This past year will go down in history as the year when carmaking almost shriveled up and died, but so much more happened. Here's our list of the ten biggest automotive stories of 2008.
We've no doubt 2008 will go down in the books (if they print books in the future) as one of the most important years in automobile history. When selecting the biggest stories of the year we had to ignore our bias towards the most popular and entertaining stories, of which there were many, and focus on what events had the biggest impact on the car industry and culture we cherish. Here they are, from least to most important stories of 2008.
10.) Max Mosley Scandal
Max Mosley had two almost insurmountably difficult challenges in his life — one chosen and one thrust upon him. No one can blame him for the unfortunate situation of his birth, with a pater familias best known for being Britain's leading Nazi. Embracing the world of racing and taking on the role as head of the FIA, arguably one of the hardest jobs in all of motorsports, was the trial he assumed. For a time the controversies of racing kept the controversies of his past at bay. That was until March 30, 2008.
When British tabloid News Of The World published a video alleging Mosley engaged in sex acts with five prostitutes which, at the very least, were sado-masichistic. At worst, there were suggestions the acts were inspired by a Nazi prison camp (allegations not helped by Mosley clearly speaking in a mock-German accent and the prison uniforms). There were immediately calls for his head, with most observers expecting him to step down or be fired.
It didn't happen. Mosley won a series of court cases against NOTW for defamation after it became clear he was setup, inasmuch as you can setup someone with five prostitutes. Most miraculously, he got to keep his job. Talk about a comeback.
Most of us can only dream of having the skills and training to make it in a professional racing series like Formula One, the funds to compete in a series like One Lap of America, or the ability to keep oneself from dying of boredom behind the wheel of an always-turning-left NASCAR race. Then hope came in the form of a type of racing for the rest of us born with little-to-average skill and only a few dollars in our pocket. Two racing series have emerged. With a $500 maximum cost there's nothing cheaper and more competitive than the 24 Hours Of Lemons, which rewards clever wrenching as much as good driving. For the more advanced, the National Auto Sport Association has proven a fun and cost-effective alternative to the SCCA. Participation, coverage and enjoyment has hit new levels of interest, especially as the rest of world's racing leagues succumb to investor and sponsorship dollars drying up due to the Carpocalypse.
Pininfarina is one of the oldest and most respected design and manufacturing firms in Italy, known for countless famous design partnerships. After years of dwindling profits and business, it was hoped founder Batista Pininfarina's grandson Andrea could help turn around the business as its new CEO. Tragically, Andrea Pininfarina died in a Vespa accident at the age of 51. Pininfarina's death was a dual loss to both his family and his family's business, putting in peril the company he was in the process of reorganizing.
There's still hope for the company. The Pininfarina B0 electric car was a big hit at the Geneva Auto Show and, unlike many of the company's concepts, the vehicle will be a mass-production electric car set to roll of the lines at the end of 2009. Fittingly, the car is dedicated to Andrea.
Danica Patrick wasn't the first woman to compete in open-wheel racing but, as the first woman to win an IndyCar race, she's the most famous. After finishing second at the Detroit Grand Prix, Patrick outmatched Helio Castroneves and picked up the first win by a female driver at the Indy Japan 300. She may not have silenced all her critics, but with the wave of the checkered flag Patrick has shattered one glass ceiling.
This year saw the deaths of Boyd Coddington, Paul Newman and Phil Hill, to name a few. Though we mourn each loss, the untimely death of NHRA racer Scott Kalitta had the most immediate impact on his sport. After the horrific crash, the NHRA shortened distances to 1,000 feet for Funny Car and Top Fuel classes in advance of more safety changes the racing organization hopes will prevent future tragedies.
Lewis Hamilton gets a dual minority win — as he's not only the youngest Formula One Champion ever, but he's also black. Well, half black. Like Tiger Woods, Lewis Hamilton was practically raised into the sport, working and fighting his way to become the World Champion. Also like Tiger Woods, the reality of his talent quickly overwhelmed the reality of his birth. He may not be allowed to drive in France and he can't beat the Stig, but Hamilton is the man. Just don't drive with his dad.
4.) The Tata Nano
Not since the original VW Beetle has a small car captured the imagination of the world like the Tata Nano. The $2,500 car from Indian motor company Tata Motors may bring a small car revolution to the Indian Subcontinent much in the same way the Beetle and Model T expanded the world of car ownership... if they ever build it. Labor troubles and factory problems have slowed the production of the car. Although a recent spy photo of the Nano reignited rumors the car could see a production debut on December 28th, Ratan Tata's 71st birthday, we'll believe it when we see it.
The rise in fuel costs during the first half of the year (more on that later) corresponded with a rise in interest in alternatives to a mere internal combustion engine. Upcoming hybrid vehicles like the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid, which goes to market next year, and the 2011 Chevy Volt have captured the imagination of the press and, hopefully, consumers.
We've been waiting for the Tesla all-electric Roadster almost as long as the people who plopped down thousands of dollars to own one. After bad transmissions, bad management, bad legal counsel and bad PR, the company has finally gotten cars into the hands of some customers.The car is moving forward — at least when it is moving.
Electric propulsion aside, automakers are still looking for ways to cut down on emissions and fuel usage. Volkswagen has won journalists' hearts and awards with the Jetta and Sportwagen TDI offerings. However, no one yet knows whether Americans will figure out driving oil-burners is actually green.
Ford is betting on EcoBoost, a.k.a. direct-injection and turbocharging, to bring the rest of its fleet up to the higher expectations the American public has for lower consumption. GM hopes to propel sales with the Chevy Cruze, their 45 MPG answer to the question of how to bring MPG to the masses.
We're still waiting to see which of these technologies will break out from the pack, but one thing's for certain, American's want it to be easy for them to buy green — and in the first half of the year at least, they were willing to pay a premium for it.
2.) Gas Prices
The rapid rise of gas prices at the beginning of the year were followed by a just-as-stunning drop during the second half. But let's focus on that first half jump. Gas prices pushed consumers to shun large trucks and SUVs in unprecedented numbers, accelerating the marketing of alternative propulsion methods and also the collapse of the companies hoping to bring these methods to us.
When gas prices hit $5.40 a gallon in April of 2008 on the California coast we were on the verge of tears. It was so troubling Chrysler tried to sell cars by offering three years of gas at $2.99 a gallon, which seemed like a good offer to some (not so much now). Rather than offering lower price gas we told you how to save gas or, failing that, steal gas.
The Ford F-150 saw its monthly reign as the nation's top seller end at the hands of the Toyota Camry, Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. People started trading sex for gas and the spike in gas prices and corresponding drop in SUV/Truck sales presaged bad things. It would take an economy-shattering event to reverse the runaway increases in gas prices.
1.) The Carpocalypse
That economy-shattering event was the subprime mortgage crisis — a crisis in confidence forcing hundreds of thousands of potential vehicle buyers into turtle mode, hiding themselves and their money under their shells. It showed us first-hand a truism we should have remembered from those post-9/11 months before the U.S. automakers stepped up with 0% financing to "help keep America rolling" — that is, when people are scared, they don't buy cars. We call it the Carpocalypse, and with ramifications beyond just Detroit and the not-so-Big Three, it could almost get its own top ten list. It was just that big of a story. Frankly, even post-bailout, it's still that big of a story. So what happened?
The problems have been around for a while. The domestic automakers were in the process of restructuring when the collapse of the housing market precipitated the partial collapse of the banking industry which caused the economy to accelerate into a recession at the worst possible time for the auto industry. People, worried about their jobs or their homes, stopped buying cars. This hit Ford, GM and Chrysler the hardest because they were already reeling from slumping truck and SUV sales following the increase in gas prices.
On September 30th we reported on how the stock market collapse took GM and Ford stock down to a price per share of $8.51 and $4.17, respectively. In the following months Ford dropped to a low of $1.26 and GM reached as low as $2.79 a share. Car sales, for all automakers, fell off a cliff in October. With it came gas prices, hitting levels we haven't seen in half a decade. All of a sudden a bankruptcy for GM seemed plausible. Then things went even more crazy when Chrysler and GM began merger talks.
Eventually, the not-so-Big Three took to begging Congress. Unfortunately, they raised more ill will than operating capital by taking private jets instead of flying commercial. In addition, because none of them have watched cable television in years, they didn't expect the three-ring circus of Congressland, and came bearing no real plan. They learned their lesson, created real plans and drove to the Capitol where they were greeted with a big "no" orchestrated by Senate Republicans.
Having been rebuffed by Congress, the automakers won their bridge loans from The White House, though it may not be enough. The toll of the Carpocalypse is far from certain, but we know it's spreading. Chrysler has ceased production and no one knows when or if they're coming back. Honda posted its first half-year operating loss in more than a decade and Toyota, for the first time since the 1930s, may have a one-year loss.
The Acura NSX is dead. The Chinese may buy Hummer. GM is selling other stuff, too. If you have a job producing cars in the US you better start praying. If you have a job with a manufacturer-sponsored racing team you ought to join them.
We know where this started but we're not sure we know where it'll end. The Carpocalypse is the biggest story of 2008. We'll be drinking on New Year's to the hope it won't be the biggest story of 2009 as well.