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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

December 19, 1997

The auto world has always been ever-changing, especially so in this age of multinational business transactions. From week to week, we're not sure of who owns what, who's in charge or what's going to be built. The following automotive tidbits are examples of this changing and challenging world - and they all came to light in the past six weeks:

RED FACES AT MERCEDES - It was supposed to be a press display of the tiny new Mercedes-Benz A-class mini-compact a couple of months ago, but it turned out to be a publicity disaster. The German company had invited a group of Swedish auto writers to a fancy ride-and-drive press party which included typical Scandinavian emergency driving situations designed to show off the stability of the product. It went well until Robert Collin, a writer for the Swedish magazine "Tenikens Varld," went through a driving test known in Europe as the Moose Avoidance Test. The maneuver involves a panic turn in a fully-loaded vehicle across two lanes at 35 MPH, supposedly to simulate a moose/auto confrontation on the highway. In this case, the hypothetical moose won and Collin's Mercedes landed on its roof. The problem was traced mainly to inappropriately designed (by Mercedes) Goodyear original equipment tires (too soft), but Mercedes has also undertaken a $173 million chassis rework on the A-class, plus a recall of cars already sold in Europe. In a retest, the car passed the moose test with flying colors, and one of the drivers chosen for the re-evaluation was, of course, Robert Collin.

MAZDA RX-7 AND ITS ROTARY ENGINE UP IN THE AIR - With all the head-rolling and pink-slipping going on at Mazda since Ford took complete control of the company, the one question that's been bothering sports car enthusiasts is the fate of Mazda RX-7. The quick little coupe with its unorthodox Felix Wankel-designed rotary twin engine has been a favorite with performance fans since its appearance in '79 and has attained near-icon status. Sports cars have become a minuscule segment of the world auto market and in a recent interview, outgoing Mazda president Henry Wallace stated that "...the next (Mazda) sports car will be secondary to our RV (road vehicle) strategy, as we try to get our resources devoted to where the business is." Wallace went on to say that "...a lot of our engineers and sales people joined the company because of the Wankel and the RX-7." so there is apparently a corporate emotional factor involved in its demise.

ROLLS-ROYCE MAY GET A GERMAN ACCENT - The sun continues to set on the British Empire - or at least on its automotive industry. Vickers, a British company whose main business is building military and aviation hardware, has owned Rolls-Royce since 1980 and wants to off it as a money loser. Several companies are engaged in a bidding war, but it's come down to BMW and Volkswagen. BMW seems to be in the lead since it is already the engine supplier for the upcoming next-generation Rolls and Bentley vehicles, Bentley being Rolls' slightly less-expensive clone. The folks at Vickers seem a little testy over the idea that it's a done-deal with BMW ("...we want to dispel the notion.." said a Vickers spokesperson) but the deal may already be done as you read this. BMW owns Rover, the British company that makes the upscale British Land Rover line of sport/utility vehicles, and seems bent on acquiring as much British "prestige" as possible. The price tag for the 93-year old Rolls-Royce company is reported to be between $420 million and $870 million.

MAYBACH MAKES A TRIUMPHANT RETURN - As introduced at the Tokyo auto show in October, the new Maybach V12 is indeed competition to the vaulted Rolls-Royce and a challenge to that company's new owner, thought by many to be German arch-rival BMW. With all the bells and whistles of a corporate jet (wet bar, champagne cooler-box, TV, digital video, three on-board phone lines, etc.), it's a worthy contender for the vaulted title of "Best Car in the World," a claim long made by Rolls. Unless you're a very old German or a student of automotive history, you're probably unfamiliar with the Maybach name since the last car to carry that moniker was the custom-built SW35, last made circa 1939. Daimler Benz acquired Maybach's assets and name in 1960 and so the Maybach is really an extremely fancy and expensive Mercedes, custom-built from the ground up. Maybach is also historically famous for making the powerplant used in the Zeppelin lighter-than-air dirigibles that bombed England during World War I.

PORSCHE MOVES TO ATLANTA - I never did understand exactly why the U.S. headquarters for Porsche was located in Reno, but I've heard it had something to do with a marketing plan devised in the early '80s. It would have made home-town dealers simply order-takers with the cars being shipped directly to the buyer from two distribution points, one of which was to be Reno. That program didn't work but the pragmatic poo-bahs of Porsche decided to stay put in "The Biggest Little City in the World." Now Porsche may well be planning to get in on the hot sport/utility vehicle business but unfortunately Reno is not a hub of heavy industry. So the word on the street is that Porsche is moving its Teutonic legions (most of them, anyway) to Atlanta. But a Porsche SUV? Mercedes came up with one, as did Lincoln and now Cadillac has one in the works. Perhaps Vickers should reconsider its decision to sell Rolls-Royce and go into the off-road business.

When we do our next six-week update, 1997 will be history. We'll be a year closer to the coming of the next millenia and I plan to update the auto world well past that time. By then, who knows what will happen? Maybe the major players in the car business will be General Electric and the utility companies.