Dispatches from the Auto Show Front

The slogan for this year's auto show circuit should be "over the top." As in the World War I version of "charge," and as in the more commonly used connotation of the term these days, "outrageous." Because today's car companies are aggressively trying to outdo the competition, and they are doing it in all kinds of wild, wacky, and truly outrageous ways.

The first thing you must know about today's auto industry is that selling vehicles is no picnic. In a Keynesian sense (Economics 101) there are just too many car companies with way too much production capacity for the automotive appetites of the world's consumers. That means the many car manufacturers must battle tooth-and-claw for any gains in sales they achieve, and, further, that any gains come almost exclusively at the expense of someone else. There are no "win-wins" here, bucko. Toyota's gain is General Motors' loss. An inroad by Honda sends negative ripples through Mazda and Subaru. For every Mini that gets sold, there's a Volkswagen that probably didn't. You get the picture.

So against this backdrop, the car companies of the world are trying to win our favor by grabbing publicity, and the cheapest and most effective way to grab publicity, save murdering a celebrity, is to create something way out there. Hence, the concept vehicles that created buzz at the Los Angeles and Detroit auto shows this past week are over-the-top even for an industry that has marketed chrome and tailfins for three generations. Hey, folks, some of this stuff is positively wacked.

If you need an example, take the Dodge Tomahawk. Please. It tells you something about the state of the auto industry that the vehicle creating the most buzz at the North American International (Detroit) Auto Show isn't a car at all, but a motorcycle. And it tells you something more that most of the press breathlessly reports that the V-10-powered bike has a "top speed of 300 miles per hour." Hey, in its press release, DaimlerChrysler claims the strange machine has a "potential top speed of nearly 400 miles per hour." Or maybe it's a million. I, for one, want to be there when an intrepid rider takes this little billet of steel across the 300-mph barrier. That should be very entertaining, indeed.

Technically, one could call the Tomahawk a four-wheel vehicle, since it has paired front and rear wheels tacked onto the 500-horsepower 505 cubic inch V-10 engine that normally resides under the hood of a Viper. But otherwise this baby makes a Harley-Davidson soft-tail look like it is made by Fisher-Price. Thankfully, no one in the press asked about production plans for this piece of industrial sculpture, because you can bet there aren't any and won't be any. Ever.

If you are the type who actually likes to see autos at an auto show, you will be more pleased with the other major item of interest in Detroit, the Cadillac Sixteen. But sweet, it definitely isn't. While we applaud Cadillac's attempt to return to its roots of greatness, we simultaneously deplore the fact that they are doing that with a concept car that smacks of Clenet or latter-day Stutz. Again, the only phrase that really fits is over-the-top.

You want wretched excess? How about the Cadillac Sixteen's 32-valve V-16 engine that displaces 13.6 liters and produces 1000 horsepower and 1000 pound-feet of torque. Quick math tells you that the engine features a mundane two-valves per cylinder, but it doesn't skimp on other technical trickery. Like the ill-fated Cadillac 4-6-8 engine of a generation ago, the engine features fuel-saving "Displacement on Demand" technology, which shuts down half of the cylinders during most driving conditions and automatically and "seamlessly" reactivates them for more demanding conditions, such as brisk acceleration or when the driver needs the engine's full power. Essentially, in most conditions you have one eight-cylinder engine in operation and one in reserve, kind of like having a lifeboat in the trunk.

While designed to echo the classic Cadillacs of the Twenties and Thirties, one can't help but see the Sixteen as a parody of Cadillacs of old and of itself. And, sadly, that seems a microcosm of the American industry in these troubled times. From all appearances, the glory days of the U.S. car industry are in the past, and until the Big Three companies can invent a future for themselves that doesn't involve putting their history into a fun-house mirror, that's the way things are going to stay.

Managing editor of Driving Today, Jack R. Nerad writes frequently on design issues.