What's driving Peter De Lorenzo? 

“Much to certain people’s extreme chagrin (in this town, anyway) autoextremist.com is not going away.” —“Rant”

   

Peter De Lorenzo likes to wear his black cowboy hat when he drives his black Cadillac DeVille DTS. When cruising in the red Audi TT coupe, he dons a baseball cap and wire-framed sunglasses. But on this fall day, he neither wears a hat nor sits behind the wheel of a prized automobile.

De Lorenzo relaxes at his narrow desk, looking a little spent. He gently pets his small cat, Mickey. Enveloped by the soothing melon-colored walls of his home office in Birmingham, he calmly describes his new life’s mission. De Lorenzo, 50, has just put to bed the 125th issue of his flamboyant online publication, autoextremist.com. And if it is anything like those before it, he is sure to piss off some readers and make others laugh out loud.

Each week, on the laptop before him, the seemingly subdued man pounds out acerbic, witty tirades about the auto industry. He is a fervent critic of car manufacturers, particularly the Big Three.

But the auto aficionado doesn’t simply slam the automakers. The mainstream media are also prime targets. De Lorenzo regularly blasts them for coddling the manufacturers — on whom they rely for advertising dollars.

His goal is to shame the media into publishing penetrating pieces that expose the underbelly of the auto world. Or as De Lorenzo puts it, peering over his reading glasses, “My mission is to influence the influencers.”

Whether he’s accomplishing this goal is a subject of debate among the many journalists and auto executives who read his site. Regardless of how one views his opinions, there is no question that he has created a buzz in the automotive community.

But what turned an auto enthusiast — a man who spent more than two decades inside the car industry — into its vigilant critic?

“And let’s be realistic, the Saturn was a mediocre product at best, with a truly obnoxious little four-banger for power, one that rivaled a decent Briggs & Stratton riding lawn mower for output (but actually suffered in a noise comparison when it came to the dulcet-tones of a lawn-eater at full chat).” —“Rant”

Revving up

De Lorenzo rises each morning at 5:30. In his spacious home, surrounded by framed posters from European and Grand Prix road races, he reads five daily newspapers. He may comment on some news stories in his weekly column, “Rant,” which is featured on autoextremist.com. Other news items are clipped and filed away for future columns.

After a few morning news shows, including sports news on ESPN (De Lorenzo is a pro-football fanatic), he moves to his desk to begin writing by 8:30 a.m.

“I try to write in the morning. It’s when I’m sharper,” says De Lorenzo.

But the writing isn’t always completed in the morning. Sometimes, he doesn’t finish “Rant” or his other column, “Fumes,” which is strictly about auto racing, until 11 p.m. Tuesday night, one hour before the new issue of autoextremist.com is posted.

Wednesday, he’s often wiped out.

“It’s like having a weekly paper,” says De Lorenzo, who also edits two other columns — “Road Kill” and “WordGirl” — that appear on the site.

Dr. Bud E. Bryant, who lives in Texas, writes “Road Kill,” which was originally to be a test-drive column but has turned into colorful ramblings about the doctor’s wife and former girlfriend.

“Lots of women write him e-mails,” says De Lorenzo. “Sometimes they say, ‘We don’t want to hear about cars, tell us about Jolene. What’s going on with Nadine?’”

“WordGirl” is a mix of personal stories and auto observations. It’s written by a friend of De Lorenzo’s who uses the alias because she works in the auto industry.

The work week doesn’t end with the posting of that week’s writings. De Lorenzo receives about 200 e-mails each week from around the country. He answers every one.

“I’m reading all the time and I’m e-mailing all the time. I’m immersed,” says De Lorenzo. “I’m like a weekly national columnist now, basically.”

But he isn’t compensated like a national columnist. The Web site, which draws about 120,000 hits a month, does not earn a penny. “Cash flow is a problem,” De Lorenzo says. In January the site will begin charging a subscriber fee to pay for the overhead.

De Lorenzo, whose investments pay his bills, sometimes considers hanging it up and returning to his former career. But he’s hooked on raising hell.

“GM’s dreaded and paralyzing corporate ‘culture’ will be rendered obsolete … The Brand Marketing Dweebs and the ‘Product Guy’ (or Gal) Poseurs will be relegated to the Scrap Heap.” —“Rant”

The genius next door

In the summer of 1961, De Lorenzo and some childhood friends heard a roar. Four silver hot rods turned a corner in their Birmingham neighborhood and rolled past.

The sun glinted off the tailpipes. Their smooth finishes shone. Neither De Lorenzo nor his friends had ever laid eyes on cars such as these. The boys shouted excitedly, but the motors drowned out their voices. They pedaled after the silver streaks.

The cars pulled into a driveway a block from De Lorenzo’s home. De Lorenzo and his friends sat on their bikes at the end of the drive, staring at the cars, which ticked and sputtered as the engines cooled.

Before them sat the original Corvette Sting Ray, which had been transformed from a race car to a show car. Two other Corvettes and a Corvair Sebring Spyder also were parked in the drive.

And Bill Mitchell, the man who oversaw their design, lived in the house. The boys pelted him with questions, and Mitchell relished their fervor.

Riding bikes to Mitchell’s home became a weekly ritual for De Lorenzo and his pals. When a new batch of cars pulled into the drive, the boys were there to inspect them.

But on Saturday afternoons, De Lorenzo headed to Mitchell’s alone to study every inch of every car. The young auto enthusiast hoped to get a private audience with the king of cars — and get a spin in one of them as well.

After several solo pilgrimages, De Lorenzo got up the nerve to introduce himself. The designer was pleased to meet the son of Anthony De Lorenzo, GM’s public relations vice president. His being “one of Tony’s boys” sealed their relationship.

“Hop in,” said Mitchell, motioning to the Sebring Spyder.

It was only a five-minute trip to the drug store, but De Lorenzo was thrilled to tag along. He ogled the silver leather interior and peered out of the Plexiglas windows. Mitchell made sure the boy fastened his seat belt, though he didn’t wear one himself.

That summer, and in the years to follow, De Lorenzo was a regular passenger in Mitchell’s newest rods, riding shotgun in every GM concept car of that era.

Through the years, De Lorenzo heard stories of how Mitchell bullied his staff and threw tantrums when GM executives questioned his design. De Lorenzo did not see this side of Mitchell.

De Lorenzo befriended Mitchell’s stepson Tony and the two spent countless hours in the basement, perusing the designer’s vast collection of auto paraphernalia.

“I’ll never forget what a shrine to the automobile it was,” wrote De Lorenzo in one of his columns.

Mitchell’s favorite design illustrations, including some that he drew as a boy, hung on walls under spotlights. Autographed photos of Grand Prix drivers dating to the 1930s were displayed. A Plexiglas case contained the helmets, goggles and gloves of a famous race car driver. Model cars, paintings, plaques and badges packed the room.

Occasionally, Mitchell would join the boys. On one unforgettable day, Mitchell gave the boy a guided tour of his collection.

“It was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life,” wrote De Lorenzo. “What struck me right away was how he was as much of a pure fan and in awe of his favorite drivers as anyone.”

De Lorenzo’s favorite part of the tour was when he asked Mitchell about a particular drawing he had done.

“He’d go off for several minutes explaining every nuance, every line and every shape down to the last detail,” he writes. “I realized right then and there that my love for everything automotive had some sort of place in life — and maybe even a future.”

“People don’t like to be called on the carpet for at best being mediocre and at worst being just plain stupid.” —“Rant”

Road trip

For 22 years, De Lorenzo worked at advertising companies, creating ads primarily for the auto industry. He describes his career as a long, tedious trip “punctuated with fleeting moments of absolute fun.”

What frustrated De Lorenzo most about the advertising business — which he also writes extensively about in “Rant” — are the car companies. Ads were reviewed by several auto execs before they got the stamp of approval. By the end of this laborious process, the content was watered down and the message was lost, says De Lorenzo. Then the same car company that rejected an ad would gripe when a competitor decided to go with it.

“They’d turn around and say, ‘Why can’t you make a commercial like that for us?” says De Lorenzo.

He says the advertising agencies also lost their creative edge.

“The business has become so sober and calculated that you felt like you were in a straitjacket,” he says.

A high point for De Lorenzo came in 1984, when he was pulled off the Pontiac account to create an ad campaign for General Tire. De Lorenzo wasn’t pleased. So he put together a monstrously expensive campaign that he was certain the frugal tire company would reject.

“I said we’re going to go to the most famous race track in the world, the Nurburgring, in Germany. And we’re going to take cars over there and we’re going to shoot commercials with General Tires on these German cars,” recalls De Lorenzo. “I thought, I’ll work on this, they won’t pick it and I’ll be done.”

He presented the idea to the top execs in Akron, Ohio. They approved it on the spot.

“So we go to Germany for three-and-half weeks and it was one of the most memorable experiences of my career,” says De Lorenzo.

“We set out to cut through the pap and the puffery proffered by the car company PR departments and to break through the KGB-like control that the car companies love to place on anything and everything uttered or written about them.” —“Rant”

Road rage

De Lorenzo hadn’t aspired to write ad copy and create commercials for auto companies. However, it is no surprise that he wound up doing so. He grew up immersed in the auto world. His father, Anthony De Lorenzo, was a legendary General Motors executive who ran the public relations department for more than 22 years before he retired in 1979. His older brother, Tony De Lorenzo — an account executive for Lear, which provides interior systems for the auto industry — raced Corvettes for 10 years and won major endurance events.

Peter De Lorenzo raced Formula Fords for a brief period in Britain. But in 1972, he returned to the United States to finish college and develop a passion for writing. When he graduated from Michigan State University in 1976, there were not many jobs for the fledgling writer. So he became an auto salesman, hoping to some day have a dealership of his own.

But De Lorenzo was not cut out for talking people into purchasing cars they couldn’t afford or didn’t need. He sold only six cars in eight weeks. His manager fired him, lamenting, “You just march to a different drummer.”

De Lorenzo held an assortment of uninspiring jobs until 1977, when a friend who headed an advertising agency asked him what he wanted to do with his life.

“I said, ‘I like to write,’ and he offered me a job as a junior copy writer,” says De Lorenzo.

For more than two decades, De Lorenzo worked on ads for the Big Three and foreign car companies. He held jobs on the East and West Coasts. He got to know the auto industry from the inside, and he didn’t like what he saw.

He often complained about the lackluster cars the Big Three produced. Just as teams of auto executives reviewed ad campaigns, car designs were being approved by committee, says De Lorenzo. Consequently, the final product is often mediocre, he says.

When it came time to come up with the “committee-created” car, De Lorenzo says, “No one would ever sit back and say, ‘You know, that car is kind of ugly.’”

After one particularly frustrating meeting in 1999, when one of his ad campaigns was rejected, De Lorenzo decided to launch autoextremist.com. Originally, he thought it would be a hard-copy publication. But he couldn’t afford such a costly endeavor and decided to run it on the Web.

To draw attention to the site, De Lorenzo sent e-mails to every auto magazine and news editor, as well as to the auto companies.

“That’s how the buzz got started,” he says.

“They can parade all the women executives out for all to see … but the fact of the matter is it’s a load of crap. The car companies … are an insular ‘White boy Culture.’” — “Rant”

The influencer?

The first six months the site was running, De Lorenzo wrote his columns under the pseudonym Michael Paratore, his middle name and his mother’s maiden name, respectively. He used the alias because he was still a vice president at the Warren-based ad agency Campbell-Ewald, and didn’t want to lose his job or have the company accused of supporting the site.

Considering his prose, he had reason to be concerned. In his first issue, he described auto executives as “a narrow-minded, frightfully conservative, study in extreme paranoia whose main job in life when he gets up in the morning is to cover his ass.”

He then accused the automotive press of subservience to the car companies, bashed a Forbes reporter for writing a puff piece, called WJR AM 760 “a monument to vapidity” and slammed the station’s former morning host, the late J.P. McCarthy, for focusing more on auto-industry personalities than the product or performance.

The incendiary writing evoked a slew of heated e-mails, which are posted on the site. An anonymous GM employee told De Lorenzo, aka Paratore, that “you guys are dead wrong about GM. You can’t say the things you say and get away with it, either.”

But one high-level executive wrote, “I don’t know who you are, but you are so right on the mark, it’s scary.”

A friend at the ad agency told De Lorezno that when sitting in meetings he heard a top executive avow that the creator of autoextremist.com “had to be in advertising because he knows too much about what’s going on.”

About six months after the site was launched, a General Motors executive discovered Paratore’s true identity. That’s when De Lorenzo quit his job and divulged his real name on the Web site. He assured his readers that he would not abandon his mission to tell “the bare-knuckled, unvarnished, high-octane truth,” just as the site’s masthead reads.

Is De Lorenzo really influencing the influencers?

“I don’t think I changed my coverage deliberately, but he enlarges the debate,” says Automotive News reporter Dave Guilford.

Katie Kerwin, Business Week’s Detroit bureau chief, is a big fan of autoextremist.com. Though Kerwin thinks it is a “great read,” she doesn’t think De Lorenzo alters her coverage of the auto industry.

“He validates rather than turns my mind around,” says Kerwin, who recalls a column De Lorenzo wrote about GM “ruining” Saturn. “I thought, ‘Yes, I wrote about that nine months ago,’” she says.

“We take what is on the site with a pound of salt,” says Csaba Csere, editor-in-chief of Car and Driver, which De Lorenzo has criticized for overrating cars.

“Autoextremist’s words spew out, it’s like oral diarrhea,” says Csere. “Nobody really quotes him,” he says.

But De Lorenzo says that he has been quoted in the New York Times a few times, appeared on CNN and on John McElroy’s weekly public TV show “Autoline Detroit” a half dozen times. McElroy, who also hosts “Automotive Insight” on WWJ-AM 950, says it is not easy to influence the media, which is reliant on auto companies for advertising dollars.

“I’ve seen it myself, a car company doesn’t think it got praised enough or is criticized, it pulls its ads,” says McElroy.

But he says journalists have gotten story ideas from De Lorenzo’s site — just as De Lorenzo gleans ideas from mainstream scribes. “It probably goes both ways,” says McElroy.

What is clear is that the auto industry and the journalists who cover it are paying attention to De Lorenzo.

“We don’t have to be accountable for basic stupidity — isn’t that why we live in a litigious society? Screw up and sue somebody — it’s the American way!” — “Rant”

Secret admirer

Micheline Maynard, who teaches at the University of Michigan business school and frequently contributes to the New York Times, calls autoextremist.com a must read. “I read it every week and it is sometimes the best laugh I had all week.”

Maynard says De Lorenzo is a needed voice in Detroit, which generally has a myopic view of the world.

“Detroit is the center of the U.S. auto industry, but there is a whole other auto industry and Peter tends to remind people in Detroit of this,” says Maynard. “Sometimes I don’t think the auto companies want to admit that they pay attention to him. No one can say that Peter doesn’t understand Detroit.”

Steve Harris, vice president of communications for General Motors, is not impressed with De Lorenzo’s work.

“I often don’t agree with his over-the-top opinions,” says Harris. “Sometimes he is extremely hard on individuals, which I don’t think is necessary.”

De Lorenzo railed mercilessly on Ron Zarrella, who recently stepped down as the head of GM’s North American operations. Zarrella is everything that De Lorenzo despises about the auto industry. De Lorenzo opined that Zarrella thought he could sell GM cars by marketing the company name and without paying attention to the product.

When Zarrella announced that he was returning to Bausch and Lomb as the company CEO, De Lorenzo threatened to establish a Web site called contactlensesextremist.com.

Now that Bob Lutz has replaced Zarrella, De Lorenzo says that GM has a shot at refocusing the company on making great products.

As for Ford, De Lorenzo says that they also got into trouble when “(Jacques) Nasser … took his eyes off the product ball and things came crashing down on them all at once,” he says. “Ford has a lot of work to do and can, in fact, stabilize if they bring up some hot new products.”

Ford representatives did not return Metro Times’ phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.

De Lorenzo is less optimistic about DaimlerChrysler.

“It’s a question of whether they can survive,” he says. “Their new hit products leveled off and they let internal costs get out of control. That killed them.”

De Lorenzo suspects that the German parent company may sell Chrysler.

The current economic climate is making matters worse for the Big Three. “When the economy goes down, the auto businesses are the first to go,” says De Lorenzo.

For all the severe commentary on autoextremist.com, no one has tried to shut down the site. But De Lorenzo says that a GM security official publicly called him a “troublemaker” and “someone they should be concerned with.”

“I find it interesting that there are those businesses that would love to get him in a dark alley with a knife, and those who love him,” says Paul Eisenstien, who founded thecarconnection.com. “There is a very low threshold of pain in this town.”

But De Lorenzo has a fan in at least one senior auto executive. About a year ago, De Lorenzo received a call from a Big Three CEO. De Lorenzo wouldn’t reveal his name for the record, but assures that the clandestine CEO invited him to lunch and raved about his site.

“I was impressed that he took the time to find out about us,” says De Lorenzo. “It was nice to be taken seriously. He said, ‘You can’t stop now, you’re a force.’”

Not everyone in the industry is afraid to publicly acknowledge De Lorenzo’s expertise.

DaimlerChrysler is the sole sponsor of the site. Ken Levy, DaimlerChrysler’s vice president of communications, wouldn’t say how much the car company pays for the sponsorship. But he says that his firm didn’t want to see the site “dry up for lack of funds. I didn’t want this contrarian voice to vanish.”

Levy explains, “Every industry needs someone who takes a critical view of it.”

He doesn’t always agree with De Lorenzo, but Levy, who has worked at each of the Big Three companies in the past 25 years, says, “A lot of what he writes is right on target. He definitely has a good knowledge of the industry.”

Though De Lorenzo is probably the auto industry’s harshest critic, he also wants to see it thrive as it once did. He grew up in the golden era of Detroit autos, a time when Motown ruled the industry, when foreign automakers were mere gnats, when focus groups and brand marketing didn’t dictate car design. It was a time, De Lorenzo says wistfully, when he lived among gutsy, creative visionaries.

“I’m trying to get people to realize that making great products equals great fun,” he says.

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times’ staff writer. She can be reached at amullen@metrotimes.com or

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