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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

June 20, 1997

Lots of things can happen in the car world in six weeks, and it usually does. That period of time has transpired since we last published our review of auto happenings and we have another packet of tidbits today. Not many of them are grist from the mills of company public relations offices and some have disturbing elements to them. These are the items that caught our attention during the past month and a half:

"GRAYING" VEHICLES WORRY INDUSTRY - Maybe modern cars are just too good - at least that's the contention of industry analysts. In 1970, the median age of cars in this country was almost five years, but now it's close to eight, which means that cars are lasting longer and being kept longer. The fact that the average new vehicle costs a bit over $20,000 is prompting motorists to keep their rolling stock longer, too. Some European governments offer cash incentives to motorists who will trade in road veterans on new cars (built in their own country, of course) just to boost home-grown production. According to one statistical think-tank, the remedy is for auto makers to produce cheaper vehicles that last 12 years, at which time every part will wear out at once. Unfortunately, this doesn't take into account human nature and our national propensity to try to stay one-up on our neighbors.

BIG THREE SHOOTS FOR 80 MPG CARS IN 2004 - In 1993, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler formed a consortium with the U.S. Dept. of Commerce called the "Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV). The goal of the PNGV is to develop affordable mid-sized family cars that will get 80 miles per gallon of gasoline using space age technology and the target date is 2004. Hybrids using small gas engines to run electric generators look like the best bet, but there's one major flaw: the companies don't have the technology developed to meet the goal and they're not sure the public will accept the avant-garde concept cars when they do. GM Research VP Ken Baker commented "We're looking at an all-new form of transportation. When was the last time that happened?" As I recall, it was in 1946 and it was lovingly called "The VW Beetle."

NHTSA DIDN'T "UNDERSTAND" POTENTIAL PROBLEMS OF AIR BAGS - I never thought I'd see it, but the head of the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Administration) admitted that he lacked scientific understanding on a federally-mandated auto safety device. Apparently the potential for injury and death from passenger-side airbags never occurred to Dr. Ricardo Martinez, NHTSA director, and when the rash of horror stories revolving around their deployment surfaced, he didn't know who to blame. NHTSA had never done any crash-testing using child-sized dummies so air-bag neck injuries to kids and small adults were "...not a well understood phenomenon," according to the doctor. Now the NHTSA is scrambling to analyze the effects of driver-disabled passenger airbags (a federal no-no until recently) as well as air-bags that are sensitive to the weight of the occupant of the passenger's seat.

FORD MOTOR COMPANY WANTS TO ENTER RETAIL BUSINESS - It hasn't hit the headlines of the Business Page yet, but Ford recently made its dealers around the country very nervous when it announced that it wants to buy out all Ford, Lincoln-Mercury, Jaguar and Mazda dealerships in the metropolitan Indianapolis area. The plan is for the retailers to sell to a new company that would be owned jointly by Ford and the store owners, then relocated in five new "megastores" to be built in the area and overseen by a single Ford-appointed manager. Service and repairs would be done by a string of stand-alone Ford Service Center shops independent of the showrooms. Sounds like a fine idea - except to some of the old-time dealers I know who plan to hand the "family store" down to their children and grandchildren. Maybe the kids can be sent off the college to become auto analysts and statisticians.

HOT-ROD CADILLAC IN THE WORKS - I haven't heard any high-performance talk attached to the prestigious and dignified Cadillac name since Briggs Cunningham entered a couple of Model 60s in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1950, but that may change. The word is that the company is planning a performance upgraded version of the Eldorado coupe that would follow the Mercedes lead of providing a carriage-trade road rocket like its AMG-modified C36 sedan. In case you haven't tried any of the new Caddies with the 300 horsepower Northstar V8, get ready for a good ride. They ain't Grampa's old Fleetwood, and in street-rod form, it will definitely be a country-club screamer.

The auto world is big and broad and something interesting is always happening. Come back in six weeks and we'll give you another insider's update.