Winter of Discontent (Part I )

As I walked by the Ford Motor Company exhibit on the third media day at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit it really hit me. There stood J Mays, Ford's director of design, pointing out the virtues of the new Shelby Cobra to a journalist type, while immediately behind Mays was the Ford GT, looking handsome but slightly forlorn, despite the fact Ford hasn't even sold one yet. And beyond that, even more forlorn, was the still handsome but now cancelled Ford Thunderbird, which, if you remember, was the toast of the Detroit show just a few years ago.

To say that this presented more than a slight case of deja vue is understating it. It wasn't that long ago that I had stood on the same stand chatting with J as he extolled the retro wonders of the T-Bird concept that then became a production car and, just a quickly, became an obscure footnote in automotive history, proving yet again that two-seat cars, no matter how pretty, just don't sell. So what is Ford hanging its hat on as icons of its hoped-for resurgence: a couple of two-seat cars that may be interesting enough to the 50-plus crowd that can actually remember the Sixties. However, these cars are more or less meaningless to the bulk of young new-car buyers Ford is supposedly trying to impress before they become tainted with the import bug, never to recover.

Don't get me wrong -- I like the Ford GT and the Shelby Cobra -- but, hey, I'm among the relative few out there who have been blessed with behind-the-wheel experiences of the Ford GT-40, the 60's racecar that inspired the GT, and the original Shelby Cobra that inspired the latest chip off what is getting to be a very, very old block. My feeling is, if you keep playing golden oldies, it's obvious to all that your current tunes obviously aren't hits. Since it is doubtful Ford Motor Company wants to be a "nostalgia" company, maybe looking for the new hits instead of a tendency to recycle the old ones is in order.

Over at beleaguered DaimlerChrysler, they weren't living in the past, except by stealing the 300-C nomenclature for their latest attempt to breathe new life into the Chrysler 300 letter-series tradition, but they did show off yet another in a bewildering series of two-seat sports GTs with astronomical prices and virtually no relationship to anything real people -- even very wealthy real people -- drive day to day. Yes, the Chrysler ME Four-Twelve surprised and stunned the gathered press. After all, even the hard-bitten veteran automotive press can be stunned by a claimed zero to 60 miles per hour time of 2.9 seconds and a "theoretical" top speed of 248 miles per hour. Golly!

And who doesn't like swoopy mid-engined styling wrapped curvaceously around a six-liter V-12 complete with four (count 'em) turbochargers? Hey, what's wrong with 850 horsepower and arriving at 100 mph in less time than it takes most cars to reach 50? But the big question that hung on the lips of veteran car writers was, why now? It is patently apparent that Mercedes-Benz, DaimlerChrysler's owner-sibling ("my sister, my daughter, my sister and my daughter") has the technical competence to build a 248-mph street rocket if it wants to. By why, when the Chrysler and Dodge car brands seem in need of some compelling volume vehicles, is the company fooling around with a vehicle whose planning volume you could count on your thumbs? If DaimlerChrysler decides to build the ME Four-Twelve -- and DaimlerChrysler executives at the show hinted broadly that they would -- you can expect a production run about as long as that of the Lunar Rover.

Since we have our curmudgeon hat on, we might as well take a swing at the world's largest car company, General Motors. While Ford and Chrysler seemed to fight it out for "most esoteric" honors, GM seemed to be vying for the all-things-to-all-people crown. In fact, GM appeared to aim its press conferences not at the media and the public but at the stock market analysts, touting the broad applications of its new Kappa architecture -- the basis of the upcoming Pontiac Solstice (oh, great, another two-seater) and the Chevrolet Nomad and Saturn Curve concept vehicles.

Guess what. Consumers buy cars, they don't buy "platforms" or "architecture," so the fact GM can build several models off the same basic chassis doesn't mean much to the average consumer. And of course, the concept isn't new, either. GM has been doing the same thing since way back in the Thirties.

As to the Kappa platform itself, it seems like a thoroughly competent chassis. And it's nice to know that after taking the past 20 years to wean American drivers off rear-drive vehicles, GM has decided that moving back to rear-drive cars is the wave of the future.

And so it goes. Next year Ford could well introduce a shockingly low-priced "entry-level" model with a small displacement four-cylinder engine and a revolutionary planetary gear-set. And you can get it in any color as long as it's black.

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad has been reporting on major industry auto shows for more than two decades. Ever mindful of our pluralistic society, next week he vents over the import category.