The Worst Day of the Year Ride is February 11th

General Motors: An apology… and an opportunity?

Posted by on October 14th, 2011 at 12:12 pm

“We’re in the business of transportation… we are looking at other modes of transportation because not everybody wants to get around in a vehicle and not everyone needs to own a car.”
— Tom Henderson, GM Media Relations

Last night I got a phone call from General Motors’ self-described “PR Guy” Tom Henderson (actual title is Manager, Cross Brand Communications and Media Relations). I had mentioned I wanted to talk with someone from GM about their “Stop pedaling… start driving” ad and Henderson was the guy who came forward.

Our conversation happened before Mark Degnan, Director of Local Advertising and Marketing for GM, posted a statement about the ad on the company’s “Fast Lane” blog (which has since been unanimously panned by commenters).

During our chat, Henderson shared with me that he’s an “avid cyclist” himself (mainly a mountain-biker) and that “It’s not like we [GM] don’t get it.” “I love cycling and think it’s a great lifestyle… And so do many here,” he shared.

As for the ad, Henderson admitted that, in hindsight, it was “ill-conceived and poorly executed.”

GM’s hindsight was informed by hundreds of negative reactions to the ad via Twitter, GM’s Facebook page, and on blog comments. “We definitely heard from the community… And the entire campaign is being re-evaluated. We’ve stopped all ads on college campuses.”

Where did the idea come from?

“It was something born out of a lot of conversations we had with college students over two years. We asked them, what would it take to reach through and resonate with you guys and they started telling us about their plans and desires… When they get their first job, one of the things they want is a new car. That was the overriding message — get a decent job, get a decent car.”

The notion of moving from bike to car was aspirational and the way we pulled that ad together, in hindsight, didn’t convey that properly.”

If they want a decent car, there are ways to do that without making fun of bicycling aren’t there?

“I agree and I understand that. And like I say, hindsight is a good thing and a bad thing… You can see the things you’ve done wrong but at least you can learn from them… I think that just goes into the category of this was a mistake… something not well conceived or well executed.”

I shared with Henderson that a lot of people (me included) have misgivings about GM’s past; About their role in dismantling public transit in America and the infamous “creeps and weirdos” transit ad they ran (and then pulled after a similar public outcry) in 2003…

“That’s not something we have an interest in, in making other modes of transportation look bad. We’re in the business of transportation.”

I then mentioned, somewhat jokingly, that GM might consider making bicycles someday. “I don’t know if we’re going to go there,” replied Henderson, “but we are looking at other modes of transportation because not everybody wants to get around in a vehicle and not everyone needs to own a car.”

What about the image of the woman being splashed that’s still on the website (as of 11:45 am on Friday 10/14)? “That is coming down as well,” he said. (UPDATE: It has been removed! Thanks Tom).

Beyond looking for some good PR, I urged Henderson to consider this valuable branding opportunity for GM. They can be the first U.S. automaker to show they understand there’s more money to be made by appealing to the vast number of Americans who like to ride bikes — and drive cars — than there is in alienating them.

The way Americans move around — and our relationship with cars — is changing. The sooner GM gets in front of that curve, went my argument, the better position they’ll be in to take advantage of it.

Toward the end of our chat, Henderson re-iterated that this entire situation has been a “learning moment” for the company.

Hopefully that’s really the case.

GM has an opportunity right now, to show us that they truly are listening. And not just listening, but responding. This whole episode isn’t about “cyclists” or “bike advocates” being “offended” (even though that’s how the media spins it). This is about doing the right thing and being a responsible corporate citizen.

Will GM seize this moment to turn a lot of negative attention into a lasting positive? Or will they just go back to their old ways and think that an apology and a blog post is enough? We’ll see. Stay tuned.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you — Jonathan

  • BURR October 14, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    most people who actually claim to be ‘avid’ cyclists are weekend cartoppers.

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    • Randall S. October 14, 2011 at 1:20 pm

      However, the kind of people who cycle for transportation aren’t the kind of people who buy brand new SUVs every 3 years.

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    • Paul Souders October 14, 2011 at 2:04 pm

      If you have to declare your bona fides, you probably don’t have any.

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      • Richard October 14, 2011 at 2:57 pm

        “Hey, listen . . . some of my best friends are cyclists . . .”

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    • fatmidwesternwhiteguy October 16, 2011 at 7:33 am

      Not a smart idea to play elitist. It’s also not a smart idea to pretend to know most people do or think.

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    • MIddle of the Road Guy October 16, 2011 at 9:54 am

      So that makes you better than them?

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    • Hugh Johnson October 16, 2011 at 2:44 pm

      Epic fail.

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    • mh October 16, 2011 at 8:52 pm

      Oooh, I’ve not heard “cartoppers” before. Succinct.


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  • noah October 14, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    If they want to develop a bike-friendly culture at GM, this backpedaling of theirs is a nice way to start!

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  • Gabba-gabba October 14, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    some of my best friends are avid cyclists

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    • Hugh Johnson October 16, 2011 at 2:49 pm

      How many UAW members are cyclists do you think?

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      • Paul Johnson October 16, 2011 at 3:01 pm

        All of them, at least incidentally, since bicycles are still the most popular mode of vehicular transportation inside factories of any real size.

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  • Jim Labbe October 14, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    Great coverage.

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  • seeshellbike October 14, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    I remember Volkwagen and Trek teamed up a few years ago to promote both. I think you got a roof rack and Trek bicycle when you bought the Jetta model. GM just doesn’t get it.

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    • Spiffy October 14, 2011 at 1:35 pm

      yeah I thought the Jetta Trek models were a great idea… a car to drive out to the mountain and ride your bike…

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      • wsbob October 14, 2011 at 6:19 pm

        Brand preference aside, Trek is noted for making some very fine bikes. Volkswagen was kind of smart to associate its name with Trek. Compare Volkswagen’s wisdom to that in GM’s apparent decision to associate it’s name with the wallyworld GMC Denali bikes. (Amazon sells them too.).

        The quality of bike GM chooses to associate its name with conveys to the public what it thinks about bikes as a mode of transportation.

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        • Bill E October 18, 2011 at 5:04 am

          Wallyworld Denali bikes are the preferred ride of people who have lost drivers licenses to DUI’s.

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    • MIddle of the Road Guy October 16, 2011 at 9:55 am

      well, if it was such a good idea why isn’t VW still doing it?

      GM sells cars – that is their purpose.

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      • Hugh Johnson October 16, 2011 at 2:45 pm

        yeah the “motors” part of their name kinda implies that. : )

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      • wsbob October 16, 2011 at 5:01 pm

        MIddle of the Road Guy
        well, if it was such a good idea why isn’t VW still doing it?
        GM sells cars – that is their purpose.
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        Why VW isn’t presently running a promotion involving a bike included in the purchase of a motor vehicle, is a good question; but the fact that such a promotion isn’t currently being run by VW doesn’t particularly mean including a quality made bike with the purchase of a car was a bad idea.

        Trek’s style, quality and reputation lent cache to VW, and probably some of the same from VW to Trek. People that appreciate and use transportation like a Jetta and a Trek suggest smart, active people. Meanwhile…there’s GM and its GMC Denali bicycle (Pssst…pick the bike up at Walmart.).

        I can envision other wise auto-bike promotions, for example: Micro cars like the Smart Car paired with a folding Dahon Muo Uno. A ingeniously designed and styled folding bike would also be a good companion to a Fiat 500 or a Mini-Cooper.

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      • Pete October 17, 2011 at 4:06 pm

        The fact that people are still talking about it means that VW already achieved their goal with it.

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  • Paul Johnson October 14, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Hopefully, this really is a learning moment, but I have my doubts based on a previous anti-transit ad suggesting only “freaks and weirdos” ride the bus. Irony: That ad featured a GM product: The GM Classic Transit.

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    • Randall S. October 14, 2011 at 1:22 pm

      The problem is, ultimately, social. I had a girlfriend once declare that “the bus is for poor people.” It was neither the first, nor the last, time I’ve heard similar sentiments expressed.

      In American culutre, you buy a car as soon as you can afford it. If you can’t afford a car, only then do you ride a bicycle or take public transportation.

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      • Jack October 15, 2011 at 10:35 am

        I think in most cases, if you can’t afford a car you go ahead and buy one anyway because someone has some no-money-down offer and then you live out your years in massive debt. My nieghborhood is overflowing with sparkling SUVs whose values likely exceed those of the homes of their owners.

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        • Pete October 17, 2011 at 4:13 pm

          In my neighborhood several of those SUVs have “For Sale” signs on them. I suspect it backs your theory.

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      • mabsf October 15, 2011 at 11:08 am

        I hope you are no longer with that person. I have no patience anymore for brainwashed car drones. A car is a tool & a budget item, no images enhancer, reason d’etre or anything else the advertising industry wants us to believe.

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        • MIddle of the Road Guy October 16, 2011 at 9:56 am

          What would you say about my Vanilla, Seven or Indy Fab?

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          • Hugh Johnson October 16, 2011 at 2:46 pm

            Here on Bike Portland you are likely to be labeled an elitist. : (

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          • nom de plume October 16, 2011 at 9:21 pm

            I’d say “Nice bikes!”

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          • Pete October 17, 2011 at 4:15 pm

            “Is your Seven for sale??” That’s what I’d say. 🙂

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      • fatmidwesternwhiteguy October 16, 2011 at 8:08 am

        Randall I think this shows you are out of touch with a growing sensibility. I’m an auto enthusiast and a cycling enthusiast. To me, a car is a toy to be enjoyed for its design and driving dynamics at PIR, or as a collectable. They can be used to take trips to the mountains or other places I can’t otherwise go. But I don’t get any pleasure at all from sitting in traffic jams with my car. The car shouldn’t take time away from my quality of life. It should add to it. It shouldn’t trap me for hours a day sitting in traffic, unable to do anything but listen to the radio. Instead, I should be enjoying my community, doing something I’ve loved since being a kid in the early 70’s…riding. And it is rational and better to take the bus or train in many situations. I’m a year round commuter because it is fun, feels great, keeps me fit, and yes, saves the environment. For decades, it seemed I had to either be with cycling people or car people. Now, finally, there is a growing understanding that we can be both. Each has its place…and the place of the car is reduced to where it is appropriate.

        You’re right that it is ultimately culture, and it’s changing.

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        • Pete October 17, 2011 at 4:17 pm

          This sums my opinion up – GM, are you listening?

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  • Spiffy October 14, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    they could focus their ads on bicycles…

    “so much visibility you can watch be sure to see your friends on bikes from inside the comfy cabin”


    “the bed of this truck can haul your friend’s bikes while you give them a ride across town”

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  • Matt October 14, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    Nice work Jonathan.

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  • jeff October 14, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    they could advertise the intergration of their products into the use of bicycles. Subaru’s been doing it for years.

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  • Jerry_W October 14, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    Tom Henderson said:
    “That’s not something we have an interest in, in making other modes of transportation look bad. We’re in the business of transportation.”

    Actions speak louder than words from the PR guy, that is exactly the message in the ad that was just pulled. The chicks and “cool” students think you’re a loser when you ride a bike.

    PR guys are paid to tell you what you want to hear, be it a lie, exaggeration or BS, the PR guy only has one life skill, being a convincing BS artist. Tom Henderson is a classic BS artist.

    Thanks for the great coverage Jonathan.

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  • casey October 14, 2011 at 11:34 pm

    Great job Jonathan. Getting right to the source- whether it imediately changes things or not, it’s good that they heard the voice. Thank you.

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  • Elle October 15, 2011 at 1:12 am

    It is impressive to see the power bike Portland now has. People are listening. Use that bully pulpit, Jonathan! It makes me wistful for the days when mainstream journalism could follow a story and drive change. Bravo.

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    • MIddle of the Road Guy October 16, 2011 at 9:57 am

      yeah, nothing makes people listen to you like condescending to them.

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  • Marcus Griffith October 15, 2011 at 6:41 pm

    Regarding Henderson’s quote: “.. we are looking at other modes of transportation because not everybody wants to get around in a vehicle…’

    Just for clarification, bikes are VEHICLES, just not motor-vehicles.

    I agree not every one wants to get around in a vehicle; there are days where I don’t drive, ride a bus, bike, use a skateboard and just walk where I am going.

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  • Dan O October 15, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    I understand the whole cooperate and collaborate thing, and I guess somebody’s got to do it, but it’s not my cup of tea. These guys might very well be the single *biggest* force behind the car culture.

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  • fatmidwesternwhiteguy October 16, 2011 at 7:40 am

    I’m afraid this whole episode shows that GM is a long, long way from turning itself around. What is obvious to everyone else seems hidden from their understanding, and their 40 plus year slide into bankruptcy should be no surprise.

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    • Hugh Johnson October 16, 2011 at 2:53 pm

      with any luck our president will throw more of our cash at them to help.

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  • Paul Tay October 16, 2011 at 9:22 am

    I would certainly buy a GM velomobile, in a NYC heartbeat!

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  • jim October 16, 2011 at 11:36 am

    These guys do need to take some sensitivity training classes. Obviously this ad was designed in Detroit where real men drive trucks, not in the “keep portland weird” portion of the country

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    • Paul Johnson October 16, 2011 at 2:57 pm

      The midwest is down with the bicycle. Detroit? I think you meant Los Angeles. The midwest also manages to be weird through diversity, instead of rejecting people who are legitimately different and rewarding people trying to be weird like Portland does.

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  • Paul Johnson October 16, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    Hugh Johnson
    Here on Bike Portland you are likely to be labeled an elitist. : (

    The irony of that on this board is not lost on me.

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    • fatmidwesternwhiteguy October 16, 2011 at 5:31 pm

      Oh give me a break. In the words of Inego Montoya “you keep using that word, I don’t think that word means what you think it means”. One of the ugliest things about bicycle culture is how some people insist on dividing it into fractured sub groups, with their particular sub group being the “legitimate” one. Just because you see someone with a bike on a car on the way to a race out of town on the weekend doesn’t mean they didn’t commute the rest of the week by bike. And even if they didn’t, it doesn’t make them less of a cyclist. It’s the utility cyclists against the tweed cyclists against the mountain bikers against the roadies against the transportation cyclists against those Hispanic folks riding their department store bike on the sidewalk. Whatever…I just love to see people biking, whether they’re in spandex or tweed or the hipster outfit du jour.

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      • Pete October 17, 2011 at 4:23 pm

        Mountain Biking… that’s the sport where you drive your bike up a hill, right? 😉

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  • nom de plume October 16, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    Contrast the GM add campaign with Toyota’s Venza ads. Bikes are prominently shown in them (although as an accessory to the car) and promoted as a positive part of a healthy lifestyle. Quite the opposite from GM. You can see the ad on youtube:

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    • Mike October 17, 2011 at 9:17 am

      Yeah, bikes are used by “cartoppers”, which by the tone of earlier posts is a bad thing and to be looked down upon by us real cyclists.

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      • Nom de Plume October 17, 2011 at 9:20 am

        Nobody ever Cc’s me on these memos!

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  • Tourbiker October 17, 2011 at 4:52 am

    Old VW Bus used to be a great bike hauler, I think the new Chevy HHR could be one also. lots of people haul thier bikes to near town then ride in to save fuel & parking. Being able to lock a bike inside a vehicle is a great option, being able to easily secure it inside & out is even better.

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  • 99th Monkey October 17, 2011 at 7:33 am

    Years ago, when GM had their primary customer and dealer support call center in Hillsboro, I was one of only 2 bicycle commuters of the 700 that worked there. One afternoon, while changing out of “business casual” work clothes into shorts and tank-top for my 10-mile ride home in the “bicycle lane” on 217 to Beaverton, a GM executive came in and asked my why I didn’t just hop in a car and ride home in a comfortable air-conditioned vehicle, that I could buy at employee discount that we got as sub-contractors. I told him I had not owed an automobile for over 10 years, instead had 5 bicycles and a trailer that I hauled my racing gear to Alpenrose with. “And they LET you work here”, was his reply!!! I then asked him, as I had already asked one of the design engineers, if they would ever change the exhaust on most vehicles, especially trucks to NOT exhaust outboard to the left side, blowing right at pedestrians and bicyclist, to the left side, instead. His reply was that it would cost too much to re-tool for the limited benefit that it would provide…..

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  • 99th Monkey October 17, 2011 at 7:35 am

    oops.. correction, I meant to say “to NOT exhaust outboard to the right side,”

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  • PaulCJr October 17, 2011 at 10:28 am

    Come on people. Yes they messed up and I didn’t appreciate it, but lets also be real here too. There are time when we want to go places that we can’t unfortunately get to by bike or public transit. For example I like to travel to Boston from my home in Connecticut to ride the city and drink good coffee. The only choices I have to get there are taking the peter pan buses which are more than $100 to get to Boston, or head into NYC to take one of the Bolt type buses for around $30. Amtrak in Stamford or along the North East Corridor doesn’t allow bikes on the train. A trip to NYC takes almost two hours. My drive to Boston take almost 2-3 hours. So I drive to save time and money. What we should be saying is that over car use is bad! Destroying good walking cities or making cities less walkable in order to allow cars to go fast is bad. Using a car as one of your transportation tools, not the only one, isn’t bad. I use to also think driving at anytime was bad. But I guess being in my thirties now has toned done my total anti-car bias.

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  • Dave October 18, 2011 at 7:44 am

    GM or any other car company except perhaps Subaru and Honda with the now-canceled Element, have yet to offer any products that are designed to seamlessly integrate with bike transportation and recreation lifestyle. All new vehicles should come with standard fittings for bike carrying. I am tired of bulbous P.O.S. suvs and wide noisy stinking trucks polluting my space. I reject most rec rides that require car trip to get to the start. GM is still trapped in the past. Bikes are the future for sustainable living…

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    • wsbob October 18, 2011 at 12:14 pm

      “GM or any other car company except perhaps Subaru and Honda with the now-canceled Element, have yet to offer any products that are designed to seamlessly integrate with bike transportation and recreation lifestyle. …” Dave

      For recreational purposes, there seems to be a fair amount of interest in using Dodge Sprinter vans. Ford makes a similarly sized vehicle. They’re bigger than than mini-vans, but smaller than full sized commercial vans. They look perfect for longer highway trips. Not so good for just driving around town.

      Excessive close-in urban driving and infrastructure that supports it is a major problem leading to urban congestion. GM’s ad encourages that type of problem driving by suggesting that the kind of travel that’s easily able to be made on a bike, or possibly even walking, would be more glamorously made in a car.

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  • Portland's Electric Bicycle Shop
    Portland's Electric Bicycle Shop October 19, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    a bit of irony: I was on the Max yesterday and saw a GMC labelled bicycle. googled it:

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    • Paul Johnson October 20, 2011 at 7:49 am

      Irony that a road bike would be named after a 4×4, I would have expected a full-suspension MTB.

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  • Pete November 6, 2011 at 8:48 am

    Lincoln’s stark contrast to GM’s approach:

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