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A Mixed Bag Of Good And Bad Automotive News

by Bob Hagin

April 23, 2001

The auto business encompasses so many different aspects, it's hard to cover them all. This time we touch on items that range from decisions made at the international corporate level down to customized retro-rods. This is that mixed bag:

CRAZY FOR CUSTOM CRUSIN' - Mazda Miatas had it when they first appeared 11 years ago. Volkswagen New Beetles had it when they showed up in '98. "It" is the almost unexplainable attraction an unusual vehicle has to the American auto-buying public. A year ago Chrysler had "it" when that company brought out its PT Cruiser. Chrysler dealers were demanding (and getting) as much as $10,000 over sticker price for these little retro wagons. And like the New Beetle, it took just a few weeks before modified versions were rolling out of custom shops all over the country. Over 150 altered PT Cruisers were on display at the last Specialty Equipment Manufacturer's Las Vegas trade show. Chrysler itself had a convertible two-door built as a show piece, which may or not mean a production model will appear in the future. Southern California streets are awash with these versatile little car/truck/minivans and many of them have either custom paint, body panels or grilles - or all three. Chrysler plans a half-dozen variations on the PT Cruiser within a few years. Who'd have guessed that a car that looks like the '37 Ford sedan-delivery would be resurrected by an auto maker.

LEXUS GOES GOLFING - Golfing has a very big sports presence and I don't mean just with the weekend duffers. Pro golf tournaments are hot stuff on television and its stars are highly-paid athletes. Auto makers have long been aware of this as well as the fact that the viewer demographics are several cuts above that for television wrestling. Over 40 years ago Buick began sponsoring the Buick Open and now has superstar Tiger Woods tied to a long-term contract. Honda is also in the game and has sponsored the high-profile Honda Classic for a quarter of a century. Now that Lexus is the top selling luxury brand in the US, it too wants in on the action. The problem is that there are just so many 'premier' golf tourneys to go around and Lexus doesn't want to have it's name attached to a second-level program. Lexus is reported to be willing to put up "several million" in seed money and it doesn't mean grass seed.

ALFA GOES ASIAN - The auto world is very big place and it get bigger (and more complex) every day. At one time several decades ago, Alfa Romeo was a connoisseur's car here and even in Italy it was the thinking-man's alternative to a Fiat. But now Fiat owns Alfa and General Motors owns 20-percent of Fiat so the bloodlines are getting mixed. In order to become a player on the world market and especially in the emerging Southeast Asian segment, Fiat will begin making Alfa-branded cars at a plant in Raygon, Thailand. Labor is lots less expensive there and the political climate supports new or upgraded big foreign manufacturing businesses. As it happens, General Motors has an underused plant in Raygon, so the obvious scenario is that Fiat will build Alfas at the General Motors plant in Thailand. The car will be a mid-sized sedan for consumption there rather than the sporty Alfa Spider that American enthusiasts have been praying for. Remember the good old days when Fiat built econoboxes, Alfa built sports cars and General Motors built Bel Airs and Cutlasses?

ANOTHER MARRIAGE OF EQUALS - Mitsubishi seems to have had lots of luck during the past couple of years and most of it has been bad. In this country it started with massive complaints of sexual harassment at its joint-venture assembly plant in Normal, Ill. Then it was the revelation last year that for more than a decade, the home office had been covering up quality problems in Japan which lead to some massive and very expensive recalls. Last year DaimlerChrysler entered the picture and bought into the red-ink and rudderless Mitsubishi Motors of Japan, acquiring 34-percent of it. Now that the German company has control, a crew of DaimlerChrysler managers have stepped in and has announced that it will cut almost 10,000 jobs worldwide (lots of them in top Japanese management), close a plant or two and in short, trim-down the bloated company. If this seems like a familiar song, remember that the last outfit the German company bought into was Chrysler.

GENERAL MOTORS FLATTERS FORD - If imitation is the most sincere form of flatter, General Motors seems to be planning to tip its hat to Ford as it forms a stand-alone organization to market its luxury brands, Cadillac, Saab and Alfa Romeo (even those made in Thailand). Ford does this with its Premier Automotive Group which incorporated Lincoln, Volvo, Land Rover and Aston Martin under a single marketing umbrella. The most noteworthy aspect of this carriage-trade amalgamation is the rumor that the venerated Corvette name will be broken off from Chevrolet after nearly 50 years and become a stand-alone brand. Needless to say, Chevrolet dealers aren't happy with the concept of having their Number One showroom attraction taken away. The rumor mill also hints that a new, smaller Corvette-branded Camaro would be pulled along with it.

As the auto world get bigger and more convoluted, I hope that the most important equation in the mix doesn't get ignored in the process. Without us buyers, the auto business would become a side note in industrial history.