Motor Mouth: What fuels automakers? Childish envy

Seriously, it was enough to make me wonder whether the human race, what with our trips to the moon and advanced electric cars, has evolved at all from our primitive beginnings. This week, buried way deep in the detritus that is my inbox, came the news that Mercedes-Benz is looking at taking a large stake in troubled Italian motorcycle manufacturer MV Agusta.

Now, I can hear most of you asking, what could the world’s largest purveyor of luxury cars possibly gain from acquiring a struggling manufacturer of quirky (if stunningly beautiful) superbikes? As visually outlandish and screamingly fast as MV’s Brutales and F3s are, it’s extremely doubtful there’s anything technological for the German giant to learn from the perennially-beleaguered Italian motorcycle manufacturer. It will glean little from MV’s marketing department because, as far as I can see, MV doesn’t have a marketing department. Oh, one could make the argument that Teutonic stylists might well be advised to steal a brush stroke or two from their Italian counterparts, but I doubt very much that the flourishes garnishing an outrageous Italian superbike are going to help make Mercedes any less stodgy. At first blush, then, there just doesn’t seem to be any good reason for the company to waste its hard-earned euros on a motorcycle manufacturer that most of you have never even heard of.

Motor Mouth: Thou shalt covet thy rival’s customer

Ah, but you see, BMW manufactures motorcycles. Always has. In fact, it is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of high-end motorcycles (if not in numbers then certainly in quality, stature and performance). That alone has been enough for Benz’s muy macho elders to covet BMW’s sandbox so much that Mercedes once seriously looked at acquiring Harley-Davidson. (Former M-B Canada CEO Marcus Breitschwerdt led the charge on the possible buyout and remains a fan of the Motor Company.)

MV Agusta F4RR.

MV Agusta F4RR.
Handout, MV Agusta

And recently the ante was upped even further. Audi, you may remember, acquired the prestigious moto-maker Ducati a couple of years ago (indeed, right under the nose of Mercedes whose AMG performance division was just about to climb into bed with the Italian marque’s racing team). That meant both of Mercedes’ arch-rivals have prestigious two-wheelers in their portfolio. Never mind that Ducati’s time in the sun has faded or that its once-vaunted racing team couldn’t win a competition even as MotoGP stewards bent all the rules in its favour, machismo dictates that if someone else in the sandbox has something, you better damned well get something better.

Oh, David, you do exaggerate, I hear you thinking. These are the most sophisticated automakers in the biz run by the most intelligent engineers and marketing staffs in the world. How dare you debase their lofty goals as something as emotionally stinted as “hey, it’s my ball” childishness.

Well, how about this? Mercedes-Benz launched Maybach — a brand dormant in the automotive world since 1940, barely known in its heyday and all but forgotten even by most Germans — only after BMW had acquired Rolls-Royce and, you guessed it, Audi had taken over Bentley. The English brands, storied and coveted the world over, have since thrived (especially Bentley as Audi seems particularly adept at this marque makeover business; witness Lamborghini) while Maybach stopped production in 2011, less than a decade after its supposedly triumphant return and, according to Car magazine, losing 330,000 euros on every one of the 3,000 or so 57s and 62s it sold worldwide.

A Daimler AG Mercedes-Benz logo sits on the alloy wheel of a Daimler AG Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedans on the assembly line at the Mercedes-Benz plant of Daimler AG on January 24, 2014 in Sindelfingen, Germany.

A Daimler AG Mercedes-Benz logo sits on the alloy wheel of a Daimler AG Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedans on the assembly line at the Mercedes-Benz plant of Daimler AG on January 24, 2014 in Sindelfingen, Germany.
Thomas Niedermueller, Getty Images

And, more recently, this: At the 2012 Paris auto show, Mercedes announced, with great fanfare, its eScooter lithium-ion-powered scooter to be marketed under its eco-friendly Smart brand. Just a couple of hours later, BMW showed off its Scooter E (originally intended to be part of the Mini brand but soon to be produced under the BMW label). Of course, that could have just been a huge coincidence, but far more likely it’s that most base of human emotions — envy.

It is, of course, unfair to label BMW and Mercedes as the only Hatfield-McCoy animus in the auto business. The Ford versus General Motors rivalry, especially in NASCAR, is legendary and, though far more subtle in its application, Toyota and Honda aren’t much friendlier (executives who migrate from one to the other often find themselves excommunicated for life though, paradoxically, if they move to a lesser Japanese automaker, say Subaru or Infiniti, their ouster is not nearly as terminal).

We think — because of their grandiose success — that there must also be all manner of glorious thesis and rigorous study to everything automakers do. Sometimes, it’s nothing more than, “But mommy, Bobby has a new baseball glove!”

About David Booth