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Auto show concept vehicles are the rolling equivalent of cotton candy. They sure look good, but often there is more style than substance. Some car companies actually deliver by throwing a well-received concept car into production, but after their days in the spotlight most concepts are relegated to a back warehouse, never to be seen again. Sadly, this might be the fate of many of the vehicles profiled here, but these vehicles are among the best concepts at the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Cunningham GT
According to Robert A. Lutz, late of Chrysler Corporation and a founding investor in a new automotive enterprise, it's time for a new car company to fill a hole in the world's automotive landscape. And that would be the Cunningham GT, billed as an American grand touring automobile.
The Cunningham GT takes its cue, direction and inspiration from the grand touring and sports cars produced by Briggs Cunningham II, a vaunted American sportsman of the 1950s. But it definitely has a 2000 bent: The sleek V-12-powered, limited production grand tourer will be built by a "virtual" car company.
The company's president and CEO, John C. (Jack) McCormack, with a pedigree that includes American Honda Motor Company and Suzuki Motor Corporation, said, "We will tap into the extremely rich vein of independent automotive talent, from designers to chassis developers to fabricators to manufacturers, available around the United States, from metropolitan Detroit to Southern California. American hi-tech companies can develop significant systems, designed to Cunningham's specifications, which in the past had to be developed in house."
Stewart Reed has been commissioned to design the Cunningham, a 2 + 2 coupe, expected to have more than 500 horsepower from an American-sourced V-12 engine and a price tag exceeding $250,000.

Chrysler Crossfire
The Chrysler Crossfire features a sophisticated design blending traditional European proportions and handling characteristics with the power and personality of an American performance car, according to DaimlerChrysler.
The Concept is not only attractive, with sleek, athletic lines and a sculptured hood, it is also built as a one-piece carbon fiber body on an all-aluminum frame. According to Chrysler, this makes the design more architectural than traditionally automotive. Though the Crossfire is a small coupe, it rides on a long wheelbase (102.6 inches) and wide track (58.3 inches, front; 59.9 inches, rear).
It is powered by a supercharged 2.7-liter, 275-horsepower V-6 engine coupled to a five-speed manual transmission. The custom independent short-and-long-arm front and rear suspension uses coil springs placed over the shock absorbers. Nineteen-inch front wheels with P255/40R19 tires and 21-inch rear wheels with P295/35R21 tires provide the ride and handling expected from a classic rear-wheel-drive coupe. The Crossfire is estimated to achieve 60 mph in 5.8 seconds and a top speed of 148 mph.

Honda Model X
In a blatant attempt to capitalize on Generation X, Honda has unveiled the Model X concept vehicle, which was developed and designed by Honda's R&D Americas operation. Honda says the concept "reveals a tough and indestructible vehicle with a carefree attitude."
Model X was conceived at the inaugural X Games in San Diego in 1998, and it's targeted at active young college-age guys. The vehicle combines the best features of a pickup truck with the best features of an SUV and adds a dorm room-like setting.

Inspired by a lifeguard station, the Model X development team wanted to provide an "open architecture" interior feeling for the vehicle, so they eliminated the "b" pillar and specified center-opening side doors. Combined with a low, flat floor, this allows easy loading and unloading.

The rear roofline also slides forward, the rear window slides down into the tailgate and with the tailgate down, provides an open and spacious rear loading area. With the side doors opened wide, the interior provides the perfect base camp or location for "side gate" parties. The interior is designed to be resilient and "washable," an alien term to most college-age guys.

Mazda RX-8
Mazda returned to its rotary-engine roots with the unmasking of the RX-8 "design engineering model." The Hiroshima-based car company called its newest auto show offering "a giant step toward bringing to market a revolutionary high-performance, four-door sports car." The RX-8, which has Saturn-like rearward-swinging rear doors, is powered by a 250-horsepower version of the company's legendary rotary engine.
Mazda says the new RX-8 is much closer to an actual production sports car than its predecessor, the Mazda RX-EVOLV concept car that was introduced at the October 1999 Tokyo Motor Show. The company is particularly high on the "freestyle" door system with no center pillar, making getting into and out of the small rear seats less of a challenge.
Among the other highlights are the car's powerful, lightweight and compact RENESIS rotary engine, its central mid-ship engine layout and its 50:50 front/rear weight distribution. According to Mazda, the use of the compact engine allows for a sports car look while offering interior space for four adults comparable to a sports sedan.
Boston native Tom Ripley observes the international automotive scene from his home in Villeperce, France.

Hyperactive Drivers

"What in the world are you doing?" you've probably asked as a careless driver cut you off, turned in front of you (without signaling) or committed some other potentially disastrous act.

According to a just-released survey, a high percentage of drivers are preoccupied with many other things while driving. In this age of multi-tasking, the much-derided on-the-cell-phone-driver is just the tip of the iceberg. People are engaging in a wide variety of mundane to unmentionable things behind the wheels of their cars.

Topping the charts of other-than-driving-while-driving activities is eating. The study, funded by Progressive Auto Insurance, found that 69 percent of drivers slam down chow while they drive. Compared with the rampant munchers, cell phone users are relatively rare. Just 44 percent of drivers admit to using a cell phone. Of course, the survey didn't note that 100 percent of drivers eat, while a much smaller percentage of drivers own cell phones.

The other distractions that interfere with safe driving: Approximately 12 percent of drivers surveyed admit to shaving or applying makeup, and seven percent of drivers read a book or newspaper. According to the report, 46 percent of respondents reported expressing their anger at other drivers. The survey found that women are more verbal (shouting or swearing) while men are more physical (naughty hand gestures).

Whether the driver is a soccer mom or a frazzled exec, SUV drivers are the champions of engaging in other pursuits while driving. Some 74 percent of SUV drivers admit they eat, a higher percentage than drivers of other types of vehicles. Not only do SUV drivers engage in furious fits of food consumption, they are also more likely to get furious. Sport utility vehicle owners, along with sports car drivers, shout and swear at other drivers more than other vehicle drivers.

In fact, SUV drivers seem to be very willing verbal communicators. They have a penchant for using cellular telephones: 60 percent of SUV owners use a cell phone, more than for any other type of vehicle.

When it comes to stereotypes, the survey did reinforce one commonly held opinion, namely minivans are mom-mobiles. Females are twice as likely than men to drive minivans. Lest you think these moms are particularly well adjusted, though, this does not seem to be the case. Though SUV and sports car owners are more likely to shout and swear at other drivers, minivan owners follow them closely. Perhaps to relieve their anger, these minivan drivers turn to food, because they are also as likely as SUV drivers to eat in their vehicles. At least they have good self-esteem, though. More than any other drivers, minivan owners are most likely to classify their car as "smart."

-- Tom Ripley

Tom Ripley knows all about anger at the wheel because he has owned several French cars. He observes the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.

Books Designed for the Road-Tripper

If "information wants to be free," its freedom is surely hampered stuck inside of a big gray box. Information wants to be portable! Now, thanks to the eBookman from the Franklin Web site, you can take it with you wherever you go. Travelers, throw away those paper books (a.k.a. "p-books"), the e-book has arrived!

When released later this fall, the Franklin eBookman will cost between $129 and $229 (depending on the features you want). The eBookman is a small handheld computer that is optimized for reading electronic books, which can be downloaded from the Franklin Web site or from places like Project Gutenberg, where many of the classics are available for free. The eBookman is about the same size as a standard handheld organizer, but the screen is a little larger. While still monochrome, it has better resolution (200 by 240 pixels) than Palm organizers, and supports sixteen shades of gray, so it's easier on the eyes.

The eBookman will be available in several models. You'll be able to get 8-16 megabytes of RAM (enough to hold about 10-20 large novels), and the more expensive units will come with a backlight. All of the models will include a slot for a memory card, which will allow memory to be expanded up to 80MB. That's a lot of novels, if that's all you want to do with it, but that also makes room for MP3 music and audio books and other content from sources like Audible. With the memory expanded to the maximum, the eBookman will be capable of holding hours of music, audio books and downloaded news programming. The audio books can be listened to through the speaker, the stereo headphones, or the unit can be plugged into your car or home stereo. The audio feature also allows you to take voice memos.

The eBookman also includes regular PDA functions, such as a date book, contacts and to-do lists, all with backup "Desktop Sync" capability. With all these features, it's hard to think of this as just an e-book reader. But where it excels is the book and audio functions, and that makes this the perfect college or grade school accessory. Students of places like St. John's College, where they read only the classics, could load up on four years worth of reading material for the price of the eBookman itself...and since it weighs only 7 ounces, it would be a lot easier on students' backs.

-- Nate Heasley

Don't Just Sit There; Learn Something

Is talk radio driving you to distraction? Are you sick of hearing the same oldies over and over and over again? Have you listened to the last bit of hip-hop you ever want to hear? Are even your own CDs sounding a bit stale?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you should consider tuning out the stuff you don't want to hear and tuning in to audio books. Instead of filling your ears with fluff or meaningless jabber, you can transport yourself to distant places, escape from the humdrum of the workaday world or, heaven forfend, even learn something. Hey, I'm a radio talk show host myself ("America on the Road" weekends on more than 300 stations nationwide), but I have to admit that I like to escape the airways now and then to indulge in the depth of audio books, and I'm not alone.

According to a 1999 survey sponsored by the Audio Publishers Association (APA), the audio book market continues to grow. A research study conducted by National Family Opinion found that 21 percent of American households had at least one audio book listener. And the trend to audio books is growing. A similar study in 1995 found that only 12 percent of households had an audio book listener, so the increase is a solid 75 percent in four years' time.

As a matter of fact, audio books are the fastest growing segment of the trade book industry; in the period from 1993-1997, growth of audio book sales was five times that of the consumer book sector. Traditional books did show some sales growth in 1998, but the Book Industry Study Group found that audio books continue to out-pace books in rate of growth. APA estimates that growth rate at about 10 percent per year.

"We have become a lifestyle industry," APA President Paul Rush told us. "As people get busier and busier, they want to make certain they are spending their time more wisely."

What are all these people listening to? The uninitiated might be amazed at the range of subject matter and types of materials that fall under the general heading "audio books." As the APA says, if you think audio books refer only to "books on cassette," then you are not grasping the whole picture. The reading of a book reproduced on cassette tape is an important part of the mix, but audio books are much more.

As the trade group defines it, audio books include any audio recording that is primarily spoken rather than music. Obviously, this covers an enormous range of material, although we're not sure the association means to include rap. In the mix are, of course, both abridged and unabridged recordings of books in all categories and for all ages. But equally important, it covers original productions in a wide variety of categories as well, including language instruction, self-help, storytelling, non-fiction, fiction - virtually any subject you can name.

It would take much more space than is available here to outline all subjects that are available to the audio book listener. Suffice it to say that pretty much any subject you can think of has spawned dozens of audio books. And the sources of audio books are nearly as varied. Perhaps the easiest way to get the audio book bug is to stop into a local library. Many public libraries offer a wide selection of audio books right next to their traditional "stacks." Beyond that the big chain booksellers, like Barnes & Noble and B Dalton, have jumped into the audio books business in a big way, and then there are audio-book only chains that include Earful of Books and Talking Book World. On the Internet, outlets that offer both sales and rental proliferate, led by the industry giant Books-on-Tape. Typing "audio books" into your favorite search engine will pull you up a wide variety of sources, some large, some very specialized. Finally, Amazon stocks and ships a wide variety of mostly abridged books-on-cassette.

Sales of audio books are now said to be about $2 billion a year, according to the APA. And according to the association's research, once you're hooked on audio books you seem to stay hooked. The average audio book household listens to 13.9 audio books per year, and within that household, the main user listens to 13.1 of those 13.9. Since the typical unabridged book on tape can fill 10 cassette tapes or 12 compact discs encompassing 15 hours of material, that's a whole lot of listening.

Lest you think that audio books listeners are concentrated among the old and infirm in our population, the 35-64 age group was the most loyal and avid listening group. The median income of listeners is $54,900. The average male listener is 41.9 years old, while the average female listener is 44.2 years old. Male listeners tend to listen to more titles per year, but there are more female listeners in total.

Also interesting are the facts that the highest amount of listening time comes from males aged 21-34 and females 50-64. While most observers would not peg young males as the most cerebral group in the nation, members of that group are obviously hearing something they like in audio books. Perhaps both of these demographic groups are currently under-served by broadcast radio.

As Jessica Kaye, a past president of the APA said, "The great news about this study is that, not only has the audio book industry shown growth, but there is room for even greater growth. This is significant because we have every reason to believe that the growth trajectory will continue its upward trend."

So what are people listening to? Everything from children's books to erotica (but hopefully not erotic children's books.) Parents (of which I'm one) have found recorded books a great way to help fill their children's time on long car trips. With cassette players so cheap and children's titles so plentiful, it makes sense to equip each of your children with an individual player so you can customize their listening. At the same time, you might want to plug in an unabridged novel or the latest self-help or business book for yourself.

The APA survey found that the single most popular audio book category was "book-based unabridged fiction," which accounted for 30 percent of the market. When one also includes the abridged versions of book-based fiction, the aggregate takes almost half (48 percent) of the total audio book market. Non-fiction (21 percent), children's books (14 percent), religious/inspirational books (eight percent), and language instruction programs (two percent) are also important parts of the overall mix.

There are differing opinions as to the relative worth of abridged (so-called Reader's Digest) versions or books versus their unabridged counterparts. One can legitimately ask, if you have listened to an abridged version of a book is that equivalent to reading the book itself? As an author myself (no, I'm not just some dumb radio host), I certainly lean toward the unabridged route as being much truer to the author's intent. But of course, listening to an abridged version is far better than not having sampled the author's work at all. According to APA's Rush, "The trend is definitely toward longer abridgements and unabridged," and he cites as one of the major reasons for this: "commute times are lengthening."

As to the future of audio books, it appears it couldn't be rosier. Not only are traditional books on tape on an upward trajectory, but new technology also promises to make the spoken word even more accessible. In this digital age, many audio book publishers are now putting out compact disc versions of their works. Further, the computer and a growing variety of portable players make obtaining and playing audio books simpler than ever. Web sites like Salon, Audible and the upcoming Loudbooks can offer downloads to these devices via MP3 and similar technology, and with the use of a digital player you can listen in your car or on a jog through the park. The Net also makes sampling audio books as easy as point-and-click via audio streaming.

If the Internet isn't enough, the audio book industry is also looking toward the heavens. Using satellite delivery, a company called Command Audio is offering wireless audio-on-demand. So-called satellite radio is also scheduled to go on line in the near future, enabling listeners who pay a subscription fee to listen to a wide variety of programming that could well include audio books. Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Radio are the two most prominent competitors in this soon to be launched industry.

So, oddly enough, the digital revolution might well be the biggest boon to oral storytelling since the advent of the campfire. In any case, there is no doubt that next time you have a hankering for a "good read," it might be wise to let someone else do the reading for you.

Nerad's two books, Fatal Photographs, the story of an infamous bathing-suit model murder, and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Buying and Leasing a Car, are not yet available in audio book form.

The Sleepers Among Collector Cars

These special interest vehicles are best bets to gain in value

If you tuned into this space last time you read about my long-ago encounter with a 1939 LaSalle opera coupe, which served as a preface to an article that described five vehicles that you can buy for reasonable prices today, but that should gain in value as the years progress. It was my first foray into the old car hobby 30 years ago that brought me into contact with the publication that is the bible of the hobby, Hemmings Motor News, and I have held a healthy respect for the publication and its affiliates ever since. That is why I am pleased to help it publicize its 13th annual top 10 picks of what it calls "sleeper cars." In other words, these are currently overlooked collector cars that should gain in interest and value over the next few years. The list will appear in the November issue of Special Interest Autos, the bi-monthly collector-car magazine owned by Hemmings. The 10 vehicles were chosen by SIA editor Richard Lentinello for their potential future appreciation in the collector marketplace, which is becoming increasingly dominated by mature Baby Boomers looking for the performance cars of their youth.

Lentinello followed two basic criteria when he selected these soon-to-be-hot "sleepers." First, each car must be available in today's market for less than $10,000. Second, except for truly exceptional cars, the model must have been produced for at least two or three years to broaden the average collector's chance of finding a good example. Lentinello's analysis of price and collecting trends in the hobby has produced the following list, presented below not necessarily in order of desirability but rather in alphabetical order.

Jensen-Healey, 1972-75

The Jensen-Healey is one of the most forgotten British sports cars ever built. Produced for only four years, it sports a fairly conservatively styled two-passenger steel body with a semi-exotic powertrain in the form of a Lotus-built engine. This 1,973cc four-cylinder is a jewel that features an aluminum cylinder head with twin overhead camshafts, 16 valves and dual carburetors that help it develop 140 horsepower. The typical Jensen-Healey weighs a svelte 2,116 pounds, so its excellent power-to-weight ratio makes for a very exhilarating ride.

Although only 10,402 examples were built, they are fairly easy to find judging by the half-dozen or more examples that show up for sale in Hemmings each month. All mechanical and electrical parts are readily available, but the body panels will take some searching to locate. If you prefer to stand apart from the MG and Triumph crowd, getting yourself seated behind the wheel of this very-special-interest sports car will be just as inexpensive. Complete but rundown examples are selling for $2,000 or less, and a Jensen-Healey in excellent condition can be purchased for about $6,500 to $9,000.

Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon 1970-72

Need lots of room, but hate the thought of being a follower of fashion in a dump truck-sized sport-utility vehicle? Yesterday's solution was called the station wagon. Though they have been largely forgotten during the last decade due to the popularity of minivans and SUVs, older station wagons are fast gaining in popularity thanks to their unique combination of five- to nine-passenger seating, huge cargo area and V-8 power. One of the most popular wagons ever built was Oldsmobile's sleek Vista Cruiser with its distinctive glass roof panels that kids adored. Riding on a stout frame and heavy-duty suspension, the Vista Cruiser, seating either five or seven, makes an ideal family hauler that's safe and very comfortable for long trips.

Although base models were powered by a healthy 350-cubic inch V-8, if you have a race-car or a boat on a trailer you might look for the optional 455-cubic inch engine that makes this a very capable tow vehicle. Engines and transmissions are extremely durable, and all mechanical parts are easily available. Those hard-to-find trim parts can be located through various national Oldsmobile clubs. Several 455-powered Vista Cruisers have been listed in Hemmings Motor News recently at asking prices around $7,000 for those in excellent condition. Prices for good running wagons needing work average about $4,000, which is about a tenth the cost of an SUV.

Pontiac Grand Prix, 1969-72

Do you want size? Do you want muscle? Do you want luxury? Do you want it in a trend-setting car of the late '60s? If you answered "yes" to any or all of these questions, don't look any further than Pontiac's Grand Prix line of the '69-72 era. In a flat-out design war with Ford/Lincoln, Pontiac's John DeLorean ensured that the Grand Prix would have the biggest hood ever bolted to an intermediate-sized car. The thing is, it fit the style of the then-new 118-inch wheelbase G-body like it had been designed with it right from the get-go. The semi-fastback Grand Prix of '69-72 featured the trademark Pontiac split-grille hung ahead of that huge hood. Uncluttered lines and a vinyl top lent a distinguished appearance, while inside the GP ushered in the modern age with a jet fighter-inspired console and a dashboard that made the driver feel he wasn't so much driving a car as flying an F-4 Phantom. The standard engine was the venerable Pontiac 400, with the J and SJ options offering hotter versions of the 400, 428 and later the 455. Transmissions available were the TH-400 automatic or a four-speed manual.

Pontiac's G-body set the standard for luxury intermediates, and sister division Chevrolet soon began pumping out Monte Carlos because of Pontiac's innovative GP. Today, one can get behind the wheel of one of these ground-bound cruise missiles for a relatively light $2,500 to $8,500, depending upon condition, powertrain and options.

Porsche 912, 1966-69

Don't try to convince Corvette fans of it, but perhaps the greatest sports car ever built was Porsche's 911. The ultimate driver's car, it offered exceptional handling, fantastic brakes and a high-revving flat-six air-cooled engine that was as powerful as it was reliable, all in a cozy fastback body. Now, with the 911's price tag too steep for many enthusiasts, Porsche's entry level 912 makes a perfect alternative sports car for those willing to accept a reduction in power. With either a 90- or a 102-horsepower flat-four instead of Porsche's distinctive six, the 912 rewarded its drivers with slightly better handling than the 911 due to the 912's lower weight and better balance. The 912's maintenance costs are notably less than the 911 too, since parts for the four-cylinder engine are cheaper and fewer. Everything else on the 912 is nearly identical to its more powerful sibling, which means just about every body panel, trim piece and mechanical component is available, along with a huge aftermarket offering of performance parts.

Weak and rusted floor pans can be problem on northern climate rust belt cars, so watch out. Judging by the ads in Hemmings Motor News, about $6,000 will get you a 912 in very good condition.

Studebaker Lark V-8 convertible, 1960-63

With European style and flair, Studebaker's distinguished Lark convertible is a real standout versus the more common early-sixties convertibles from the Big Three. Well appointed with fine details, the Lark convertible is a pleasant little collectible that the whole family can enjoy. There were two Lark convertible models: the six-passenger Regal and the sportier five-passenger Daytona. Although most had straight-sixes, the V-8 versions are the most entertaining to drive. Four V-8s were optional: a 259-cubic inch version with 180 or 195 horsepower and a 289-cubic inch engine with 210 or 225 horsepower. Although handling isn't one of the Lark's strong points, a decent set of radial tires will make it far more reassuring to drive on twisty roads. The softly sprung suspension, however, provides a very comfortable ride.

Most parts for the Lark can be sourced through Hemmings and the Studebaker Drivers Club. Ads in recent issues of Hemmings Motor News ranged from a Regal Lark convertible needing restoration for $1,000 up to $11,000 for a well-restored four-speed Daytona version. On average expect to pay between $4,500 to $6,500 for either model in presentable, good running shape. Cheap, fast fun for five is what the Lark V-8 convertible is all about.

With this advice on what models to buy, Lentinello also has good advice on the special things you should look for in your individual vehicle.

"When you decide to purchase an old car," he said, "select the best example that is in solid, original condition. Beware of cars for sale that have just been painted, since in many cases fresh paint is hiding rust or recent accident damage. Also, give the underside a thorough examination. Weak and rusted-out floors will cost thousands to replace.

Condition of the mechanical components should always play a secondary role to the condition of the body structure since it's easier and less expensive to replace the brakes or shocks or even an engine than it is to replace a floor or a fender."

Lentinello suggests that you should choose a car strictly because you like it. Don't buy an old car with the intention of selling it at a huge profit, as chances are great that you won't make any profit in the short term. But as I have found with my 1926 Nash Light Six and my 1962 Chevrolet Corvette, the joy of owning and driving a vintage collectible car far outweighs the monetary side.