Opening Speech from our 2015 Induction

July 30, 2015

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Remarks during the 2015 Induction Ceremony by A.J. Baime – bestselling author, free spirited journalist and storyteller extraordinaire.

Good evening everybody, I’m honored to be here with you this evening.

And thank you Mr. Chapin for your kind introduction.

I’ve been all over the country talking about cars and my books and such, but never to a crowd as distinguished as this.

Roger Penske is here. Luca di Montezemolo is here. In addition to being inducted into the Hall of Fame tonight, he will win a lifetime achievement for hardest name for an American to pronounce.

Ratan Tata is here. So is Rodney O’Neal, this year’s Hall of Fame Industry Leader of the Year. And Elwood Haynes is certainly here with us in spirit.

I should acknowledge those who’ve been inducted into Hall of Fame in prior years.

So many of them were essential to me, personally, as I’ve tried to write about them as intimately as possible: Henry Ford II and his father Edsel, Carroll Shelby, Charlie Sorensen, Enzo Ferrari.

These men are my personal heroes—another reason why I feel it is an honor to get to speak in this special place tonight.

As Bill pointed out in his introduction, I’ve written a pair of non-fiction books that have their roots in Detroit and the automobile business.

Go Like Hell tells the story of Ford Motor Company’s challenge to Ferrari for dominance at the world’s most important endurance race, the 24 Hours of LeMans, in the 1960s.

It’s a book about cars and racing. But it’s not really a book about cars and racing once you get into it. It’s about people, powerful men with enormous vision and ambition.

The Arsenal of Democracy is about Detroit motor companies during World War II, delivering the tools of war to defeat Hitler and the Third Reich. But in the end, again, the book’s not about tools, it’s about people.

The convergence of commitment, talent and specialized knowledge that the auto men delivered to solve staggering challenges to win WWII, led management guru Peter Drucker to refer to the car business as the “Industry of Industries.” High praise, indeed.

Which brings us back to my favorite subject – people. Specifically, all of us.

We are here tonight because we share one thing in common….a passion for vehicles, a passion for this Industry of Industries.

Today, we are in the midst of an automotive revolution.

Earlier this month, I motored around Sonoma Raceway in a car built by a well-known manufacturer, with nobody driving the car.

The driverless car’s lap time was actually faster than my own. And I felt safe in it. All the dreams I had as a kid of robot cars and cars as powerful as jet planes? They’re now coming true.

But before I talk about today’s automotive revolution, I want to take everyone back to the past for a few minutes, back to a certain barroom where the first automotive revolution was born.

It was a magnificent tavern not too far from here—less than a half mile away—in a luxury hotel called the Pontchartrain, on the southeast corner of Cadillac Square in Detroit during the first decade of the 20th century.

The bar—the Pontch, as it was called—is known as the “Mother of Motors.”

The bar was mahogany and 32 feet long, and a whiskey went for 15 cents. The place stocked literally hundreds of thousands of cigars.

Each night, there gathered a new breed of imagineer—to use the term coined by Detroit inventor William Stout.

They came to compare notes, ideas, drawings of this new machine called the motorcar.

It was highly debated at the time whether this machine would take the place of horses, whether it had any future at all.

Many said it would never happen… just like people a few years ago said we’d never be watching TV on our phones.

In the Pontch bar, there was the no question about the future of the motorcar.

The only question was: who could build the best, and sell it to the world?

The Pontch hosted the Dodge brothers, Ransom Olds, Henry Ford, David Dunbar Buick, among others.

How is it that all these icons ended up in the same bar at the same time? It was destiny.

The engines of fate were at work.

But at the time, these men weren’t icons. Some were flat broke. They were just fellas in a bar, guys with big dreams.

In the words of Alfred Sloan: “The Pontchartrain was where motor car gossip was heard first. Even on ordinary days, when the crowd thinned out, the tables would be covered with sketches: crankshafts, details of motors, wheels and all sorts of mechanisms.”

Said another frequenter of the Pontch:

“Excitement was in the air. A new prosperity was in the making. Fortunes were being gambled. Men played hard, but they worked desperately.

It was not an uncommon sight to see men carry a heavy piece of machinery into the room, place it on the floor or table and set it in motion. There, men began to talk a strange new language.”

The auto industry was being born.

As we all know now, the motorcar changed the way we worked, lived, dressed, shopped, farmed, and ate.

It changed our geography, our architecture, the way we wage war and the way we enjoy peace. It changed every facet of our lives.

Now, during the seven or eight decades after those smoky nights at the Pontch, the car as a piece of technology remained basically the same.

The skin changed vastly according to the style of the day. But underneath, it still had spark plugs and pistons and cylinders.

The automatic transmission or air conditioning were a nifty addition in the 1950s… but that aside, mechanically, was the car of the 1970s that much different from a Model A? Arguable.

Now, for the last 15 years, we have seen more innovation than we did in the previous 75.

We are living through our second great automotive revolution. Today, we speak a different language when we speak ofcars.

We have ABS, ESC, and KERS.

We have text-to-speech reading, lane-detection warning systems, rear cameras, personal Wi-Fi hotspots, radar-enabled pedestrian and obstacle detection systems, and increasingly, we have cars that can drive themselves…

Electronic stability control systems have saved countless lives. We’ll never know how many, because the system works its magic so deftly.

GPS and mapping programs have saved countless marriages as well, husbands and wives no longer have to argue about how to get where they’re going.

Our roads are safer, our racetracks are safer; our machinery is far more efficient and kinder to our living environment.

The performance available to today’s consumer has given enthusiasts like myself exponentially more to play with.

Here on the premises today, we have a hybrid supercar on display called LaFerrari, producing 963 horsepower, with remarkable efficiency. I think this car would make Enzo Ferrari—an extremely difficult man to please—very proud, if he were here tonight.

Meanwhile, the industry continues to drive the world’s economies.Almost 90 million cars were built last year. 90 million!

That’s a lot of jobs (and jobs for women as well as men), jobs not just in factories, but in shops, dealerships, transportation services, fuel companies, and in Silicon Valley…

A lot of this hugely important work in the last 15 years was accomplished under the guidance of the figures being inducted into the Hall of Fame tonight.

Now the Pontchartrain bar is long gone.

The building itself—thought of as a skyscraper of its time, a full 10 full stories tall—stood only 13 years, before it was torn down.

But really, the Pontch is not gone.

What it left behind was not just the auto industry, but a spirit that all of us here carry with us—the desire to innovate, to do what’s never been done, to win in competition, to contribute, to take ideas and use them to change the world, to change it for the better.

And indeed, we are doing just that. Now more than ever.

Some folks have been passing out postcards with a picture of the Pontch, so you can imagine yourself rubbing elbows with the likes of Louis Chevrolet.

I encourage you to share these with your friends, and there’s a web link for more on the Pontch’s role in history.

In closing, I want to thank the Hall of Fame for inviting me, and I want to congratulate this year’s honorees.

And a thank you to all of you, doing great work, and sharing in the spirit of Pontch.

A whiskey costs more than 15 cents now, but the word cheers means the same thing.

Cheers!

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