Remember Lordstown Motors? The guys with the electric pickup that doesn’t look like a paper airplane? You’re forgiven if it’s slipped from your brain, as the Lordstown Endurance was unveiled back in late June, which in 2020 time is roughly the equivalent of 700 years ago, and we haven’t heard much about it since.
To jog your memory: The world was introduced to the Endurance two months ago via a livestream festival of corporate three-card monte broadcast from the eastern Ohio plant where the truck is slated to be manufactured. That hourlong presentation, staged in front of an almost entirely unmasked audience, was marked by Biden-at-home–level production values complete with a barely audible signal in one channel and a godawful buzz in the other. There were interminable speeches by suited boomers wearing running shoes and some cheerleading from Washington in the form of an appearance by our esteemed vice president.
To be honest, the model launch felt perfectly in character with the saga of the Lordstown factory’s surrender by General Motors, where the Chevrolet Cruze had been assembled until last year, and with the history of the new EV maker’s principals.
Still, the vaporware deathwatch needs to be monitored the same way I compulsively check the latest COVID numbers each morning. Let’s check in on the latest out of Lordstown, shall we?
In a dramatic turn, one of the big questions left unanswered at the launch of the Endurance — namely, where the money to build it would come from — has been substantially addressed. In early August, Lordstown announced a merger with a “special purpose acquisitions company” called DiamondPeak Holdings. The merger will let Lordstown be publicly listed on the NASDAQ and generate upwards of $675 million of new investment to nudge the Endurance toward production. The deal should be finalized by the fourth quarter of this year, potentially setting Lordstown’s assembly line in motion — and starting to fill a claimed $1.4 billion in orders — in the second half of 2021.
So who exactly is DiamondPeak? Well, chairman and CEO David Hamamoto is the kind of guy who, when Googled, turns up related searches that include his name in combination with the phrases “net worth,” “Hamptons,” and “Goldman Sachs.” In 2012 he sold his 5,000-square-foot Fifth Avenue apartment for $50 million. More recently it appears he ratfucked fellow mogul Thomas Barrack by arranging a merger of his own NorthStar real estate company (what is it with these guys and their addiction to bicapitalization?) with Barrack’s Colony Capital. Hamamoto then quietly dumped his shares to the tune of $27 million before the bottom dropped out, leaving Barrack to publicly rue the hit to his “family’s pride, reputation and future,” his net worth having dropped from $400 million to a measly $187 million.
While the windfall for Lordstown is surprising, its source feels amusingly (or depressingly, your call) in keeping with the impression left by the Endurance pickup’s June reveal. That program carried the aura of an enormous tech grift fueled by delusional political promises and yet another extraordinarily cruel joke being played on Americans whose names typically aren’t associated with eight-figure real estate transactions. Indeed, it’s precisely in step with the entire Lordstown Motors project.
Much has been written, here and elsewhere, about the misfortunes of autoworkers in Lordstown, Ohio, near Youngstown, once the largest producer of steel in the U.S. outside of Pittsburgh and currently the producer of a staggering 57.5 percent child poverty rate. For 53 years beginning in 1966, the GM plant in Lordstown provided a livelihood for thousands of families, even as the state’s
steel industry withered.
It helped that Ohio was willing to pay for the privilege. As ProPublica neatly laid out in a recent report, GM received colossal tax breaks in 2009 when it retooled the factory to build the Chevy Cruze —75 percent off its income tax for 15 years—and promised to keep 3,700 employees on-site over that time. GM also committed to keeping the plant open until 2027.
Anyone remember what happened after that? Right. GM closed the factory.
That ProPublica article is about how Ohio, having been royally screwed by GM, is now trying to claw back its $60 million. GM, predictably, is indignant—“After all I’ve done for you?”—and points to its plans to build a new battery factory, in partnership with South Korea’s LG, next door to the Lordstown plant as evidence of its continuing beneficence. (The new Ultium facility will employ 1,100 workers at $10 to $17 an hour, a fraction of their former GM wages; the city has already approved a 75 percent cut in its property taxes for the next 15 years.)
It gets better, though. Late last year GM lent $40 million to Lordstown Motors to help the upstart purchase the shuttered 6.2-million-square-foot former Cruze plant — from GM itself, mind you — in order to build electric trucks on the site. In effect, GM was saying OK, we’ll give you $40 million that you can give directly back to us in exchange for the use of this factory we’ve abandoned so we can say, “Look! We’re creating more jobs after all! Y’all love trucks, right?”
We didn’t learn much at the press introduction about the Endurance beyond a broad description and some bold claims. It was billed as a $52,000 electric pickup aimed at fleet buyers rather than the individual consumer. Its big departure from current practice is the use of four hub-mounted motors — “very robust and big, tough hub motors” — located at the wheels to vastly reduce the number of moving parts (unsprung weight be damned). The result, Lordstown execs claimed, will be the safest, most efficient, most tenacious pickup truck ever made. Oh, and it handles like a sports car.
Yet, the decidedly amateur-hour presentation raised more questions than the truck’s reveal was prepared to answer. Foremost among them, just who are these people?
The guy in the New Balances punctuating every statement of his pitch with a not-at-all persuasive “right?” was Lordstown Motors founder and CEO Steve Burns. As you may have guessed, Burns has something of a track record.
Turns out, this isn’t the first time he’s bought a factory. In 2013, as CEO of plug-in conversion specialists AMP Electric Vehicles, Burns spearheaded the acquisition of the Workhorse Custom Chassis plant in Union City, Ind., builders of GM–based stepvans, from Navistar International. The initial plan was to sell electrified delivery trucks, but by 2017 the newly christened Workhorse Group was proudly showing off its own plug-in hybrid pickup protoype, the W-15. An Autoblog story at the time mentioned “almost $300 million worth of pre-orders” and by January 2018, Workhorse was taking $1,000 deposits, receiving almost a hundred in the first 24 hours, according to a giddy Burns.
Needless to say, those customers are still waiting for their trucks.
Workhorse Group’s other ventures under Steve Burns, it’s worth noting, included a proposal for the US Postal Service’s next-generation delivery vehicle (the contract has yet to be awarded), and, um, a personal helicopter. You could put down a $1,000 deposit on that, too.
Burns’s history of never-quite-realized promises aside, the main takeaway from the Endurance’s unveiling was how perfectly emblematic of our current moment it felt. In the speakers’ pleading, unconvincing, hucksterish tones, in the sheer half-assedness of the presentation — the Lordstown Motors lightning bolt-within-a-hex bolt logo hanging at stage left looking like it’d been fashioned from PVC pipe and fluorescent bulbs bought at Lowes — what was most clearly revealed was not a truck, but the naked incompetence now evident in so many of our institutions.
In the same way that the Fed and Treasury’s sudden embrace of Modern Monetary Theory has spun trillions of dollars out of thin air, not to pay for things like healthcare or rent cancellation that our pandemic-besieged populace desperately needs but simply to prop up the market and keep the whole house of cards from collapsing, the Lordstown Motors effort more than anything feels calculated to accomplish the only thing that makes the continuation of the status quo possible at this point: to keep people buying into a failed, bankrupt, dying system, whatever the cost.
The program carried the explicit endorsement of the Trump administration. At the launch, Vice President Pence echoed his boss’s words from a visit to Youngstown in 2017. “Don’t move; don’t sell your house,” Trump told his beleaguered acolytes. “We’re going to fill up those factories.”
We are meant to believe that the Lordstown Endurance is something other than vaporware; to imagine that the rechristening of Ohio’s rustbelt-gothic Mahoning Valley as Voltage Valley isn’t the most cynical of election-year political ploys; to expect a revolutionary, mass-produced electric vehicle from people who can’t find their way around streaming a product reveal.
At the core of this mixture of phony cheerleading and cruelty lies a pathos that is the United States circa 2020, distilled to its very essence.
Peter Hughes used to occasionally write about cars when not touring with the Mountain Goats; now, it would seem, he just occasionally writes about cars. 2000 Saab 9-5 Gary Fisher/Aero mongrel (daily), 1988 Saab 900 SPG (project), Peugeot 505 GL wagon (possibly abandoned).