Dreams Of Future Wheels

photo: lada concept car
Prototypes from Russia - Lada's dream car.

Smaller Is Better and the
Never-Never Is Forever

Paris:- Wednesday, 30. September 1998:- The 100th edition of the Paris Auto Salon opens tomorrow. With the entire western SNCF network on strike, and the semi-restricted car day last week, my 'press' visit to the Salon today is bound to be ambiguous.

On one hand we don't want cars and on the other we can't live without them. More than anything else in the 20th century, cars have changed society the most; at the end of this century we are looking at change again. After war, plague and famine, change is perhaps in mankind's fourth place for 'least welcome.'

This heavy stuff flickers unconnectedly through my head as I take a round-about and longer route than normal to Paris-Expo.

If you are Mr. or Mrs Normal Visitor to the world's leading car show, I think you'll want to see the new cars first, and then for fun, see the 'prototypes.'

Since it is right inside the door I run into Volkswagen first. I do not want to see the new 'Beetle' because I saw one with Florida plates at Concorde a couple of weeks ago. I ask for their CD-ROM instead. What I do takephoto: ligier 'due' a look at is a motor - stuffed in a 'Beetle.' This motor has 'V-5' on it and I figure I will get the details from the promised CD - which does not arrive 'chez moi.'

Ligier's 'Dué' - no options - just what you need and no more.

This 'new Beetle' was a 'prototype' at car shows a couple of years ago. Prototypes are cheapo ways for manufacturers to float marketing ideas up flagpoles, to see if anybody salutes. For most prototypes, nobody does. For the 'new Beetle,' enough did, and Volkswagen listened - et voilà, now you can have one.

My 15-kilo press kit is in an unwieldy bag, so I'm just wandering around, getting impressions. I will look closely at anything that looks good and ignore the rest - practically everything else in other words.

At the back of Fiat's big stand there is another prototype. There is a set of controls to steer its rotating and tilting platform and a fellow is trying this out. The car is whirling around pretty fast and I ask the guy to slow it down.

We look at the prototype 'idea' car together. It looks like a 1938 Ford Anglia two-door, after having been run through the George Barris Design Academy at San Bernardino, CA. David Plumb laughs and agrees with this.

Chopped, channeled, fenders expanded, wide tires; and super red-gold metallic-glitter paint, with black glass in the slit windows - right out of the late '50's of California customizing - here at the 100th edition of the Paris' World Auto Salon in 1998. Outofsight! Made by Italians!

Mr. Plumb is in the 'car biz' in some way and goes to all the salons. He wonders what happens to the prototypes. He says some manufacturers have them on their stands for show and never ask the public what it thinks of them. Some of them, the public loves. Many marketing departments do not take any advice from the mere car-buying public - and the 'hit' prototype disappears.

Mentioning the current prototypes on some stands, he says Honda has one held up by a wooden block. I look for this later, but can't find it. Where we are, in front of this very zoomy Fiat, there is no one to offer us a bulletin to fill out with our thoughts.

Saving me looking through all the paper I'm carrying, Mr. Plumb tells me what he thinks are the 'hit's and 'flops' of the show. I don't take notes, but do try to remember. Mr. Plumb has been around a lot of these shows and is a neutral expert.

Since we are standing where we are, I look at Pninnfarina's stand, which has its usual magnificent car bodies on various manufacturer's mechanicals. Maserati's stand is right behind it with a 'world premier' 2+2 coupe, which looks like a real muscle car, marred only by some ill-placed tail lights.

Also in the neighborhood is Alfa's stand. I gave their 156 the 'Car of the Year' award last spring; before the automotive press denied it to Mercedes' new 'A' car - for failing the so-called 'dodge-the-moose' test. Despite the Alfa 156 actually getting the official award, I have only seen about two on the street here. I think thephoto: alfa 166 models sold in France are not permitted the Italian colors; having only a choice of various shades of drab.

This is not a 'trick photo.' This is what the Alfa 166 really looks like.

The Italians are really on a roll though. It is 'world premier' time again on Alfa's stand and this time it is a 156 expanded to 166. It is not an easy trick to upsize a smooth design, but the 166 makes the slighter older 156s on the stand look like slightly ungainly mini-cars. In other words, Alfa topped itself; thereby making topping Alfa that much harder.

With the smallest motor, the big Alfa can do zero to 100 kph in under 10 seconds, and tops out at 213 kph. There's also a two-litre turbo V-6, and two other V-6's; the largest a three-litre job with 226 DIN-hp. There'll be a new sheriff in the fast lane.

There are a lot of 'world premiers' at this edition of the Mondial de l'Automobile. Many of these are 'bread-and-butter' cars, but there are some muscular ones too - the Audi TT, a Porsche Carrera 4/996 and a 911 Carrera 4 - none of which I see.

A trend first seen at this salon two years ago, is the sub-medium passenger car, with what is being called a 'monospace' body. Essentially this is like taking an old Renault 16, shortening the snout and raising the roof - resulting in a sedan-like mini-van.

Practically all the mainline builders have one now - and Citroën's version, based on a Xsara, is named 'Picasso,' which is a 'world first' for a name and not the style, although this model of Citroën is a world premier too.

With the recent 'discovery' in Paris that diesel fuel is very dirty, the French have got themselves tied into a bit of a knot after trying for many years to be thrifty with fuel costs. Diesel fuel is much cheaper in France than regular types.

Another 'world première' is Citroën's 'direct injection' diesel motor installed in two Xantia models. Direct injection is supposed to significantly lower noxious emissions while lowering consumption by about 20 percent at the same time - amounting to a double-bonus.

At the year's salon, 764 names from 31 countries, are represented by 660 models on display, from 61 different manufacturers. I havephoto: citroen 'picasso' no intention of seeing them all, and with about 30 'world premières' I can not even mention more than a few of them.

'World Première:' a monospace car named 'Picasso,' by Citroën.

Besides the traditional companies which make steering gear, brakes or suspensions for a variety of brands, there is a new breed in evidence. Well not new exactly - the electronics of cars has evolved from ignition systems to - multimedia!

An outfit named Delphi even has a 'Network' vehicle; actually a Chevy Blazer. It is festooned with logos for Netscape, Sun and Microsoft. There is another model called the 'Personal Productivity' car, van, bus, wheels or you-name-it. This goes beyond the satellite navigation and monster-sound systems to - I can't quite figure out where.

So back to cars. It is nuts to live in Paris and own a car. If you do this and don't have some sort of garage to keep it in, then it is dementia. The obvious answer is, if you are nuts or demented or both, you need a very small car.

Most manufacturers make small cars, or even 'micro'-cars. Two years ago I wrote about the French Ligier line of cars so small they don't need licenses. This year their new model is called 'Dué.' It is not in the press' 'program' and not in the 'last minute' information supplement.

Ligier is well-known for two sorts of vehicles: Formula One cars and 'micro'-cars, with F1 technology incorporated.

Ligier's own description of the new 'Dué' goes like this: "Nothing is beautiful; no look, no money, no options, no thing - nothing is beautiful." Two seats, two models, two cylinder motor, auto transmission, polycarbonate body 2.6 metres long, aluminum chassis, sunroof; top speed: 100 kph. Price: 39,500 francs. The 'no options' list contains 12 items.

Also relegated to the outer Siberia of Hall Three, is the Mercedes-Swatch watch car which they call 'Smart.' This goes on sale officially on Saturday. It probably would have already been for sale, except for the difficulties encountered by Mercedes 'A' model, which is also a small car.

The 'Smart' is not only a new car, its distribution concept is different. The idea is, you walk into a dealer's place, pick your options - also for multicolored body parts - and you drive out in less than two hours. You pay for the car by subscription - so much per month for forever - and this includes a new car occasionally.

There are three drawbacks to the scheme. The non-gear auto transmission doesn't work as well as hoped, the car actually costs about 60,000 francs which is a lot for a little, and if you don't like Swatch watches it is possible you won't like this car much either. Mercedes is said to be waiting for first registration statistics with some anxiety.

Of all the cars I've ever owned, one of my favorites was a 1960 Fiat 600D. The new model of this car is not a 'world première' at this salon, but it is worth mentioning - in comparison with the neat Ligier and the poppy Swatch.

It's named Fiat Seicento - 600! - and it is a real car with four seats in it. It may be slightly bigger than the other two and it costs 9,300 francs more than the Ligier, but it goes 40 kph faster. Fiat tosses in an auto transmission asphoto: fiat seicento an option at no extra charge. If you want to pay as much as for the Swatch, then you can get an 'Abarth' model, which outruns the Swatch by 15 kph.

The difference between this Fiat Seicento and my old 600 is 38 years and the color.

The bad news is that the Fiat Seicento is 719 mm longer than the Ligier and 819 mm longer than a Swatch. The good news is that the Fiat has a variable-sized trunk in which baggage may be transported. All of the options unavailable with the Ligier you can have with the Fiat.

This brings me back to disappearing 'hit' prototypes. To find the prototype Honda said to be held up by a wooden block and to find the Ligier and the Smart, I ended up in Hall Three - where the 'Smart' people were said to be complaining about being placed near the 'no-permit cars.'

This 'Siberia' hall also has the smaller Japanese, the large Korean, the only Spanish and the most well-known Russian manufacturer's stands. All of these have respectable cars. The Spanish SEAT is very aggressive these days; building interesting and flashy cars for tough Spanish roads.

Russia's Lada - ex-Fiat 124 - is still going and is known for building tough cars too, as Russia has a real Siberia with real mud and ice. So, while Lada has a sedan on show, it is their 'jeep'-like vehicles which have prominence.

But one stands out. It is Lada's show-car, its 'prototype.' I am pretty sure that if you don't see it at this salon, there's a chance you won't see it again. It is a prototype that just maybe - should have stayed on the drawing board. All the same, it demonstrates a certain optimism.

It's like the car business itself. Since it started it has always been optimistic - a salon like this proves it. One hundred years and still going strong.

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