Elon Musk might be doing some weird stuff — but that’s nothing new for the car business

Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
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Tesla

  • Plenty of questions have been asked about Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk of late.
  • Musk has cranked out ill-advised tweets, taunted his critics, failed to take Tesla private, and smoked a little pot.
  • But Musk’s behavior is mild compared to other legends of the car business.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has never been a normal or predictable leader. But the past few months have been notably odd, even by his standards.

I’ve followed Tesla for over ten years, so I haven’t been as fazed by some observers of Musk’s conduct. You just don’t undertake something so foolhardy and statistically improbable as creating a new American car company from scratch by sticking to the CEO script. And Musk has rarely stuck to the script, preferring to improvise while innovating.

Ever since his infamous go-private tweet broke, however, an alarming new element has been added to the criticism of Musk. The argument edges into suggesting that he’s done things that are somehow morally wrong, rather than ethically questionable. He should, therefore, be punished, perhaps by the SEC, certainly by the markets.

This is nonsense. If Musk wanted to attempt to take Tesla private, as the CEO and and owner of 20% of the company, he was entitled to both give it a shot and fail trying. That’s just business. The scoldings look pretty Church Lady, as if Musk should go on TV an profess contrition and promise to never be bad again.

As for the ill-advised tweets and the pot-smoking … well, why don’t we look at some other famous characters in the car business to see how they handled themselves?


Enzo Ferrari

The founder of the legendary sport-cars company and racing operation was an epic autocrat – “il Commendatore” who cut his teeth in the early days of motorsport, racing for Fiat and Alfa Romeo when drivers routinely died horrific deaths behind the wheel.

He turned Ferrari into a racing juggernaut and gave birth to the spectacular, stylish, oh-s0-Italian roads cars we know today. Vintage Ferrari’s rule the auction realm, with coveted examples raking in tens of millions.

But his drivers both loved and despised him. And while he was a homebody and seemingly devoted husband, he had an illegitimate son with his mistress and had to deny patrimony for 30 years. Piero is now extremely rich thanks to his 10% stake in Ferrari.

The company that Enzo built is now worth $25 billion.


Henry Ford II

“The Deuce” was Ford founder Henry Ford’s grandson, a fun-loving scion who hadn’t been expected to take over the family business when he was thrust into the big job in 1945. Right away, he had to contend with gun-toting, union-busting Henry Bennett (Henry II armed himself for a brief period in the early 1940s).

Later, he tried to buy Ferrari, but was rebuffed by Enzo Ferrari. The Deuce was so enraged that he spent massive amounts of money to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966 (Ferrari had dominated Le Mans).

The Deuce wasn’t exactly a paragon of marital faithfulness. He was married three times, the second to his mistress and the third to another mistress after he married his first mistress. For the record, he was arrested for drunk driving in 1975, with his mistress who would become wife number three.

“Never complain, never explain,” he said at the time.

Colorful, right? It’s worth noting that despite all this, Henry Ford II effectively rescued Ford from midcentury ruin and turned it into a carmaker that, according to a 1978 New York Times profile by Lally Weymouth, sold $29 billion worth of cars in 1976.


Lee Iacocca

A profane, cigar-chomping sales genius who gave American the Ford Mustang in the 1970s, Iacocca engineered a government rescue of Chrysler in the late 1970s and returned it to strength in the 1980s.

Along the way, he cursed through plumes of stogies on his way to creating the minivan.

He was married three times – and divorced three times.

In the 1980s, however, when computers still filled rooms and Silicon Valley was farmland, Iacocca was considered the greatest businessman in the country.


Sergio Marchionne

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Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

The late CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles was an outspoken workaholic who slept very little, and when he did, he slept on private jets shuttling from Detroit to London to Italy to wherever FCA-owned Ferrari was competing in Formula One.

He was also a chainsmoker who chugged espresso to fuel his mania for excellence and loved driving Ferrari’s so fast that he wrecked one.

After the financial crisis and Chrysler’s bailout and bankruptcy in 2009, he convinced the Obama administration to give him $6 billion to merge Chrysler – then a basket case – with Fiat and take the problem off the government’s hands.

By the time Marchionne died unexpectedly in 2018, he has turned FCA into a $27-billion company.


John DeLorean

DeLorean was the most flamboyant executive in the history of the auto industry, a 1970s icon who shook up staid General Motors when he ran the Chevy division. Not the stuffy boardrooms of Detroit for DeLorean – he hung with the “Me Decade’s” Hollywood elites.

He was also married four times.

DeLorean is remembered for two things: automotive vision and a coke bust. He founded the DeLorean Motor Company, who DMC-12, with its stainless-steel body, was owned by Johnny Carson and served as the time machine in “Back to the Future.”

When DMC struggled financially, DeLorean was busted by the FBI for his role in a cocaine-selling scheme (he eventually beat the charges against him). The company was dissolved and closed its Irish factory.

Despite all that, he’s also remembered as a person to have the crazy ambition to create a new carmaker – and nearly pull it off!


Gianni Agnelli

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Michael Cooper/Getty Images

Agnelli oversaw Fiat during the Golden Years of its Italy’s postwar recovery.

He became one of the most successful and admired men in Europe, as legendary for his guidance of Fiat – which became emblematic if the Italian industrial economy – as for his influential personal style.

He was married once, to an Italian noblewoman, but linked to numerous women through his lifetime.

He was hardly a paragon of morality, and Italy forgave him and revered him regardless. Without him, there would be no Fiat as we know it