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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

March 20, 1998

It's hard to believe that we're already into the second quarter of 1998 and quickly coming up on the Second Millennia.

We're into our second automotive update for '98 as well, and as usual, there's been several auto-related happenings during the past six weeks - some has been big news while some has been not-so big. Their commonality is that they've all been interesting - at least to me. These are our six-week highlights:

GM PONIES OUT TO PASTURE - Gone are the Dodge Challenger, Plymouth Barracuda, AMC Javelin, and Mercury Cougar, all victims of mergers or consumer fickleness. This leaves the venerated "pony car" field of the front-engine, rear-drive, long-nose, short-overhang, American sports coupe to the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird. Now it's rumored that the two General Motors pony clones may be put out to pasture as well. The edict for change is coming from the top echelons of General Motors where top honcho Jack Smith is quoted as saying "If you build two cars, they've got to look a lot different from each other." Such is not the case with the Camaro and the Firebird. Dropping both cars is a worst-case scenario, while there's the possibility that just one of the siblings will be booted. As a result, the two companies, Chevrolet and Pontiac, are engaged in intracorporate in-fighting to save their pets. The pony car market has been in a tailspin for a few years but Ford, the originator of the genre, seems content to carry on (at least for now) with its only "image" sportster despite a drop in sales.

AIR BAG QUANDARY - The controversy that swirls around the use of air bags in modern cars continues to create turmoil among owners, auto makers and repair shops. The operation of air bags in accidents has been touted as one of the reasons for the drop in crash fatalities but there's a flip side to that record. The high pressures involved in their sudden and sometimes unnecessary deployment have been blamed for serious injuries and even fatalities among kids and small adults. As a result, the industry is now using systems that utilize lower pressures and other techniques to reduce the risks but the problem remains in vehicles made prior the change. Last November the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) authorized the installation of on/off air bag switches if the vehicle owner can prove the need. The owner is then issued an authorization slip to be given to the shop doing the work. The problem is that only 16 percent of the shops surveyed are willing to participate. A minority of the other shop owners say they're waiting for legal advise but over 60 percent of them flatly refuse the work. The problem is that in our litigious society, few shop owners are willing to risk the liability factor that could be involved if a disabled bag could have helped in an accident or if the aftermarket switch creates a problem of its own.

VW FAILS MOOSE TEST - Volkswagen is the latest auto maker to join the "I Roll over For Moose" club, the only other member of the unofficial organization being the for-Europe-only A-Class Mercedes. Last month, Opel (the General Motors affiliate in Europe) sponsored roadability tests in Germany to compare the handling capabilities of its new Astra sedan to various other European makes. The impartial evaluations were done at a government test facility and all went well until the manager of the place got behind the wheel of a new VW Golf. He tried the notorious moose-avoidance test that did in the Mercedes mini-car in Sweden last year and the Golf turned turtle. Members of the press got a good horse-laugh over the incident but the top brass at Volkswagen didn't think it was funny. Opel claims no involvement in the incident and says it will restrain from capitalizing on the incident in Astra advertising - but what a temptation!

DELOREAN NAME BACK IN THE NEWS - DeLorean is an automotive name that hasn't been in the spotlight for many years but it's cropped up again in a court case against a big-time auditing firm. You no doubt remember the sad spiral of John Z. DeLorean from being the heir-apparent to the G.M. top spot to being caught in a major drug deal sting. DeLorean beat the case in which he was accused of try to raise capital for his floundering DeLorean sports car company in Northern Ireland through "creative" financing. He also beat a 1986 inditement that claimed he channeled $17 million in company funds into a private Swiss bank account. His left the organization in total disarray as well as many investors (including the British government) holding the bag. The latest case involving the name (but not John Z. himself) was bought by creditors and investors against the auditing company that signed off on financial statements before the axe fell. Its accusers contended that the company should have known that DeLorean (the company) was in deep trouble and that its problems involved the possibility of fraud. A New York jury agreed and the judge awarded the plaintiffs $110 million but needless to say, that judgment will be appealed. John Z. is gone from the car scene but his legacy lives on.

If you read this column, you must be interested in the auto world beyond just what's showing up on showroom floors or in TV commercials. Slip on by six-weeks hence and well go over another half-dozen interesting car items.