Former Daimler executive Juergen Hubbert talked about how Mercedes-Benz came back from its "flip over" crisis in 1997. The automaker's new A class compact car rolled over during tests designed to simulate a driver swerving to avoid a moose that runs into the road. Now 76 and retired, Hubbert, who was head of Mercedes cars at the time, recalled the crisis with Michael Specht, one of the journalists who flipped the boxy, first-generation A class. Specht is a correspondent with Automobilwoche, a sister publication of Automotive News Europe.
Were the moose test and the A class's problems the greatest debacle in Mercedes' history?
At least in my time, there was nothing comparable.
How did the A class come about? Why did Mercedes want to enter the compact segment?
Our volumes for the upper segments were clearly rising. So was the market trend in the U.S. As a result, we needed a compact model as a counterweight to fulfill fleet fuel economy regulations.
Was the A class originally conceived as an electric car?
No, that idea first emerged with the Smart and Nicolas Hayek.
Were soft tire walls the reason for the A class’s rollover?
The tires fundamentally played a subordinate role. The problem was rather a combination of the position of the center of gravity and the chassis adjustment in an extreme driving situation.
Were you familiar with the moose test?
We really did every test that you can imagine. But we weren’t the only ones who were unfamiliar with the moose test, an extreme slalom at a high speed.
Did your testers look at competing products after the debacle?
Of course. Not as justification but to gain a better understanding.
When did you first hear about the rollover?
At the introduction of the Maybach in Tokyo. The news from Sweden reached us there during the press conference.
What did you think at that moment?
I thought this is bad, because we have put years of work into this car. But I had not thought it possible that the matter could reach this point and trigger worldwide reactions.
What happened in Tokyo at the time?
We changed our plans and flew back on the same day. We sat on the floor of the 747, the board member and the division director, and discussed what the cause was and what we could do.
Were you able to sleep well during the subsequent nights?
No, of course not. Too many things are going through your head. One is the technical solution. Another is the image of the brand. The third is your family. You have to prepare your family for the potential end to your career, with all the associated consequences.
What was going on in your office?
There was a conference room near my office. We converted it for a crisis team’s use.
How large was the team?
Up to 30 persons at its peak, but usually seven or eight. It included responsible parties from all the areas: development, production, materials management. Communications people were present right from the start. Even those on the external side, such as Springer & Jacoby, our advertising agency at the time. And last but not least: Bosch, our ESP supplier.
How many crisis meetings were there?
Many, every day, for more than a month.
Even at night?
Yes, naturally. The secretaries kept us supplied with food and drinks. The crisis room was more or less home during the first few weeks.
You could call it that.
Were voices raised during meetings?
No, everyone was in agreement: This involved the future of the brand. Shouting doesn’t do any good. The Mercedes brand ultimately depends on quality and safety. That is our DNA. That was at stake.
What was your crisis strategy?
To go to the public with the whole truth. That was one key to success.
What did that mean?
A recall of all 17,000 A class cars that had been built, conversion to ESP, and then a relaunch with ESP as standard. That was a first for the compact segment.
What did CEO Juergen Schrempp say about this?
I explained to him what our goal was. The discussion went back and forth quite intensely. But in the end, he said: Do it! Decisions of this scope require the chairman’s agreement.
Current Daimler Chairman Dieter Zetsche was development chief at the time. Was his job jeopardized by the debacle?
No, we were a team. But at the time, as the responsible board member, I offered my resignation.
How did Schrempp respond to your offer?
His answer was: That’s out of the question. Fix it.
What would be the consequences of the moose test today, in the era of the Internet and social media?
Today I am not sure whether you would be able to manage this successfully a second time. With social media, emotions enter the public discussion, and they frequently stand in the way of objective information and the solution to problems.