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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

January 10, 1997

To say that the recent Los Angeles Auto Show fizzled is correct only if the statement is made by auto industry types and the national media people. There weren't any spectacular "concept cars," industry giants uttering corporate pontifications or glitzy side shows in LA. All that was being saved for the Detroit show which opened a week later.

The Southern California show is put on by a Los Angles car dealers' organization and as so, is more interested in attracting potential retail buyers than pandering to the press. And as you can imagine, its major concentration is on what buyers are going to be interested in for the coming year. I went, and found it a relief from the razzle-dazzle of "Big Show" events.

As you can imagine, sport/utility vehicles were very big at the and none of them were bigger than the A.M. General entry, the well-known Hummer. During the Desert Storm campaign of 1991, this big military machine enjoyed celebrity status on TV and the company has now dressed it up in street clothes, civilized it a bit and is going for a piece of the civilian market. The two that were on display in Los Angeles were turned out in pretty somber tones and the interiors were somewhat less than posh. I still think that they're better suited to their original purpose, namely transporting a squad of battle-ready combat troops or carrying a permanently mounted rocket launcher behind the driver.

The Land Rover folks had their display alongside the Hummers and the contrast was like the Yin and Yan of off-roading. All the Rovers on the floor were accessorized like they were being readied for a sub-Sahara safari with brush guards, high-mounted driving lights and knobby tires. The youthful salespeople were decked out in "logoed" polo shirts and khaki pants and all displayed personal enthusiasm for their mechanical mounts. The entire area was resplendent in potted palm trees and artificial rock outcroppings alongside the platform-mounted vehicles. The company's Discovery XD 4X4 was dressed up in the yellow-and-black colors used on vehicles competing in the Camel Trophy, a race that pits international teams of drivers against each other negotiating some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world. Needless to say, the Land Rover display was a hit with the outdoorsey spectators.

Off in another display hall, Beverly Hills Motoring Accessories (BHMA) showed an upgraded and very Hollywood version of the Hummer. BHMA builds fancy GMC Suburbans and performed the same kind of cosmetic makeover on its Hummer. The result was the sure traffic-stopper. It was bright yellow in color with beige leather upholstery, dual-control air conditioning, a sound system that would do justice to a concert hall and more gadgets than a one-man band. Unfortunately, it remained a Hummer, which meant that it was still big and still ugly.

Bruce Canepa, well-known king of the hot-rod SUV business, displayed a half-dozen of his truly amazing GM off-roaders. Canepa, a former IMSA pro racer, has a company in Northern California that takes Suburbans, Tahoes and Blazers down to almost bare bones and gives them a steroid treatment that includes suspension modifications, upscale interior changes and in many cases, a high-output supercharger. In the case of the Canepa Suburbans, the result is a leviathan machine that handles great and accelerates like a rocket. And all from a machine that weighs in at over 5000 pounds.

As if to demonstrate the fact that sports/utility vehicles come in all sizes, shapes and degrees of sophistication, Suzuki had one of its X-90 midgets. It appears to be almost as tall as it is long with a wheelbase of only 86 inches and is described by the company as "multi-purpose". It sports a spoiler on its tail, but with 95 horsepower and a drag coefficient that's pretty close to that of a home-made shed, I can only assume that the high-speed spoiler is more cosmetic than necessary.

Ford seemed to be mimicking the Subaru Outback in showing off its Santa Fe station wagon. This made-over Contour concept vehicle sported all-wheel drive, top-mounted driving lights and a twin-cam SHO V8 engine. Crocodile Dundee and his girlfriend may not feel so confident in those Australian Outback TV ads if they saw this Ford apparition in the rear view mirror.

The Los Angeles Auto Show wasn't earth-shattering, but I found the slower pace very refreshing. I also have plenty of mechanical fodder to share with my sons, who just love four-wheelers and hot rods.

Besides, it was too wet and rainy to cruise the boardwalk at Venice Beach.