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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

February 20, 1998

The automotive world is so large and all-encompassing that the term "new" can be applied to a myriad of items from insurance to tires to laws, as well as to cars and trucks. New auto "things" crop up every day and we like to keep our readers apprised of them. I've researched a few and have come up with some inside information:

FINNISH BOXSTER - So maybe the "new" Porsche Boxster isn't really so new. The trim little mid-engined retrorocket roadster has been out for a year now and the worldwide demand has been literally overwhelming - the company couldn't supply enough Boxsters to meet dealer requests. Which lead to an in-house dilemma in Zuffenhausen, Germany: should Porsche simply make the car all the more desirable by "rationing" the supply, expand its production by enlarging the size of its factory, or look for an outside company to produce the car? Since Porsche is in the business of selling as many cars as possible but is unable to enlarge its plant because of local land constraints, it settled on having a portion of its Boxster production done elsewhere. But to everyone's surprise (and to the initial consternation of Fred Schwab, Porsche head man in the U.S.), "foreign" Boxsters are being built by the high-tech Varnet Automotive company in Uusikaupunki, Finland. The quality of the Finnish-built Boxsters is equal to (and in minor areas, better) than their German counterparts and dealers want the cars so badly that "...they could be built on the moon.." according to the now-happy Schwab.

TOYOTA 2-WHEEL DRIVE OFF-ROADER - Having driven the Baja (Mexico) 1000-mile cross-country race once (the inaugural event in '67), in a two-wheel drive sports car, I've often wondered how necessary it is to drive all four wheels on a basically unencumbered desert dirt road. My curiosity was satisfied by a new pickup truck that's being offered by Toyota. Called the PreRunner, it's a two-wheel-drive version of the Toyota Tacoma XtraCab 4X4 without the front-drive mechanicals. The name PreRunner comes from the vehicles that off-road racing team drivers use to pre-run a desert course to save the competition vehicle for the real thing. The new Toyota PreRunner comes in a couple of different forms, the first being a wannabe racer look-alike with exterior Toyota Motorsports logos and a 2.7 liter four-banger engine as standard equipment. For the more serious buyers, the PreRunner can be had with a 190-horse V6 engine, a no-kidding off-road suspension kit and 31X10.5R15 tires. A neat extra on the V6 is an electronically operated differential locker that keeps both rear wheels grinding in sand or dirt at the touch of a button. Toyota's market target is those enthusiasts who don't want to go the extra money for four-wheel drive and/or want to avoid the higher insurance rates that are common with 4WD pickups.

FORD MODEL T POSTAGE STAMP - Gene Babow was a good friend who, besides being an in-house archivist for the library of the prestigious Blackhawk Automotive Museum in Danville, CA, was a stamp collector with a very specialized inclination: he only collected stamps that had an automotive theme. His stamps were from all over the world and he even did several articles on the subject for auto "buff" magazines. I thought of Gene last week when the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a new stamp commemorating the introduction of the Model T Ford in 1908. According to my source of Model T lore, the first 2500 of them were so different from those built later that experts on the subject almost consider them a different model and - surprise - they came in red, green and gray. For a long time it was the longest-lived model in the world (1908 to 1927) but was supplanted by the VW Bug as well as the Porsche 911. The Model T stamp shows an early model (possibly in red) with split windshield and statuesque top erected. Buying a Porsche Boxster from Finland will set you back a bundle and the Toyota PreRunner is not cheap either, but you can get a first-year Ford Model T (at least its image) for only 32 cents - and it's much easier to maintain and store too. Gene would have loved it.

VOLKSWAGEN W-12 - If you doubt that Volkswagen is moving upscale (it's been bidding against BMW and others to buy Rolls-Royce), consider its "concept" super sportster. Built for VW by ItalDesign (in Italy, of course), the yellow coupe looks like a pole-sitter from the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is powered by two VW GTI VR6 engines siamesed side-by-side. With a six-speed transmission, 420 horsepower and a projected top speed of 200-plus MPH, it's a long way from the "people's car" that Ferdinand Porsche envisioned in 1931. The company has plans to develop a more conventional upscale sedan in a couple of years to challenge the S-Class Mercedes-Benz V12-powered super luxury cars. The VW W-12 would be an obvious choice for its proposed "rich people's car," and if Rolls-Royce fell under the Wolfsburg banner, you can bet that it would quickly supplant the BMW engine that's now resides under that British hood.

As current year cars and trucks are introduced, they're touted as being "new" when their designs are often several years old and the only thing new about them is the upholstery color and the logo on the hood. But as really new things come up, we'll keep you informed. Stay tuned.