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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

December 26, 1997

The year has come to an end, and although we did receive 104 new vehicles (cars, trucks, vans, sport/utility vehicles, etc.) to evaluate and write about, we have to be honest and say that all vehicles are not created equal. Some are a great deal more fun to drive and while we did get a share of exciting machinery, there were some that we lusted after but were unable to hook up with. These are the '97 models that we would have liked to check out for you, but for one reason or another, we were unable to acquire:

ROLLS-ROYCE/BENTLEY - We've been anxiously awaiting a call from the Rolls-Royce guys ever since we got into the car-testing business 20 years ago. But 1997 came and went and still no call. We're pretty sure that the company is still in business, since a dealer is still listed in the San Francisco Yellow Pages. To make sure, we drove over one afternoon, peeked in the window and saw a couple inside. Unfortunately, we weren't invited in. I've been told by some of the buff magazine folks that they saw a BMW-powered prototype for the next generation Rolls- Bentley tested in Arizona earlier this year, but we haven't even been invited to try out the old one yet. The rumor is that BMW has bought Rolls-Royce and since we get along pretty good with the BMW people, maybe the new administration will invite us to get behind the wheel.

VOLKSWAGEN BEETLE - I know you thought production of the venerable Beetle went out with Disco and you're right - except in third-world countries that don't have our strict pollution laws. But never underestimate the power of American nostalgia. A couple of years ago Volkswagen built a concept car, a Beetle look-alike, to evaluate the possibility of making an environmental-friendly, modernized Beetle. It came to pass and by now all the buff magazines have tried it. One of them even did a feature on Jerry Seinfeld (an incurable Porschephile and former Beetle owner) driving one around for a few days. While we get other new Volkswagens like the Passat, GTI and Jetta for a week at a time, we had our hearts set on a Beetle - but to no avail. I'm told it's really just a water-cooled, front-engined, front-drive Golf with a funky body so maybe it's just as well that we're left with our memories of the '60s still intact.

MASERATI - We were dismayed last month to find that the production lines at Maserati had been completely shut down on orders from headquarters at Ferrari. Ferrari management was called in by the Italian government (owner of almost everything built on wheels over there) to come to grips with Maserati's poor quality, assembly problems and unprofitability. Since we've been turned down by all the other Italian exotic auto makers, we've been hoping that Maserati would get around to us to give it our opinion on its new, unnamed GT coupe. Now we know why. The company hasn't even built any of them. To tell the truth, we haven't tried out any Italian cars of any make at all since the untimely deportation of Fiat in 1983 and now it appears that we will be thwarted again - at least until Ferrari gets things sorted out.

AC ACE - The last time we tried an AC Cobra was in 1962 - many years before we got into the business of writing about cars. It was therefore with great expectation that we learned of the return of both the Ford V8-powered Cobra roadster and it's predecessor, the less powerful Ace. Then we discovered that all orders for the two cars are taken at the plant in England and rather than being built for everyday use, the "new" cars are really replicas of the original car I drove in 35 years ago sans engine and running gear. They were to be sold to vintage-car racers who wanted to experience The Good Old Days but can't or don't want to put up the half-million or more dollars for the real thing. So again our hopes for road testing an "unusual" set of wheels for a week or so were dashed.

ACURA INTEGRA TYPE R - On the other hand, there was no such mystery about Acura's Integra Type-R. The Type-R is ostensibly available through Acura dealers, although it's made in small numbers (only 500 examples were earmarked for the U.S.) and very nearly a match in performance for the company's NSX Supercar. The folks at Acura whisked my son Matt off to Texas early this year to try it out during a one-day track preview and he returned full of enthusiasm for the car. With obvious excitement he announced that one such example was scheduled for press duty in our area. He enthused over the car, explaining that it is built for production car racing and to this end the Type-R is delivered with no air conditioning or sound system, and even the rear windshield wiper is eliminated in the quest for performance. But then misfortune struck. The day before it was due for delivery to us for a full family evaluation, it was stolen by some miscreant who was obviously aware of its worth as a source of performance parts. The car hasn't been seen since that day. And because of the fact that the Type-R is such a rare bird, it's unlikely that another will be pass our way for a long time.

But hope springs eternal from an auto writer's heart and it's never too early to get started on a new wish list. All I have to do is come up with the telephone numbers of Ferrari, Lamborghini and a couple of the others and start my campaign anew.