This piece originally appeared in Reuters Magazine.
Henry Ford had to fight to build the Model T, even within the company that bore his name. The Russian immigrant engineer who saved the Chevy Corvette bucked the General Motors brass to do it. Lee Iacocca and Hal Sperlich built the minivan at Chrysler only after the vehicle—and they—had been rejected at Ford.
Those three cars were not just huge commercial successes—each also placed its stamp on American life, much as the iPad has today. Two were utterly practical while the third was ostentatiously stylish, but what they all had in common is this: The people who created them overcame formidable obstacles to put them on the road. Unblinking determination is a common theme in the biggest American business success stories, such as Ray Kroc’s damn the-odds effort to build McDonalds and Steve Jobs’ audacity in reshaping Apple. Luck and timing are involved too, but they aren’t enough. The special sauce (apologies to Kroc) is a strain of determination that blends self-belief with belief in the commercial potential of a product.
Determination and self-belief sometimes goes awry in the auto industry, as in other arenas. Exhibit A is the Chevrolet Corvair, introduced in 1960 with an innovative air-cooled, rear-mounted engine that produced 29 miles a gallon, more than double most cars of its day. Despite the weight concentrated in the car’s rear, Ed Cole, the Corvair’s creator, stoutly rejected putting a weight-stabilizing bar under the car’s front end. The result was a plethora of accidents and a muckraking 1965 book by an unknown lawyer named Ralph Nader: Unsafe at Any Speed. The Corvair scandal prompted a boom in product-liability litigation that continues to this day.
Then there’s John Z. DeLorean, whose 1970s effort to build an “ethical sports car” in Belfast collapsed amid financial overreach. Most guys would have tried to rescue their company with an IPO or junk bonds, but DeLorean tried selling cocaine. Though he was acquitted at trial when a jury judged that the FBI entrapped him, his career and his company were finished.
But both Cole and DeLorean enjoyed enormous success before their signature failures. Cole created a small-block V8 engine that powered the legendary ’57 Chevies and was a key figure in the success of the Corvette. DeLorean created the Pontiac GTO, which launched the muscle-car craze of the 1960s and still invokes strong emotions among onetime boy racers. A sign on a restored GTO displayed in suburban Chicago a few years ago declared: “This car was built in honor of Almighty God, in memory of my dad, and of my fellow hometown veterans who did not have the chance to live these memories.”