Feature Story

NEWSTUFF: NEW AUTOS FOR ENTHUSIASTS

by Bob Hagin

April 10, 1998

Periodically we feel called upon to bring to our readers what we call "new stuff," vehicles and automotive items that don't warrant or require a complete feature of their own but are nonetheless of interest. This is the latest new stuff we found worthy of comment:

LAFORZA RETURNS - The name Laforza has popped up several times and it has always involved specially-built Italian sport/utility vehicles brought into this country incomplete, where Ford running gear was installed. Ten or 12 years ago the marque made a small splash in the SUV market and was self-touted as being the Italian counterpart of the Range Rover, the upscale British off-roader. A large Ford dealership in my area took on the franchise and even sold a few. A friend of mine acquired one and liked it, although I think that half of the attraction was its exclusivity. Laforza Automobiles (a U.S. company) went bankrupt in the late '80s and a Southern California high-class hot-rod shop, Monster Motorsports of Escondido, bought up what was left and is still disposing of some leftover "new" '89s. Now Laforza Automobiles, Inc. (a new American company affiliated with Monster Motorsports) is importing and marketing the '98 version, which is virtually unchanged cosmetically from the 10-year old leftovers.

COUGARS ARE FOR KIDS - We all knew that the pubahs at Lincoln/ Mercury were going for a corporate image make-over when they pulled up stakes in Detroit and plopped them down in car-crazy Southern California. And when it put its venerable Cougar name on a low-priced "boppy" coupe that was to be equipped with a four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive, we knew for sure it was going after the kid market. The newest machine to carry the Cougar name is built on the Ford Contour chassis and uses the same engine but like the Cougars of yore, the body design is unique from any Ford - at least in this country. Mercury is planning to sell 50,000 of these small cars here along with 20,000 similar Ford-badged cars in Europe. In the U.S., the intended customer base is 60 percent female, the average age of American buyers is expected to be the 25 to 39 age group and they'll be in an above-average income bracket. This is in sharp contrast to the up-to-now average age of 62 for Mercury sedan buyers. In even sharper contrast will be the young Cougar tire-kickers rubbing elbows with those "mature" shoppers who are cruising the Lincoln/Mercury showrooms for the conservative and gentrified Lincoln Town Car and Continental.

THE NEW ROLLS-ROYCE - I'm sure that many of you have been putting off your purchase of a new Rolls-Royce family sedan, waiting for the new model to come out. It's been a long wait for some of you since the present model, the Silver Spur, has been in production for 18 years. But an all-new car, the Silver Seraph (the highest ranking angel in the celestial hierarchy, according to Webster) will be on dealer's showrooms in England perhaps as you're reading this, and later this year here as a '99 model. The powerplant is a 300-horse V12, the first time a twin-six (an expression I borrowed from Packard) has been under the hood of an R-R since the Phantom III. That gentle giant ended production in 1939 as World War II started and the irony here is that the new engine and indeed, the new owner of the Rolls-Royce company, is BMW, which also owns the British Land Rover company. The "Bimmer" V8 has been in the Silver Spur for a while and when Rolls came up for sale by the parent Vickers company, the brass at BMW announced they wanted the ultra-luxury car for themselves. They also let it be known that if any other company (like arch-rival VW, the only other serious bidder) bought it, they'd have to find another engine supplier.

RETURN OF THE EGG - Now that BMW has reached the upper echelons of the automotive world and acquired what is arguably the most prestigious automobile in the world, old timers like myself hope that it won't forget the car that helped it make it through the hard times of the '50s. I'm referring here to the unique BMW Isetta 300, a "bubble car" that was cheap to own, cheap to operate and a guaranteed attention- getter in urban traffic. It was only a little longer than it was wide, had a single door in front that contained the windshield, and a one- cylinder, 300cc engine located under its single bench seat. They were great fun to drive (I had a couple in the '50s) since two of them could be nosed into a conventional parking spot. If you missed the Isetta 300 the first time around, you may get a second chance. The Isetta was designed and produced in Foligno, Italy and licensed to BMW, along with others world wide. Now Piero Rivolta, the 57-year old son of the founder and current CEO of the family-owned Rivolta Engineering, is the moving force behind an updated and modernized version of the Isetta. So far available only in Italy, the new Iso Isigo citycar is powered by a tiny two cylinder engine, is 99 inches long, weighs 880 pounds and seats two people. While this sounds like a repeat of the original Isetta of 45 years ago, there are changes: the new car has two doors - but they're made of canvas and along with the cloth top, are easily removable. I don't know what they cost but I'm putting in my order now. Who says you can't go back home?

Next time we'll bring you news of such delicious items as Cobra replicas that are made of chocolate and a Lexus that you can take to sea. Stay tuned.

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