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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

June 28, 1996

To me, one of the most interesting aspects of the automobile world is that it never remains static. Something is always going on and things usually occur at a rapid rate.

And because of the volatility of the auto business, I like to review its newsworthy items every six weeks. If I waited any longer, there might not be enough room in my column to cover them. Herein are the vehicular news items that have attracted my attention in recent weeks:

THE BATTLE FOR CHINA - The threat of a U.S. trade war with that People's Republic over copyright infringements, pirated computer software and purloined compact discs made Detroit long-range planners very nervous if not apoplectic. First, Charlene Barhefsky, our trade representative, announced that we would put a 100 percent tariff on a dozen kinds of Chinese-made imports with an estimated value of $3 billion. In retaliation, the Chinese government replied that it would impose its own restrictions on American-made cars and parts that were brought into its country. Since Detroit is in heavy competition with its Asian and European counterparts for manufacturing rights and sales there, the headway we have already made could be stonewalled with the stroke of a pen. But an agreement was struck before our June 17th deadline, China began to crack down on its miscreants and Ford, General Motors and Chrysler are now back in the relaxed business of building factories and selling parts.

COSTS MORE TO STAY COOL IN OLDER CARS - Sometimes it's hard for those of us who drive vintage vehicles to stay cool what with mandated state inspections and the threat of looming "Clunker Destruction Laws." And now staying cool is even harder for us because of a raise in the price of the refrigerant that our ancient a/c units require. The price of Freon (also known as R-12) has skyrocketed since 1994, multiplying six-fold in the ensuing two years. It's also getting hard to find (illegal in some areas) and has become so valuable that there is a thriving industry developing in recovering it from older cars and trucks that have made that final trip to the dismantler's yard.

GREENPEACE IN THE CAR BUSINESS - The same Greenpeace that bedevils whaling ships, nuclear tests and corporate polluters has recently developed its own answer to the need for high-mileage vehicles. Called the Smile, it's based on a modified and lightened Renault Twingo mini- car and powered by an avant garde 360 cc supercharged two cylinder engine which puts out 60 horses and gets 80 miles per gallon. The French government owns Renault and immediately raised on the reliability and safety of the Smile and one wonders if its concern might have been jaded by the Greenpeace action against the French A-bomb tests in the Pacific.

NO NEW CHRYSLERS IN CALIFORNIA - You can never say that California messes around when it come to imposing harsh penalties on automotive miscreants. Rather than requesting a stiff penalty on Chrysler for allegedly "laundering" 116 autos that it bought back from the original buyers under the state's lemon law, an administrative law judge moved to ban sales of all Chrysler products for 60 days and put the company on probation for three years. That would cost the state its 8.5 percent sales tax on approximately $500 million in auto and truck sales plus deny buyers access to Chrysler minivans (hot sellers), Dodge pickups (also very popular) and the rest of the line. This might lead to some unpleasant calls to California legislators from voters as well as Chrysler dealers and their lobbyists. Most lawyers agree that the ban has no chance of going into effect.

LOW VOLUME SPORTSTERS BACK IN THE USA - It's been a while since we've seen a Caterham or a TVR in an American showroom, but that may change. Those "cottage-industry" low volume British sports cars are part of an consortium of low volume specialty car makers who have banded together to try to convince our Department of Transportation (DOT) to ease the federal requirements for their importation. The group reads like a Who's Who of performance car makers (Lotus, Morgan, Aston Martin, McLaren) and their goal is a reduction in safety, pollution and product liability requirements to make their sportsters more available to American enthusiasts. Knowing our government's propensity towards inflexibility, I think that those British companies have as little chance of getting it to bend as they would if the asked the U.S. to become a British colony again.

Six weeks passes fast so we won't have to wait long to see what comes up next in The Car Wars.