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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

May 08, 1998

Writing my six-week update on the automotive world is one of my personal favorites. None of the subjects I select for perusal are ever industry-shaking or cause for concern in the stock market, but instead are things I find interesting and sometimes entertaining. These are the items that caught my eye since last we convened:

FERRY PORSCHE DIES - How ironic that Ferdinand "Ferry" Porsche died during this, the 50th anniversary of his founding the famous company that bears his family name. He was 88. Porsche took the nickname Ferry to differentiate himself from his equally famous father, Ferdinand Sr., who designed and developed the original Volkswagen Beetle in its fledgling days. The junior Porsche headed up the Volkswagen test program for his father and was also involved in the development of Germany's 500-plus horsepower Auto Union Grand Prix cars in the early '30s. His performance and race car orientation served him well. Immediately after World War II, he used the proceeds from his development of a Grand Prix car for a paying client to get his ailing father out of a French jail for where he had been put for alleged war crimes. The younger Porsche formed Porsche AG in 1948 to build sports cars, and the rest is history.

PANOZ ELECTRIFIES LE MANS - I know how you feel about all-electric vehicles and the various gasoline/electric hybrids that are making headlines. Environmentally correct but dull, short ranged, cramped and inconvenient to "refuel." All true - but consider the Panoz Q9 hybrid Le Mans racer. Its drive system contains a 6.0 liter Ford V8 engine that puts out around 600 horsepower which is not all that spectacular for a world-class endurance racer. But the Panoz has an ace-in-the-hole in the form of a high-tech Zytek electric motor/alternator that is attached to the driveshaft behind the gasoline motor. During acceleration the Zytek acts as an alternator that charges a pack of space-age batteries. At top speed (somewhere in the neighborhood of 225 MPH), the electric motor can be kicked in for an additional 150 horsepower and when the current is reversed, it becomes a brake. The major sponsor of the Panoz team is Visteon, a Ford subsidiary, and I'm told that it's the first time electric power has ever been used at the famous Le Mans 24-hour race.

JEEP SPY PHOTOS FROM CYBERSPACE - "Spy" photos of upcoming new vehicles is a very hot business for automotive papparazzi who are constantly on the lookout for preproduction models that are being tested on public roads and highways. Candid shots can bring several thousand dollars from buff magazines and other publications. A Dodge Durango owner in Pittsburgh picked up a photo of the new '99 Jeep Cherokee on a remote web site that has since vanished and posted it himself on his own web site. He felt that the new Jeep SUV holds styling cues from his own mount and that other Durango owners would be interested. Chrysler executives profess shock and dismay at the publication of the photo which was later published in USA Today. But web site experts are dubious and suspect that perhaps Chrysler itself "leaked" the photo to garner media excitement over the new Cherokee, which won't be officially unwrapped for some time. If that was the plan, it has worked very well.

DAEWOO GOES TO COLLEGE - Taking a cue from the Jeep "spy" photo story, I called up on the Internet to see if I could get an update on that enigmatic Korean auto maker and its U.S. program. I did, and its campaign is interesting and will be unique. In order to try to circumvent the American perception of low quality in Korean cars, Daewoo plans to market its line of sedans almost exclusively to college students through student newspapers. It will eschew any other form of promotion, depending instead on word-of-mouth plus a concentrated effort on the Internet. It expects its top-of-the-line $20,000 Laganza to be its best-seller (a lot of money for an undergrad) and will make long-term loaner vehicles available to the editors of selected college newspapers. College students must be different in Korea, but having been a high school teacher for a couple of decades, I have a suggestion for Daewoo: Give those test cars to selected high school students around the country. If those Laganza sedans can stand up to that service, their record for indestructibility will be assured.

HONDA IN A PR HUFF - No one can ever say that American Honda Motor Co. doesn't take its corporate image-making seriously. That august company recently dumped its St. Louis-based public relations firm for making a successful bid on a contract from an American non-profit organization. A harsh reaction, until one realizes that the "other" company is the American Automobile Manufacturers Association (AAMA), a Washington-based advocacy and lobbying group for America's Big-3 auto makers. Honda was further piqued by the fact that it had been a member of the AAMA, but was shown the door for not being American enough, even though it produces a plethora of vehicles in this country. "Underhanded" and "clandestine" were the nicest words used by Honda officials to describe the actions taken by its former image-builder.

The auto industry is arguably the largest income generator in this country. An estimated one-in-eight Americans either build, sell, repair, insure, give tickets to, write about or on some other avenue are involved directly or indirectly with the world of wheels. With this in mind, I think it will be a long time before I run out of items for my six-week updates.