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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

August 9, 1996

If you study automotive history, you'll find that it's an industry that changes rapidly. One never knows what will happen from day to day or from month to month.

The nuts-and-bolts aspects of the business are only of slight interest to me - I'm more interested in the off-beat things that happen. These are the auto items that have caught my attention during the preceding six weeks:

BMW Z3 IN SHORT SUPPLY - If you saw the James Bond movie "Goldeneye," (I just did) and you're a sports car enthusiast, you were no doubt impressed by Bond's latest set of wheels, the BMW Z3 roadster. Watching the movie may be the only opportunity you'll get to see one, too, as the company is having trouble making enough to satisfy the world-wide demand for the little two-seater. Its only source is the BMW plant in South Carolina and most of them are shipped back to the Old Country. As a result, the company will soon devote the entire factory to the production of the Z3 (it currently shares the assembly line with its more plebeian 3-series sedan stablemates) and will be able to grind out 400 of them a day.

AIR BAG HEADACHES - Besides the fact that auto and pickup makers have their hands full trying to figure out how to make passenger-side air bags fail-safe (bag deployment in accidents has created problems with front-seat mounted baby seats and us fragile old folks), the auto insurance industry is tearing its corporate hair over the proliferation of air bag thefts. The bad guys are grabbing them for sale to unscrupulous body shops who save a few bucks that way when doing a crash repair. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the bags are ripped off - literally - and the damage done to the target car is often more expensive to repair than the replacement of the bag itself.

THE BEETLE RETURNS - To all of you old-timers out there who still lament the passing of the ubiquitous Volkswagen Beetle; take heart - it may be deja vu all over again. But it won't be a resurrection of the air-cooled, rear engined Bug of yore so much as a Bug-like body on one of the current VW platforms. A 1.8 liter gas engine will be up front and drive the front wheels and the price ($12,000 plus a bit) will put it in the Plymouth Neon class. The folks at VW want to recapture the youthful, fun-to-drive image the company enjoyed with the original Beetle 30 years ago and dealers are already queuing up to be first in line for this Retrobug best seller.

THE GENERAL MOVES IN - The Ford people who work at the company's offices that are located in Detroit's Renaissance Center must be getting a bit nervous about the new landlord. The place was bought up by arch-rival General Motors to house all its automotive marketing divisions under one roof. Pontiac and GM Trucks will be moving in starting in the middle of next year and the rest will follow by 2002. This makes it a bit touchy for Ford since the lease on its portion of the place runs until 2005. Robert Rewey, one of Ford's marketing executives, has told his employees to hang tight and that Ford will stay put until its lease is up. The silence in the elevators should be very heavy.

ROTARY MAZDA DISAPPEARS - An old family friend seems destined to bite the dust. The famous (or notorious) rotary engine that has powered various Mazda RX models for the past quarter of a century is getting thumbs down from the hierarchy at Ford. My sons and I have collectively owned a dozen or so of these amazing hummers and it has always astounded me that so much power can be produced by an engine not much bigger than the battery that starts it - and with no valves or pistons. But the boys from Dearborn put a half billion dollars into Mazda, grabbed the reigns and have decided that the rotary engine, for all its wonderful weirdness, is a loser. Unless a corporate miracle occurs, the rotary engine will find a place in Automotive Valhalla along side the Doble steam engine and the Knight sliding sleeve valve powerplant.

BABY JAGS IN FORD'S FUTURE - Jaguar hasn't always built big sedans and fast sports cars. The first official Jaguar sedan, the Mark IV of '45 to '48, could be had with a little 1.7 liter four cylinder engine as well as a slightly larger six-banger. Ford now owns the big Brit and has reinvented the "small" Jag to compete with the Mercedes E-class cars as well as the BMW 5-series. The company will debut its mid-sized X200 sedan in '97 and is playing around with the idea of making and even smaller version to go against the BMW 3-series and the Mercedes C-class. It appears that Jaguar wants to cover all the bases (or wickets, in this case) but will draw the line at sports/utility vehicles, minivans and "personal" small pickups.

Six weeks pass fast and the coming half-dozen will probably bring lots of changes in the auto world. That's what's nice about the business. One never gets bored.