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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

May 9, 1997

Six weeks goes by quickly in the fast-moving world of the automobile and it's time again for our semi-quarterly update of the car business. Lots of things have been going on but these are the items that have attracted my attention from the position of an arm's-length auto journalist:

FERRARI IS 50 - Il Commendatore (the title that Enzo Ferrari gave himself in later life) died several years ago and didn't get to see his namesake reach its Golden Anniversary. Ferrari, the company, is 50 this year. Never mind that he really built his first cars (a couple of Fiat-based racers) in 1940, it was in 1947 that Ferrari got his bomb-damaged Italian factory officially in operation and started the legend. In the past few years the company has replaced its entire lineup and its mild-mannered 456T is considered by the factory to be a "family car" while its new 550 Maranello is said to be "docile." The 550 had its U.S. debut in Beverly Hills last month but Gian Buitoni, head man of Ferrari North America, declined to comment on rumors that the company is going further mainstream and developing an SUV and a mini-van.

GLASS CEILING CRACKED AT FORD - The upper levels of the auto manufacturer's corporate hierarchy is still pretty much a "good ol' boys" club but a major step has been recently made at Ford in allowing women access to high executive offices. Bobbie Gaunt has stepped up from being Ford Division's general marketing manager to become president of Ford of Canada Ltd. Gaunt, a veteran of many years with Ford in various positions, is obviously in line for bigger things in the near future and it's possible that she will eventually lead one of Ford's major sales divisions. Jim O'Connor, current general manager of the Lincoln-Mercury Division, rose to his present position from Ford of Canada and might have set a corporate precedent. I wonder how tough the glass ceiling is at General Motors and Chrysler?

NEW CORVETTES RECALLED TO REPAIR FAULTY SUSPENSION PART - How do you tell the owner of a '97 Corvette that he or she shouldn't drive the car because the rear suspension might fall off? Very diplomatically! After waiting in line for many months to be first-on-the-block with the newest version of the 175 MPH speedster, about 550 buyers were called by their selling dealers and told to park it until a improperly heat-treated rear toe-control bar link could be replaced. The recall involves 1400 of the first-run of the production line but the problem was discovered on a couple of cars that had been pulled off for random fleet testing. The faulty part can't be detected visually so the entire production run had to be serviced with updated parts. The link had been supplied by an outside vender and wasn't a GM in-house product.

LAND ROVER "BABY" IS ON THE WAY - If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, the august British Land Rover company has just tipped its corporate derby to the Toyota RAV4. The RAV4 was first into the field of sedan-based small sport/utility vehicles and now Land Rover has displayed it's own version, the Freelander. "Sedan-based" means that an SUV is built from a modified unibody passenger car platform and isn't intended to carry great mountains of safari gear on treks through uncharted jungles. Like the RAV4 and the new Honda CR-V, the Freelander is designed for light off-road duty and to look cute in country-club parking lots. It will come as both a two-door and a four-door and carry a transverse-mounted V6 up front.

ANOTHER COBRA REPLICA? - Actually, the latest AC Cobra replica will be the real thing, being built, as it is, by the rejuvenated (that means newly refinanced) AC Car Group Ltd. of England. AC built the originals for Carroll Shelby in the early '60s and the flashy, Ford V8-powered two-seat rocket has become the most copied car in history. As you know, its kit-car replicas are legion. The new/old cars will be imported to the U.S. as "rollers" (complete cars sans engine and transmission) to be completed here to suit the buyer's tastes. They're targeted towards amateur vintage-car racers and so the product must be an exact match for its 35-year-old predecessor. The new sales manager for AC acknowledges that the engine-less Cobra may "..sound expensive.." at $100,000 but he points out that it's a fifth the price of the one Shelby himself makes. It's still a mystery to me how a newly-made car qualifies as a "vintage" racer before its first coat of paint is dry.

The world of the automobile is diverse and wonderful. Check back six weeks hence and we'll see what's been happening again.