow by Goebbels - for a time.

Goebbels also put his hands to work embellishing German military achievements, and in this area he scored his biggest PR successes - because the myth of them lingers on as 'fact' today.

The 1939 'Blitzkrieg' of Poland depended on supplies hauled to the front largely by horses. Germany had lots of them and they didn't require gasoline; scarce gasoline for which Germany had no transport.

Germany had few reliable tanks; but the Poles had fewer. Just as in the First War, cavalry was no match for portable machine guns, carried by soldiers who rode trains for as far as they could to the front. The Polish campaign was won for Germany by foot soldiers, using horses.

Goebbels' PR instead showed films of Stuka dive bombers - these carried only one small bomb per sortie and were not good flyers.

We tend to forget that Goebbels didn't start his wartime propaganda on 1. September 1939 - he started frightening Europeans with it long before that. But it must also be said - and this is not PR - that German generals planned and carried out a better offense than the Polish generals' defense.

In the spring of 1940, German generals who had carefully read Colonel Charles de Gaulle's mid-'30's book about modern tank tactics, took a tremendous gamble when they decided to drive to France through the Ardennes Forest. Once in it, there were no alternative routes; and getting gasoline transport through as well, to keep tanks full, was a logistical nightmare.

The route couldn't be protected by fighter planes, because their activity would have given away the surprise; so the German panzer run through the Ardennes was only protected by the French belief of its impossibility. A belief also shared at the time by many in the High Command in Berlin.

German generals had their biggest successes with surprise, audacity, determination, and weak opposition. We will never know how they would have done in the face of equally stout and determined opposition - because Adolf Hitler Mini took over the military leadership of the army. We do know that German troops were fierce in retreat - so long as they had supplies.

A fairly new-looking 38 year-old Mini from Germany; seen in Paris last week.

The 'Battle of Britain' showed that German technology was not in any way superior; and they lost that one on account of having less determination than the defense - a defense which secretly had 'radar.' Equally, the 'Battle of the Atlantic Supply Routes' was won once convoys were well-defended.

In all of this, and to the end of the war, technology 'made in Germany' was not superior to that of the Allies. Goebbels was wildly successful with his fictional 'secret weapons' PR though, and this is still largely believed today.

It is not mere PR to say Mercedes-Benz makes great, but expensive, trucks. For a long time it applied the philosophy and engineering of truck-building to cars. This is not an approach which permits building a great number of small, inexpensive cars quickly. All the same, under pressure from BMW, Mercedes got into the small car business with its 190 series, now called the 'C'-Klasse.

With this, they managed to 'eat' a portion of BMW's market share. But now, with the introduction of the 'A'-Klasse, Mercedes is in the Renault boutique deep water of a lower class, without charts. In addition, Mercedes' sober managers have also launched their 'City Car,' the 'Smart.'

The Smart is a co-production, together with the Swiss watch company, Swatch. In France, this reduction of a car has ended up about 15,000 francs more expensive than foreseen - but now the car is here.

Even cheaper on gas than a 'Smart' is one of Renault's peddle cars - on sale at their Champs-Elysées boutique.

The 'A'-Klasse car is 3.57 metres long; the Smart is 2.50 metres. - one metre less. The Smart is about 50 cm narrower than the 'A'-Klasse. They are not the same car; they are not in the same class. They may not even be made by the same company.

The text for the 'A'-Klasse says, "The clever use of its small size allows five people to be not only comfortable, but also to feel as safe as in a Mercedes." For the Smart the text is shorter, "Reduce to the max." It comes with two seats and a trunk big enough for a six-pack of beer.

The Secret of Germany's Success

For the past 30 years, the industrial world has been fascinated by Japanese methods of manufacturing. Even Germany's top managers have made the pilgrimage to the Land of the Rising Sun in hopes of learning the secrets of successful mass-production.

However, the money paid to Japan Airlines and Lufthansa has been largely wasted because the 'secret' can be found within Germany itself. There are two elements to this secret and they are called 'bier' and the 'gastarbeiter.'

Bier is the glue that welds German society together and the 'gastarbeiter' - guest-workers - are the people who do the screw-driver work. Without Turks, Mercedes would build no cars, trucks, buses or fighter aircraft. Japan 'A'-Klasse has 'guest-workers' too, but they are mostly MBA's from America; and none of them could drive a screw to save their lives.

For the new 'A'-Klasse, German engineers can take all the credit. When it gets fixed, Turks will screw it together.

The German management system is simple. Most managers are Germans and most of them are 'experts.' They tell the guest-workers how to drive screws expertly, and once everybody has drunk enough beer together, everybody agrees to do this together as well as they can - which is as near to expert as possible.

On the shop floor, everybody works except those who are taking a 'pause' for a beer. By some mysterious osmosis enough people keeping working and 'pausing' in synchronization so that a lot of work gets done before everybody goes home to watch football on TV and drink more beer.

Scientific analysis has shown that a major fête every ten days or so blows out accumulated cobwebs so the essential rhythm is easily maintained during the few working days between numerous long weekends and five weeks' summer holidays.

Major fêtes are often company affairs, so what may look like a particularly jolly jamboree on the shopfloor to you, is actually a worthwhile business meeting with a lot of 'freibier' available.

It is not only managers who are experts - practically everybody in Germany is a specialist. This means that when you don't know something you can easily find out what you need to know - often without leaving the workstation or picking up the telephone. For a really good solution, it is customary offer a freibier to the helpful colleague.

I don't know why, but birthdays are important in the workplace. For one thing, if it is yours, you have to put out freibier for all your colleagues. On my last job there, there were about 25 birthdays a year - or one every two weeks - except on weekends and public holidays. That amounts to a lot of freibier days.

If it is the birthday of your department head, he or she is required to 'give one out,' not only to department workers, but also to his bosses. These can be all-day affairs.

It is also an obligation if one buys a car, gets married or has a baby. Certain regions also have occasions when the boss traditionally 'gives one out,' such as during Oktoberfest in Munich or during Carnival in the Rhineland.

The other key to Germany's industrial success is the 'gastarbeiter.' A 'gastarbeiter' is anybody who works in Germany who is not German. A lot of people do this - millions - and I did it for seven years. This is the reason I know Germany's secret.

Germany currently has a large number of unemployed and Chancellor Kohl is very worried about it because he wants to get reelected for an unprecedented fifth term of office.

The high unemployment is the result of the slow process of digesting a territorial increase of a third, a population increase of about the same order, and Renault Scenic deciding to build a new national capitol in Berlin at the same time. Money diverted to these projects is unavailable for investment in more freibier and 'gastarbeiter' salaries.

A reflection of the 'Kangoo' partially hides Renault's successful sub-mini-van, the Scenic.

Many voters in Germany - some of whom are 'gastarbeiters' - will doubtless remember that all of the expensive projects now underway were dreamed up by Chancellor Kohl.

A good number of the unemployed - some of whom are 'gastarbeiters' - are also annoyed that they haven't been getting much freibier lately.

Whether Chancellor Kohl wins or loses makes no difference. The 'digestion process' will be over soon and Germany will be able to return to its 'old ways' of coping with a full-tilt 'wirtschaftswunder' and Lufthansa will soon be flying in Airbus-loads of MBA's to learn the 'secret.'

By then, I predict, BMW will have a new model on the road. Bavarians are sort of Germany's 'Good Old Boys' and what Mercedes makes solid in Stuttgart, in Munich they make fast. Watch for the coming BMW 218i. Its trunk will doubtless hold a standard 20-bottle crate too.

Since Switzerland is close to Bavaria, I think BMW should call its version of the 'Smart' something like 'Hofbrauhaus,' instead of a dull number like BMW 118i.

The Car Photos

These have been used to illustrate this article, but belong with the companion 'Car Show on the Champs-Elysées' feature in this issue.

A collection of photos from my days as a 'gastarbeiter' in Germany are buried in my archives somewhere and if there is any 'echo' to this piece, I will consider rooting them out, to expose the myth of 'German Industry' once and for all, with irrefutable unretouched truth.

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