American hot rod legend Carroll Shelby is experiencing something of a cultural moment this month, thanks to the feature film “Ford vs. Ferrari,” which I hope to see soon.
But last night I watched a new documentary called “Shelby American,” and got a surprise lesson in the repeating patterns of creativity, mediocrity and corporate leveling that seems to drive all aspects of modern life.
Skipping to the interesting part: After Ford Motor Company chairman Henry Ford II’s failure to essentially “buy” a European racing program capable of beating then-dominant Ferrari, Ford handed its troubled new GT40 race car to Shelby. He’d proven himself to Ford by winning short-track GT races with something called the AC Cobra, a custom car developed by the hot-rodders in Shelby’s 10,000-square-foot Southern California shop.
In the documentary, old men recall the creativity, camaraderie and sheer joy of working for Shelby in the early Sixties.
And from my vantage point in 2019, it’s impossible to listen to those hot-rodders’ stories without hearing the echoes of the entrepreneurial/DIY tech movement that invented the devices and platforms you’re using to read this post.
But back to the story.
Ford was an automotive giant in the 1960s, but it couldn’t build a competitive race car to save its corporate life. And they kept failing — in spectacularly humiliating fashion — until Ford gave up and let people WHO ACTUALLY RACED CARS — put their hands on the machines.
As “Shelby American” recounts via interviews with the drivers, fabricators and engineers who participated in these events (including the descendants of Henry Ford II), Shelby’s team succeeded not because of Ford’s support, but in spite of it. In the most telling example, after Shelby’s team fixed the mechanical systems that had plagued the GT40 program since its inception, Ford executives surprised Shelby with orders to replace the engines in all four of its cars just 24 hours before the next race.
Why? Hidden agendas within corporate management. The entirely predictable result? Failure.
Sound like something you’ve experienced?
Eventually Shelby’s team prevailed via hands-on, trial-and-error creativity, and Ford celebrated victory over Ferrari at Le Mans. But the cost of that success was the destruction of everything Shelby built.
His custom-car business still bore his name, but he no longer controlled it. Ford did. Corporate policies and procedures replaced the joy of cooperative. hands-on creativity. Eventually Shelby lost interest in the car business and started selling chili mix.
So there’s the cycle. Innovation. Success. Expansion. Dominance. Stagnation. Mediocrity. Evil. Destruction. Decline.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
My question isn’t HOW it happens. I’ve lived through four iterations of this basic experience: It happens because corporatism is a philosophy based on uniform management. The objects of that management — employees, products, risk, whatever — are irrelevant. What matters is that everything must be managed as interchangeable commodities — or eliminated.
My question isn’t even WHY it happens: It happens because global corporatism wins by eliminating competition in a cycle that eventually makes corporatism appear inevitable.
My question is: Why do we accept a system that’s so clearly makes us unhappy?
Anybody who has spent time in the military can tell you stories about the “hurry up and wait” absurdities of life under a top-down, regimented command structure. But here’s the scary thing: When I listen to my friends talk about their workplace experiences, they routinely make my Army stories about driving around in a truck looking for places to stash surplus furniture sound quaint.
Yes, corporations benefit from “economies of scale,” and I’ll be the first to tell you that if global food production were organized around individual market gardens like Black Sheep Manor, billions of people would starve within the first few months. But there’s no law of economics that says those are our only two choices.
This trend toward eliminating — or assimilating — everything in between is a political failure, not a economic inevitability. And on some level, I think we all know this. We just explain the problem differently.
Here’s how I think about it: if you want to understand why we should be scared of Artificial Intelligence, study corporate behavior. Corporations are quite like AI: A complex yet standardized machine, run by abstract yet universal rules, ruthlessly pursuing a single directive: Maximize quarterly shareholder value.
We’re worried that someday an intelligent machine will take on a goal like that and inadvertently destroy the world. But it’s already happening — and we’re all participating in it.
Carroll Shelby lived long enough to be brought back into Ford’s corporate “family,” where his iconic name alone was worth money to the larger brand. But his tragedy is that he went from winning races to joining this race to the bottom. A critic described “Ford vs. Ferrari” as “a tale of souls battling the soulless,” but apparently — and mercifully — the film ends before the older Shelby switched sides.
We don’t have to make the same choice, but here’s the problem: Choosing differently requires making changes to our lives and thinking.
And who wants to do that?