The Silly Car Show

photo: streetka by ford

For boppers and rappers - the StreetKa.

World's Biggest, Etc Etc

Paris:- Saturday, 28. September 2002:- It is three years since I have owned a car. This is the longest time I've ever been without one since I was 15. The first job I had was with a car magazine edited in New York, and my editor didn't have a driver's license.

One of my little writing jobs back then was answering readers' letters. One wanted to know how to fix up his 1949 Hudson so that it would look like - well, maybe, a 1949 Mercury - this was a popular car to 'fix up' back then, but Hudsons were bathtub-like tanks.

All the same, late-40s Hudsons won the Panamerica road race, not Mercurys. It was after the war and the last pre-war car designs were the '48 models - except that Hudson got a headstart with post-war design. It was probably built in a converted B-29 bomber factory, and used B-29 design elements.

Even when the new 1949 models came out most of them hadn't gone quite so far as Hudson, so for 'fixing-up' their only advantage was being cheap because everybody thought they looked like tanks. Put anotherphoto: peugoet rc ace of diamonds way, nobody wanted to 'fix up' anything remotely looking like a B-29 bomber. I think there even was a bomber named 'Hudson' used during WWII.

Peugeot's 'Hudson' turned into a streetracer named 'RC Ace of Diamonds.'

Anyway, that was 42 years ago, and today is opening day for this year's 'Mondial de l'Automobile 2002' - which is the slinky European name of this year's World Car Show. The press and the Président got their looksee yesterday, in time to broadcast the free publicity for the show on last night's TV-news.

In his speech to the world's car nabobs, Jacques Chirac lauded their tireless and endless search for innovation, but reminded them that respecting the environment and road security are important too.

These last two subjects are of some concern in Paris, which has its share of cars, and its road security problems. You should remember these have been mentioned here at the beginning, as well as the long-disappeared Hudson. Brave and inspiring speeches are one thing, and automotive reality is something else.

I start with Ford because it has the first stand inside the door of Paris-Expo's monster Hall 1, plus it is elevated. Ford brought out a smaller car than the Escort some years ago, called the Ka. It had really ugly black plastic bumpers, but these have been painted body colors, and now Ford is showing a convertible model of the Ka.

Think of it as a sub-miniature 1936 Ford 'A' coupe, with a tiny four cylinder motor instead of a flathead V8. The Ka, like many other manufacturers' versions, fits into city congestion problems and environmental concerns. Ford's new roadster is called the StreetKa.

The most extreme opposite of this lightweight and inexpensive little street flitzer is Porsche's new Cayenne. This hasphoto: ligier be five doors instead of two, so it is a SUV instead of being either a 'truck' or an everlasting variant of the sportscar 911. It has a 4.5 litre 340 hp V8 motor, four-wheel drive, and its optional 450 hp turbo version will top out at 266 kph, which is 136 kph beyond France's speed limit.

Ligier's little 'Be' has two see-through doors.

No less than 95 percent of these monsters will be sold in the United States, to ladies for driving the kids to school and tooling around the parking lots of malls. The turbo model will cost 103,910euro 3 sign when it arrives in showrooms at the end of the year.

In France there is an idea going around, to add 'limiters' to motors, so that whatever they are propulsing cannot exceed the maximum speed limit of 130 kph. Adding one of these to the Cayenne will cut its top speed almost exactly in half, but it will still have more than enough oomph for most mall parking lots.

Another reflection on our funky western society is the upward bloat of manufacturer's model lines. Everybody accepts that builders like Mercedes, BMW, Rolls-Royce and gang must have their 'top' models, and these must be big ottos.

Well, in this category Mercedes has pumped up the volume a notch with the introduction of its Maybach, which is above and beyond all previous 'S'-models. There are only two models, huge and gigantic, with the latter measuring slightly over six metres.

Both seem to have the same V12, 550 hp motor, with the top speed modestly limited to 250 kph. The huge one costs 375,000euro 3 sign, not including customization, and the gigantico goes for only 75,000euro 3 sign more.

If Porsche trucks and Merc sedans are not your style, Bentley may have a neat and sporty two-door coupé for you. They taken some parts from another model, includingphoto: bentley continental gt a six-litre W12 twin-turbo mill with more than 500 hp. If this Bentley Continental GT machine ever gets into production, its top speed will be near 300 kph. Apparently Bentley is owned by the same folks who make Volkswagens - and who made the W12 motor.

VW takes on Mercedes with its two-door Bentley Continental GT.

Which leads us to the 'people's car' other bloats. A Golf with 241 hp, an Audi with 450 hp, a new SUV called Touareg with a five-litre diesel putting out 313 hp, and a brand-new Phaeton, which has a motor selection running up to a six-litre W12 with 420 hp. This gas-guzzler uses 15.6 litres per 100 kms, and the back seat isn't even big - for a sticker price of 115,000euro 3 sign.

For only 35,000euro 3 sign extra you can have a big 'S'-class Merc, with 500 hp, and a nice back seat. Maximum speeds for both are 250 kph. If you want to do it on the cheap, Audi has an aluminum bodied five-metre long sedan with a V8 motor that will do 250 kph too. It's practically a cheapo give-away at 84,100euro 3 sign.

Volkswagen has not been picked out for its bloat because other manufacturers are in the same game. But, as it seems to be on its way to becoming the world's new 'general motors,' so it should be able to stand a bit of criticism. The world's tensions at the moment probably have the oil business somewhere in the background, and here is VW offering everybody the biggest gas-guzzlers of modern times.

More sober makers have all of their new bread-and-butter models on display, and most of these are pretty sensible even if most of them are pretty ugly. Ford's StreetKa is an exception, for its name alone.

There are more vans with windows than ever before, but most of them look like delivery vans with windows. Renault's Espace, once handy, keeps betting bigger. There are just as many four-door family sedans as ever, and they look pretty much alike. Station wagons - vans that look like cars with lower headroom - are having a renaissance without actually making any remarkable waves.

The truly little-car people, Smart, have done a dumb thing by making a roadster or coupé version - with a stretched front and increased trunk size. Otherwise, it is light, fairly fast with a pumped-up mini-motor, and dirt-cheap.

It is as opposite as it is possible to get from GM's Hummer H2, which is wider than the original Smart is long. Its gas tank is 121 litres larger than the Smart'sphoto: fiat seicento sport abarth engine. The Hummer is wider than more than a few streets in Paris, and parking one is only possible at malls far out of town. Thanks to GM's styling department, it now has a chromed grill - no doubt to be appreciated by the more discerning van-ladies.

Metropole's own 'Car of the Salon,' a Fiat 600 'Sport' Abarth.

Well, it is a new car show. There are supposed to be 'dreams.' Some are practical and worth waiting for if they are prototypes, but others are pure folly, representing our western attitudes of excess to the max.

Away from the majors in Halls 1, 2 and 4 - Hall 3 has an oddball handful. I skip Hommell, Dangel and even Honda, to find gems like Italdesign, with its racy version of an Alfa, and Ligier with its Be.

Readers with long memories may recall Ligier making F1 racing cars, and using some of the technology in some of their sub-mini street machines. This year's new version of a Ligier, called 'Be,' is like earlier ones but with less body - with plexiglass substituted for steel for the doors, and motorcycle fenders for the exposed front wheels.

It looks like a birdcage of a car, or a cartoon. As such the Be attracts younger people like honey - it doesn't look like any kind of racing car or boring hulky Hudson. It looks like it is an affordable four-wheel scooter and maybe as much fun as a 2CV.

There are some other micro-manufacturers who have similar fresh-air models. Whether they are practical or not - maybe a bit damp in the rain - doesn't matter. They are probably a bit of an adventure to drive and more hat-on-backwards than a Smart or the new Smart roadster.

When I worked for the car magazine, southern California set the style, and it probably still does. This is still the place where top car stylists are trained, judging by VW's fairly new 'Beetle' and Chrysler's recent PT-Cruiser. But if the car to be styled is a big one, somewhere out in East LA there must be an original re-styled 1948 Hudson that can be used for inspiration.

This was likely the case for Hyundai's stylists when they conceived of the refrigerator-with-tiny-windows Equus HCD7, and Mitsubishi's must have been in the area too, judging by their Space Liner, which certainly does take up a lot of space without having much in the way of pleasing lines.

The Daimler-Benz people probably didn't go to the same source for their Maybach. A contemporary Yellow Cab from New York with an over-blown Merc grill would have done the trick. For its Phaeton, VW's stylists turned their backs on Audi, ignored Hudson completely, and managed to make an indistinguishable big car out of spare VW parts.

There are some people, who you probably don't know, who will buy a Maybach simply because of its cost - just like some will buy Porsche's Cayenne - not for practical transportation but to make a statement. 'Look at me - I can afford to buy a car costing more than a house and I'm not even going to live in it.'

On the way out towards the métro, the army has its usual display stand under the blue sky, and they are showing off their VBL to possible recruits. VBL stands for Véhiculé Blindé Léger. It only has three seats and one of these is for a machine-gunner. Whatever size its motor, its top speed is a safe and sane 95 kph, plus it has a propeller that can help it cross big puddles.

However, with its armor-plating, this 'léger' weighs 3.5 tons. Its reconnaissance action radius is 500 kilometres though, which is probably further than Hummer can get with its 122-litre gas tank.

No auto salon would be complete withoutphoto: italdesign alfa its 'Car of the Year' award. I don't know what the official one is - it can only be selected by automotive 'journalists' - who know where their bread comes from.

The best-looking car at the salon - Italdesign's Alfa.

This magazine has no incoming bread, so its salon 'Car of the Year' selection goes to Fiat's Seicento Sporting Abarth. This is a standard yellow two-door, four-seat, racing model with a 54 hp motor.

It's philosophy - except for the Abarth racing part - is very much like its 'Fiat 500 of the Week' small car ancestor. The price - only 10,305euro 3 sign - includes the optional fabric sunroof and headrests. Pay 300euro 3 sign less to be without these.

Without or without the sunroof, 300euro 3 sign more or less - the choice should be obvious. Even at racing top speed, you'll have time to admire the sky as well as the passing countryside. Go for top-down and peddle-to-the-metal.

Mondial de l'Automobile 2002 - until Sunday, 13. October. Entry, 9euro 3 sign. At Paris-Expo, Porte de Versailles, Paris 15. Métro: Porte de Versailles.

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