Feature Story

AIRBAGS, CLINTON'S MUSTANG, ETC

by Bob Hagin

October 31, 1997

Six weeks have past and it's time for our semi-quarterly Auto Update of unusual car stuff. This time it ranges from an alleged sales pitch by our Chief Executive to an unusual German/American marriage:

CLINTON SAYS "SCRAP YOUR OLD CAR AND BUY NEW" - At least that's how Ford's Alex Trotman interpreted Bill Clinton's reaction to a "clunker" plan at a Big Three meeting with the president to discuss a variety of ecology-related items. Trotman says the prez "expressed interest" in a national scrapping program under which Americans would be paid to junk their old polluters and buy newer, cleaner models. The White House head of Management and Budget says he's unaware of the program and perhaps we'll never know what really happened at the meeting - unless President Bill trades in his treasured '66 Mustang convertible on a new Ford Taurus.

AIRBAGS AT YOUR FEET - Airbags are a hot item in the popular press, especially so now that their shortcomings have been uncovered. But bags have shown up not only in front of the driver and front-seat passenger but in the front doors and even in the area above the sun visors. Now Seimens Automotive, the German chemical and "hard" parts producer, is preparing small bags to be fitted under the front carpets. The reasoning is that in a hard collision, the footwell buckles, turning a person's foot downward and back which crushes the heel into the ankle. The undercarpet bag will hypothetically keep the foot in its normal position and lessen the risk of having it permanently damaged. The next step in airbag technology will no doubt be an all-encompassing cocoon that totally envelopes everyone in the car. Maybe the only safe bet is to stay home.

INVESTMENT USED CARS A GOOD BUSINESS TO BE IN - You won't see ads touting special deals on used Packards or Pierce-Arrows on TV, but there's no kidding about the fact that investment-grade "collectible" cars have been on the upswing for several years now. A watch on publications like Hemmings Motor News and Old Cars Weekly shows that the boom-and-bust of the mid-'80s is history and that the market for these impractical-but-fun vehicles has been steadily climbing. All vintage car dealers that I've talked to say the business is great and that they don't have to give loss-leader discounts to keep business lively.

EAGLE FLYS INTO HISTORY - You remember the Eagle, of course. It's the Chrysler product that shares everything with its corporate siblings except the logo on the hood. If you never saw Eagle ads on TV it's because very few of them appeared. Chrysler bought American Motors Corporation (AMC) 10 years ago and positioned the Eagle to give Jeep dealers (the real prize of the AMC purchase) a passenger car to market. But over the years, Chrysler saw fit to make the Eagle a "ghost" brand and its minuscule market share dwindled away. So the Eagle flies away to join the Geo on the list of American autos names that used to be. Not as prestigious as the long-lamented Duesenberg or Auburn, but still a couple of new pages in the text book of automotive history.

MASERATI MAY RETURN TO THE U.S. - Jeep dealers are now looking for something to fill their passenger car sales void and Fiat of Italy may be able to come to their aid. Fiat owns Maserati and is trying to turn that troubled company's fortunes around and make the brand palatable to American buyers again. It won't be an Eagle Talon look-alike, of course, or even cheap. The last Maserati sold here in any numbers were large, high-performance expensive sedans that were mainly famous for their unreliability. Fiat itself undertook a hasty retreat from the American market in '82 but maybe time has erased those painful Italian automotive memories.

CADILLAC DEVELOPING NEW SMALL VEHICLES - Not content with going after the mid-sized upscale sedan market with its hot Catera V6 four-door, Cadillac is developing a luxury compact to invade the BMW 3-Series market around the world. In addition, it's toying with producing an all-wheel-drive pseudo-SUV (presumably like the Subaru Outback wagon) as well as another upmarket roadster. I'd welcome a Cadillac two-seater again and can only hope that it enjoys better luck than its very nice but unappreciated '87 to '93 Allante.

PORSCHE AND HARLEY-DAVIDSON ENTER INTO A JOINT VENTURE - No, it isn't April Fool's Day and you're not on Candid Camera. Porsche Engineering has been doing research work for Der Hogmeister for a couple of decades now and the two have taken it a step further. They will each put up $10 million to develop a new motorcycle powertrain for what Harley called "new motorcycle products" in a press release. The facility will be built here, which leads to speculation that Porsche will be building or at least assembling cars and maybe its own proposed sport/utility vehicle here after the turn of the century.

I always expect strange things to happen in the car business and I'm never disappointed. Come back in another six weeks and we'll see what bizarre car stuff has transpired.

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