The Wrong Auto Shows
They tell us more than the big Detroit exhibition.
Once again "Gearbox" has fallen behind. Excuse: There was that presidential election to cover. I know, I should have stuck to cars.
In a previous installment, I promised to write about "auto show winners and losers." That was--yikes!--almost a year ago. We're now in the middle of another auto show season, with big events in Los Angeles and, currently, Detroit. But, hey, why limit ourselves to whatever the manufacturers are hyping this year? Do you care about the Ford Explorer Sport-Trac Concept? Neither do I. The New York Times recently profiled Peter Horbury, who until recently was busy designing Aalto-esque Volvos. Now his "priority," is "to revive Lincoln, Ford's lagging luxury brand." But wait a minute--only five years ago a long-haired Brit named Gerry McGovern was chosen to revive Ford's lagging luxury brand. McGovern's auto show designs were elegant. What was so wrong with them that they now must be trashcanned? Were they too elegant for Lincoln, which now plans to become an "almost luxury" brand? Sometimes you learn more by ignoring today's news.
So come with us now to the thrilling auto shows of yesteryear, handily cataloged by Automobile magazine on this page. By far the best was the wacky Tokyo show of 2003. But they almost all have something to offer--and the rare exotic prototypes from two years ago seem even rarer and more exotic because they're now forgotten. Then we can turn to the current non-excitement in Detroit:
Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione: So what if it's less attractive than Giorgio Giugiaro's 1964 Alfa Canguro. It's sexy, it's red, and it has rear-drive. You can't have too many variations of the '60s coke bottle for me. (Frankfurt show, 2003) ... Better yet, why don't they just put the Canguro into production?
Honda Kiwami: Longer, lower, wider! Haven't heard that in a while. This is the handsomest fuel cell zoomer so far, beating out the Toyota Fine-N and the insane theme-park-ride-like Suzuki Mobile Terrace. (Tokyo, 2003)
Peugeot 407 Elixir--a new design that probably seemed old in about an hour. But very pretty. (Frankfurt, 2003)
Mitsubishi SeRo Concept: You have to love this weird-but-inspired dirigiblish thing. It looks like the Brain-bug from Starship Troopers! (Tokyo, 2003)
Nissan Fuga: I haven't figured out why the production version of the attractive Fuga concept car--the new Infiniti M45--looks so drearily like a Maxima. I think it's that they shortened the nose (or enlarged the cabin). (Tokyo, 2003)
Mitsuoka Orochi: Kids draw cars like this. And I mean that as a compliment. (Tokyo, 2003)
Toyota FJ Cruiser: If only for its beautiful retro-blue color, it's far preferable to the current, pompous, Lexusized Land Cruiser. (Detroit, 2003)
Hyundai OLV: Some cars are so ugly that they're not (sort of like Harvey Weinstein!).
BMW 1-Series: Anyone want a four-door that sags? (Paris, 2004)
Renault BeBop: Trying way too hard to be happy. (Frankfurt, 2003)
Audi LeMans Quattro: All the unfortunate disposable-razor styling themes that are now destroying Audi's global design reputation were previewed in this vehicle. (Frankfurt, 2003)
Toyota PM Concept: When you watched Invasion of the Body Snatchers, were you rooting for the pods? Then this is your car. (Tokyo, 2003)
Ford Visos: "It was cold and lacked sex appeal," says Automobile. They're right. Click if you want to know what an electric shaver with wheels looks like. (Frankfurt 2003)
Hyundai HC8 concept: Possibly even more of a hack styling exercise than Toyota's critically derided Scion TC. (Detroit, 2004)
Nissan Jikoo Concept: It's a Japanese heritage thing. I wouldn't understand. (Tokyo, 2003)
Mitsubishi Eclipse Concept E: Why is Mitsubishi currently in a sales death spiral? In part because of hideous creations like this. There's overcapacity in the auto industry, remember. Somebody has to go broke. It might as well be the company building the ugly cars. (Detroit, 2004) ... Update: The production version, unveiled this week, is more palatable. Also duller.
The Saturn Story--Alternate Take: Here are the plot points of the Saturn story thus far, as told by General Motors and swallowed hook, line, and sinker by much of the mainstream press:
1. Roger Smith has the idea for a stand-alone GM division to compete with the imports.
2. The Saturn line "never live[s] up to its glossy promotion"--but its popular no-hassle sales policy enables it to survive. "Somehow we believed that if you got a reputation for wonderful dealer service, then the product didn't matter," as GM vice chairman (and blogger) Bob Lutz puts it.
3. GM is now trying to save the brand by having it market Opel-designed cars.
Photographs of: 2006 Subaru B9 Tribeca by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images; Saturn Aura by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images; Saturn Sky Roadster by John F. Martin/Getty Images.