Tom Kowaleski held vital public relations roles at General Motors, BMW and most recently, Lincoln. But it was his time at Chrysler in the 1990s that made his name legendary. He staged some of the most elaborate, jaw dropping press conferences in history.
You can usually set your watch by most automotive industry press conferences: Corporate lackey walks on stage. Stutters out punchline to bad joke about weather and/or airline food. Drones on about first quarter sales figures. Motions leggy model to take satin sheet off car. Reads standard features list.
Up until Tom Kowaleski’s time (above left with Chrysler boss Bob Lutz), a press conference was kind of like Vegas, in a bad way: What happened at the press conference stayed at the press conference. But when Kowaleski started pulling the levers at Chrysler, people who were 6,000 miles away from a press conference at the North American International Auto Show sat up, took notice and started talking about Chrysler products.
According to Automotive News, Kowaleski joined Chrysler in July 1988 as manager of product and technology communications. Before Chrysler, he held various positions at American Motors Corp. and Renault, and at Campbell and Co.
Tom Kowaleski passed away yesterday at the all-too-young age of 63.
Two examples of Tom’s work:
1992: Jeep Grand Cherokee Press Conference at Cobo Hall, Detroit
Press days at auto shows are hectic, and one conference begins to blend into another. Kowaleski’s idea for the 1992 Jeep Grand Cherokee press conference was to wake everyone up. On the stage, he had arranged a series of glass boxes, which you’d figure that a car would fit into, or that would rise to reveal the new Jeep Grand Cherokee for 1993.
Instead, the Grand Cherokee drove up on stage, and smashed directly through a tempered glass sheet. There was mass confusion, with attendees wondering if it had all gone terribly wrong, but it was completely right.
“The Grand Cherokee spectacle created an avalanche of publicity,” reads an article in Automotive News. “About nine months after the Jeep smashed through the window, Kowaleski was in Europe and he saw video of the event replayed on TV. He realized Chrysler was on to something.”
1993: Dodge Ram Pickup Press Conference, Cobo Hall, Detroit
So how do you top a press conference like the 1992 Grand Cherokee introduction? It’s a tough act to follow. Dodge had a great product up its sleeve. Prior to 1993, the Dodge Ram pickup was a capable, sturdy, workhorse of a vehicle, but its styling hadn’t been completely revised since the 1970s. While Ford and GM had modernized their lineups, Dodge was still soldiering on with sealed beam headlamps and no-frills interiors.
It’s hard to remember now how revolutionary the 1993 Dodge Ram pickup was, but it completely changed Dodge’s standing in the truck wars, making it the choice of people who were more interested in making a bold statement than just picking up sheetrock at Home Depot. The press conference had to be just as significant.
The media was expecting something after 1992, but what they got was completely unexpected. Instead of coming from stage right or left, a full-size, completely functional Ram pickup dropped 20 feet onto the stage from the ceiling. Again, Chrysler and Kowaleski managed to transcend the the traditional product introduction and make news beyond the glossy car magazines.
In 2008, when the Ram Pickup was redesigned again, Kowaleski had moved on to General Motors, and then to BMW, but his legacy endured. The trucks were introduced with an escort of 120 head of cattle, with cowboys leading them to Cobo Hall.
“We started to build a broader audience than the automotive and business media who covered industry 365 days a year,” Kowaleski said.
The cost of those press conferences could easily top a million dollars, and in the economic downturn, those costs were the first to get trimmed. Product introductions went back to being staid, not-terribly-exciting events then, and the flash still hasn’t really returned.
Today, you might see a musician or a celebrity on stage the way you did with Jerry Seinfeld and the Acura NSX introduction, but when Tom Kowaleski passed yesterday, he took with him the kind of brashness that made quiet brands and industry-veteran executives household names.
Auto shows are going to be just a little less exciting.