Feature Story

LAST INDUSTRY UPDATE FOR '96

by Bob Hagin

December 27, 1996

The automotive world is ever-changing and to us car guys, a never-ending source of interesting information. This is Number Nine in our current series of Industry Updates and the last for 1996. These are the items that caught my attention during the past six weeks and my somewhat irreverent comments on them:

MERCURY TO RE-AIM AT OLDER BUYERS - It's a fact of life that our American culture is enamored by the image of youth, but Jim O'Connor, current head man at Mercury, says that the company may be unnecessarily slavish to the trend. He stated that over 40 percent of all the new cars sold here last year went to folks over 55 and that the average Mercury owner is 58 - hardly in the kid-category. O'Connor is proud of the fact that his customers love his Grand Marquis, one of the last "traditional" front-engined, rear-drive American sedans, and that Mercury thinking may have been amiss in trying to make the company "...a youth division." Maybe it's time for a resurrection of the Gray Panthers.

SATURN MAY TAKE THIRD SPOT IN GM LINEUP - It was only a few years ago that Oldsmobile, Buick and GM Truck would wrestle it out for "show" position in the Production Derby among General Motors nameplates. You can therefore imagine the consternation of these three corporate entities over the fact that next year the upstart Saturn Corporation will be in a position to leapfrog from Number Six to a position just below perennial leaders Chevrolet and Pontiac. Saturn is converting a General Motors plant in Wilmington, Delaware to build more of its little sedans and coupes and is also bumping up the capacity of its original plant in Tennessee. Its output will be up to almost 580,000 by '99 and if current trends hold, the company will be able to sell all of them almost before they roll off the assembly line.

GENERAL MOTORS ELECTRIC VEHICLE OPENING LESS THAN GRAND - Saturn has been given the dubious honor of being the purveyor of the much-heralded EV-1 (as in Electric Vehicle One) and at its recent public debut in Los Angeles, San Diego, Tucson and Phoenix, there were more media-types in attendance than even casual lookers. Around 40 individuals took delivery of their leased EV1s, among them "Baywatch" actress Alexandra Paul but nighttime funny man Jay Leno turned the offer down flat. His comment was that he only buys vehicles and never leases them with the idea of giving them back as used cars. He also commented that he still has all the cars he's ever acquired and didn't even make the obvious remark that if he got an EV1 he'd need a really long extension cord.

MODERN MINICAR MAKES ITS MARK - here in the USA it's no longer a universally-held truth that Big is Beautiful, at least in the automotive world. We've lowered our sights and the chrome-plated leviathans of the past are now museum curiosities. But in other parts of the world, even our smallest passenger cars are too big for prevailing conditions and automakers around the world are making plans to put these places on self-propelled wheels. Chrysler is aiming at the burgeoning Chinese market with its CCV (China Concept Vehicle), a tiny five-seater powered by an 800 c.c air-cooled engine. Mercedes too is taking aim on the mini-market with is A-class, the reported to be the smallest vehicle to ever carry the M-B three-pointed star. Honda's new basic runabout, the Logo, is also small and basic but can be upscaled with all the amenities (automatic transmission, a/c, power windows, etc.) if the localized need arises. The new Ford Ka, currently on sale in Europe and Great Britain, is likewise tiny and slated for world-wide distribution.

LOTUS CHANGES HANDS AGAIN - Poor Lotus has been shuffled around from pillar to post over the past decade and has been owned by such diverse companies as the giant General Motors to the unknown (at least in this country) ACBN Holdings SA of Luxembourg. Now the Lotus logo has changed hands again and is owned by Perusahaan Otomobile Nasional Berhad, a Malaysian car builder. New versions of the venerable Lotus Esprit may or may not be sold here with a new V8 powerplant. Colin Chapman, the British engineering genius who created Lotus literally out of the mud (his first creations were mud-running Ford Trials Car specials in the late '40s) must be squirming in his grave.

VECTOR RUNS OUT OF MONEY - About 25 years ago, I took my son Matt (now a writer in our organization) to the then-upscale San Francisco International Auto Show. He was so young that I had to hold him up to see the engine bay of the Vector, a Ferrari-like American supercar made by enthusiast/engineer Jerry Wiegert who showed us the innards of the car. Since then, Vector has been capitalized by almost as many companies as Lotus and was the subject of a very messy Hollywood-style custody suit that culminated with Wiegert barricading himself in the CEO's office. Now the company has run out of money, as well as luck, and the factory in Green Cove Springs, Florida has sent home its 20 some-odd employees and is searching for new capital. Well, maybe in another 25 years Vector will get it together.

Our next update will be captioned Number One for 1997 and will come in the middle of February. And judging by the amount of activity the industry is generating, it will be full of interesting tidbits.

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