Letter from Europe
13 January 1999
European Bureau Chief
It seems only fair and reasonable to start the Year with sincere thanks for all the comments I have been getting from readers during 1988 and wish everybody an even more prosperous and healthy 1999. It was particularly gratifying to hear from far-away places such as Brisbane and Toronto. In automotive terms it has been quite a year-what with Rolls going to BMW and Bentley to VW, Chrysler to Daimler, Lamborghini also to VW and a re-born Maserati to Ferrari. Well, the New Year promises to be no different. If all the gossip in Detroit is anything to go by there will be further mergers and take-over in this increasingly competitive, cut-throat business of ours. Everybody is after Ford's 22 billion dollars but new boss Jacques Nasser is far too shrewd a person to rush into anything. On the face of it Volvo would make the most sense- their estate cars/station wagons have become almost obligatory for middle class Mums the World over as paragons of safe transport for their kids and their bikes, tents, picnic baskets, footballs, dirty boots, roller skates, the list is endless. Furthermore, Ford doesn't have anything comparable in their range and certainly nothing with the same "safety" tag which the Swedish company have so cleverly turned into their house- hold name. The Volvo heavy range trucks are also something Ford does not possess and could certainly make good use of. BMW, the other company people talk about would be a less attractive proposition in my book, apart from culture clashes galore the fit does not seem that obvious to me. Neither, I gather to the Quandt, do families who own just about half the shares.
Then there is Nissan, a major player in major trouble. I went to see their US operation the other day and met a lot of worried people. Yes, they do have some great cars and trucks in the pipeline but they are also losing money not only in Japan but in the States as well. Their public relations people were so desperate to put some good news -and I salute them for it- that they actually previewed their new model range way before the official launches to reassure the public, the financial analysts and the press, that there was light at the end of the tunnel. From what I can gather not everybody within the company approved the idea but I do think the PR boys were right-the current range was and is looking seriously dated. That is not to say that there is anything wrong with anything I've driven lately. Take the Maxima for instance, it goes well, handles well but somehow the excitement is missing. What was considered great a few years ago is now common place. Also, rivals, such as Honda have been moving rapidly ahead. As have Toyota.
The Pathfinder is another fine product that feels just a bit dated, especially alongside the ML320. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it but customers are fickle and they tend to prefer newer, more exciting models. The Sentra is losing market share and will have an even more difficult time once the European Car of the Year-Ford's Focus goes on sale in the United States. Will Nissan's new cars and trucks turn the tide? Only time will tell. My concern is the public's perception-do they see Nissan as a company at the leading edge of automotive technology or one that is not quite there. For the sake of all the good people I met at Nissan I hope it's the former.
Ford's Lincoln-Mercury division are planning what could well turn out to be the biggest party of the year! To launch their very exciting-Jaguar related-LS range they are taking over Treasure Island in San Francisco for no less than six weeks! The island very nearly became the scene of Bernie Ecclestone's Formula One Grand Prix but as you will have read by now that will take place at Indy starting Year 2000.
Talking of Grand Prix racing I was delighted to see my old mate Mika Hakkinen win the ^Ñ98 World Championship. It was equally good to see Schumacher waiting for him in the pits to shake hands and offer his congratulations. As far as the new season is concerned, well, it promises to be pretty exciting because whilst McLaren are not sitting on their laurels Ferrari are absolutely determined to clinch the last title of the century. There have been a number of developments I am not too crazy about, especially the BAR fiasco. For the uninitiated, a guy by the name of Craig Pollock persuaded the British American Tobacco Company to form a racing team with a budget not unadjacent to 300 million dollars or maybe it was pounds-at these sums for us ordinary folks I don't thing it matters a great deal. Let's put it that way -an awful lot of money. He goes and buys out Ken Tyrrell's team so that he can get all the privileges associated with an existing team. Fine speeches about continuity at the launch of the ^Ñ98 car in one of London's fashionable restaurants and a few weeks later-bye-bye. The new owners would not listen to Ken's advice concerning drivers and he was out. Resigned was the word used. So on they go to build a garage heavily disguised as a gin palace in rural Britain and even before they turn a wheel in anger get into litigation with the FIA-the ruling body of auto-racing. Bravo. The fuss is about business of course. Never mind winning or losing or sport-oh, no, nothing so antiquated. Not only are they in Grand Prix racing purely and simply because this is the only avenue left for world wide cigarette advertising but even within the two car set up they want one car to be called Lucky Strike and the other 555- two of their brands! When the FIA did not like it they went to Court. Frankly my dear-it stinks. I have been a Grand Prix TV commentator for over 20 years and so have most of my colleagues. If Mr. Pollock thinks that we will say" and here comes Villeneuve in the Lucky Strike followed by his team mate Zonta in the 555 he is very much mistaken. I just hope just FIA President Max Mosley -a qualified lawyer by the way- will stand his ground and not give way to this most arrogant of newcomers.
Moving on cars I've driven and really enjoyed- as always my trusted 1987 Ferrari 328 is top of the list. Nothing gives me a kick comparable to taking the covers off and starting it up for the first time after a long Winter's hibernation. The 1998 run to Monaco and back was particularly memorable and I still cannot get over the Shuttle under the Channel; an amazing feat of engineering.
The WAJ -Western Automotive Journalists- test day was another high-light, it is just amazing how BMW get their cars to handle just that little bit sharper than anyone else, just like Jaguars will always remind me of the finer clubs along London Pall Mall. The Acura NSX is still magic. Had it been called a Ferrari, it would have sold in huge numbers because from an engineering point of view it is quite brilliant. Mercedes took us to Texas to drive their cars, they have done an amazing job on the build quality of the ML430 after a very hesitant start with the 320 in their first US plant in Alabama. The public relations lemon has to go to Porsche whose arrogance has become a bit of a joke in journalistic circles. Not returning telephone calls is routine for the Stuttgart based firm's US people and the farce at the San Francisco Autoshow was truly comical and sad at the same time. All four-maybe five, -I was too disgusted to count- cars were firmly locked. Even on Press day. Two rather stuck-up ladies were sitting at a desk, twiddling their thumbs and clearly regarding the whole thing as a bit of a bore. The cars were pre-sold they said (which turned out to be not true) and of course they did not have the keys either (Also not true). After all there could have been a fire and it would have been awfully difficult to move locked cars without keys. Dear Porsche, you may be doing well at present, so did the Roman and British Empires for a while to name but two.
The best quote of the year belongs to Mitsubishi's marketing guy: "If your son does not want to borrow it you should not be driving it". Amen.