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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

November 28, 1997

It's auto show time again and as usual, I took in our local event across the bay in San Francisco. Auto shows that present next year's models to an adoring public are held about this time of year in almost every metropolitan area in the country. They range from the really big deals like those in New York City and Detroit to minuscule events put on by local dealer's associations in a multitude of small towns. At the small shows you won't see the razzle-dazzle pyrotechnic spectaculars sometimes put on by publicity-hungry manufacturers, futuristic "concept" cars or long-awaited presentations of all-new models, but they are nonetheless well-received - testimonials to the fact that Americans love the automobile.

I started attending the San Francisco show in '57, the first year it was held after World War II. My dad told me that similar shows had been put on there in the '30s, but it took 12 years to get it going again after the War. Dad was always a true aficionado and he went with me to that first post-war San Francisco show 40 years ago.

Back then, it was known as the Imported Car Show and it was restricted to foreign brands only. At the time, imports were looked upon as unreliable toys and those of us who owned them were considered pretentious as well as slightly "wacko." Local foreign car dealers were anxious to get a foothold into the general market and a showy display much like a Hollywood opening seemed like the perfect way to introduce "everyman" to the joys of owning an import.

In 40 years things have changed considerably and now the show encompasses all brands. Imported makes are still in the majority but a great number of them were put together in American plants. In 1957 English makes were in great profusion and marques like Morgan, MG, Morris, Austin, Hillman, Sunbeam, AC, Daimler, Triumph and half a dozen others were prominently displayed at auto shows around the country. The sole remaining representatives of the once-proud British auto industry at the latest San Francisco show were Jaguar, Land Rover, and Rolls-Royce.

I think the proclivity towards attending auto shows runs in families. It does in mine. I first took my oldest son Terry to the San Francisco show when he was only seven or eight and we went every year until he finally discovered girls. Over the years, I've taken almost all my sons on the annual Hagin trek to The City for the show (my daughters were invited but always declined) and this year Brendan, my youngest, was finally bitten by the show bug. He joined his brother Matt and I at the press and VIP preview and was suitably impressed. As usual, the catered buffet tables overflowed with classy finger food and the beverage bars were likewise well stocked with beer and champagne.

On our way to the show, I learned that the real reason for Brendan's interest in attending the event for the first time. After an absence of four years, our local Ferrari dealer had a stall and put a half-dozen of these Italian exotics on display. After feeding ourselves and spending a respectable amount of time hobnobbing with the local patricians, we followed the crowd to the Ferrari booth and found it packed with past, present, future and wanna-be owners of these exotic cars. We were somewhat disappointed that there were only five cars on display but they made up in quality what they lacked in quantity.

Matt in particular was interested in the mechanical aspects of the Ferraris on display, having served as an apprentice mechanic in a local independent Ferrari repair shop at an early age. He seemed somewhat taken aback by the sight of an automatic transmission in one of the cars on display. We did some tsk-tsking about the fact that the vaulted Modena company had caved in to the pressures of Baby Boomer mentality and developed a vehicle that might actually be easy to drive.

By a perverse luck of the draw, the somber Hummer display was located next to the Ferrari pavilion and the contrast was striking. While it was the automotive darling of Operation Desert Storm, the Hummer might have been better located next to the GMC Truck or Jeep displays where its rough-and-rugged outdoorsman motif would have been more appropriate. I did notice that the two totally divergent forms of personal land transportation were divided by a low fence, the only place in the building where such a barricade was in place.

Unfortunately, the closing-time stop on our San Francisco sojourn was the Ford display. I say "unfortunately" not so much because we didn't have time to examine Ford's new ZX2 sporty coupe or the redesigned and regal Crown Victoria, but because it featured the show's only "spectacular" and we almost missed it. To capitalize on Ford's television "Action Heros" ad campaign, it consists of a 10-foot tall "half-pipe" on which helmeted skateboarders performed gravity-defying feats of daring. Accompanied by shouts of "gnarly," "rad," and "youda" (as in "you da man"), each in his turn would zip down one side and up the other until he completed his routine or crashed hard. Brendan was enthralled, but it hurt me just to watch.

The auto show season is just starting, so whether you're a dyed-in- the-wool car family or just have a passing interest in things automotive, take in one of these events. And if you have a helmet, bring it along - you might be asked to "rip it up on the half-pipe."