Introducing DEFT AUTO


Welcome to DEFT AUTO.

We're embarking on a new project to explore life and people through autos and we're excited to have you along.


Here's our story:

The Aha

Late May in Beijing is red-hot, even without eating plates of food smothered in spicy oil and Sichuan peppercorns. After four weeks of gambling our health at almost every meal--a bet we lost a couple of times--we were all too happy for the excuse to sit in front of the Kentucky Fried Chicken counter in a basement food court of an over-air-conditioned mall not far from our hotel. We (Cliff and Steve) had just explored seven Asian countries with a group of our MBA classmates, justifying leisure, food, and play with informational business visits with expat professionals across the region. 

During our study abroad, we came to realize the traditional MBA recruiting pipeline was not helping us get closer to the dreams that brought us back to school, the same dreams that didn’t make it into our responses to the interview question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Individual contributor roles at Fortune 100 corporations, where we could comfortably collect a paycheck, didn’t scratch that itch. There we were, in a foreign food court, discussing our desires to create an organization with the mission of enhancing human lives--our own and others--through automotive experiences. Over the Colonel’s chicken and biscuits in the People’s Republic of China, we developed a plan to forge a different path.

Cliff + Steve x Cars

We love cars. If there’s anything we can talk about more easily and naturally than anything else, it’s cars. A look at our past explains everything. Cliff grew up as a dirty shop rat in his Dad’s auto shop where he fell in love with cars and developed the annoying habit of constantly mimicking motor noises. He later paid his way through college by building off-road race vehicles and Shelby Cobra replicas. Before returning to school, Steve managed PR and communications for Cadillac’s sporty cars and racing program. We believe cars represent exceptional human ingenuity, a master of functional aesthetic, and human-machine engagement at its finest. What other mass consumer purchase affords the speed of roller coasters, the comfort of your own home, and the freedom to go wherever there’s asphalt--even some places there isn’t--all wrapped in an exterior for which design awards were created? We love cars not only because they’re exciting, or beautiful, or so principally useful, but also because they create emotional connection. Cars help people cope with and interpret the world, and are so often the gateway to meaningful human stories. The love for automobiles cuts across demographics, borders, and socioeconomic boundaries, something we witnessed across Asia and in our other world travels together.

If you haven’t guessed already, cars brought the two of us together. More specifically, car illustrations brought us together. We didn’t know each other during the first year of graduate school since none of our classes overlapped. However, Steve kept finding dry-erase illustrations of cars that Cliff left on the whiteboards of the student conference rooms. Steve didn’t know who the artist was, until one day he caught Cliff mid-creation. After a brief conversation about Cobras and Cadillacs a car-based friendship was born.

Then, our four-week school trip to Asia, sharing hotel rooms, getting food poisoning together, and talking incessantly about cars broke down any remaining awkward social barrier. We realized we came from a similar background: middle-class kids raised in the rural outskirts of smaller cities, products of public schools, amateur artists, and lovers of the outdoors. We also found we are very different in many ways, an important interlock of every relationship. 

Later, while still in school and on a weekend getaway with our wives, Cliff’s wife, Elise, was driving our group home from Southern Utah and collided with a deer at 70 mph. Jumping over the freeway’s dividing wall and right into the center of the bumper of the Hardle’s ill-fated Subaru Forester, that deer was the decisive cracked egg in our kinship omelet. That night, after the Highway Patrolmen took us all to a nearby hotel and both couples reconvened in the Hardle’s room following showers to calm an anxiety only an explosion of deer and airbags on a dark mountain highway yields, Elise said, “Well, I guess we’re friends for life now.” We would go on to travel together to 11 countries on 5 continents in 2 years.

The Plan

During our second year of graduate school, we doubled down on our automotive project. We enrolled in a class called “New Venture Launchpad”, catered to help students identify and get business ideas off the ground. Here we began our research in earnest, putting ourselves where auto lovers were--car shows, museums, events. We met with potential business partners and interviewed a wide variety of car people in their offices and homes, at our school, at restaurants, over the phone, and in parking lots.  Because of the diversity of our sources, we learned that every car person had personal stories, brimming with human emotions and feelings, and experiences that shaped how and why they love cars. Most importantly, we saw first-hand that these stories enabled empathy across social circles. We boiled our idea down to two components: relationships with cars and relationships with people.

We are pleased to announce Deft Auto, an organization we’re building to enhance the human experience through connections with cars and people. After more than two years of adjusting our focus and dealing with life’s hiccups, to hell with incertitude and interference: onward! 

First, On Cars and People, a semi-monthly newsletter dedicated to telling and finding meaning in stories about people and their cars. This will be accompanied by our website (which we're releasing 8/11/2020), followed by complementary digital content, and—eventually when two strangers can sit in the same car together without threat of boogeyman viruses—live experiences with, yes, you guessed it, cars and people.

If you haven't already, enter your email below to subscribe to our newsletter. We've got some really fun things in the works and we're sure you'll enjoy it.

We're off on another automotive adventure, and we'd love to have you join us.

Your hosts,

-Cliff Hardle

-Steve Martin