German humor, as is quite often pointed out, is no laughing matter. Which is precisely what makes this sendoff to Dieter Zetsche, who on Wednesday stepped down from his position as CEO of Daimler, so funny.
In a BMW ad called “retirement is about exploring your wide open future,” Zetsche (actually an actor dressed to look like him) says farewell on his last day, departs Daimler’s headquarters in Stuttgart, and is chauffeured home in an S-Class. He then opens the garage door and a moment later zooms off in...a plug-in hybrid BMW i8 Roadster.
It closes with:”Thank you Dieter Zetsche, for so many years of inspiring competition.”
The jab serves as a reminder that the two German companies were once staunch rivals. Yet now they're both facing the steep costs of electric-vehicle development, are recently merging their mobility operations, and have agreed to work together on self-driving vehicle technology, as Daimler heads into its own restructuring starting in November. They may in the future even develop vehicles together, or share platforms.
Zetsche pushed e-mobility ideas across the company when it wasn’t as much of a buzzword. His Daimler effectively saved Tesla in 2009 by purchasing 9.1 percent of it, which it held portions of until 2014. But he was sometimes brutally pragmatic on the transition to electric. “Manufacturers will not see a return within a reasonable time on the billions they’re investing now" in electric cars, Zetsche told Bloomberg in 2014.
Dieter Zetsche during Mercedes-Benz Generation EQ concept launch at the 2016 Paris auto show
Before becoming Daimler’s CEO he led what was then called DaimlerChrysler, from 2000 to 2006. Under his lead, Chrysler got gems that were hardly fuel-efficient but hit the spot with shoppers. Examples include the Chrysler 300, Dodge Challenger, and Dodge Charger, along with the latest Jeep Grand Cherokee—all of which continue with at least a few Mercedes hand-me-downs to this day. Diesel engines, always a strength for the parent company, were nudged into U.S. products as well.
During his U.S. tenure, Zetsche played himself in a short-lived “Ask Dr. Z” commercial campaign. Generally speaking, the intentionally clinical engineering-speak he used in the commercials fell flat with Americans—although those of us who cover the auto industry guffawed over the self-effacing bits.
Although he’ll likely be approved as chairman of Daimler in 2021, the German jabs may go away for a little while. Zetsche’s CEO successor, Ola Källenius, is a Swede.