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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

May 17, 1996

Another six weeks has passed and it's time again to see what's happened in the multi-faceted world of the automobile. These are the items that attracted my attention during the past 45 days:

AUTO MECHANICS IMAGE TO BE POLISHED - The prestigious Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has decided that auto mechanics are low men (and women) on the automotive totem pole and that something should be done about it. To this end it has organized the Service Technicians Society (STS) to pump up the public image of auto mechanics and to help them build their own self-esteem. It will be patterned after the SAE itself and run the gauntlet from technicians in the shop to the guys in the wrecking yards who "recycle" autos. Having been a mechanic for 20 years before I became a teacher in '72, I don't remember needing therapy and most "wrenches" that I talk to today feel the same way. If anything, they feel that the prestigious engineers who design today's cars and trucks should spend some time in service bays having to fix their own design errors.

FORD ABSORBS MAZDA - It's no secret that Mazda has had its - well - "problems" for the past few years. Sales have been down, corporate moral has been low and the company was floundering. This situation bother Ford Motor Company too, and since Ford owned 25 percent of that Japanese company, its feelings carried a lot of weight. So much so that Ford upped its ante by putting in another $500 million and now has the final say-so in Mazda operations. Its first order of business was to shoulder out Mazda president Yoshihiro Wada and replace him with Henry Wallace, a Ford executive who had been "on loan" to Mazda since '93. It's the first time an American has ever been top dog in any major Japanese corporation.

SPORTS/UTILITY VEHICLES A FAVORITE TARGET OF THIEVES - After the bashing that the sports/utility vehicle (SUV) genre took on a "60 Minutes" presentation recently, you'd think that sales would be down and that the high-wheelers would be a drug on the market. Not so, according to recent sales figures. Mercury has just introduced its Mountaineer (a re-badged Ford Explorer), Subaru is testing its entry (discounting the Crocodile Dundee "wanabe" Outback station wagon), and Toyota dealers can't get enough of the little "entry-level" RAV4 SUV to satisfy the demand. As if to further confirm the popularity of the SUV, two of them, the Toyota Land Cruiser (circa '93 to '95) and the Mitsubishi Montero (ditto age) tops the list of vehicles with the highest insurance loss due to theft. These two off-roaders are in good company with the Mercedes S-class, the Acura Legend coupe and the BMW 300i convertible following in that order. The bad guys must like that rugged, outdoors image.

CHEVROLET OFFERS SUV AS CAPRICE REPLACEMENT COP CAR - If those same thieves think that they can elude the police when they grab a Land Cruiser or a Montero by taking into the boondocks on fire roads and fishing trails, they better check their rear view mirrors. That police car in their rear view mirror may be a hopped-up Chevy Tahoe. Chevrolet will dump production of the big traditional front-engine, rear drive V8 Caprice Classic early in 1996 and with it will go the Impala SS, which was basically a squad car in a fancy dress. Chevy offers the little V6 Lumina four-door for patrolling city streets and a interceptor version of the Camaro for highway patrol use, but the need for something more intimidating was evident. Enter the black-and-white Tahoe. It's rugged enough for hard duty and fast enough up to about 100 MPH. From there on aerodynamics favors the Mustang it may be chasing.

FATHER OF CORVETTE DIES AT 86 - Zora Arkus-Duntov was a boyhood hero of mine and the adulation precedes his development of the Corvette for Chevrolet. This prodigious designer and engineer had been a team driver for Porsche at Le Mans in '54 and '55 (he scored class wins both years) and had worked for Porsche himself on the Auto Union Grand Prix cars in the '30s. His development of the Corvette from a mild-mannered, insipid Americanized version of a sports car into a fire-breathing machine that lasted for 43 years in its many forms is legendary among Corvette aficionados. But as a high school kid in the late '40s, I best remember Zora Arkus-Duntov as the producer of the Ardun overhead valve cylinder head kit that could be bolted on the old Ford flat-head V8 for an instant half-again horsepower boost. The Ardun heads were almost as wide as they were long and sported polished aluminum valve covers that had me enthralled. It was items like the Ardun cylinders heads that tipped me into the direction of a life-long career in automobiles and I thank Zora Arkus-Duntov for his help.

The car business isn't strictly new cars and sales figures and we do ourselves a disservice if we don't look at the big picture. In another six weeks or so, we'll review what has happened during that time.