Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Taking Ten

A ten-year drive over miles of smiles

By Marc Stengel

JUNE 28, 1999:  In a garage full of the accumulated debris from some 25 years' fascination with cars and motorcycles, I rummage at my peril. There are specialty tools for cars, now gone, that I both loved and hated. The air-pressure gauge that once serviced my racing Triumph TR4A now ensures proper inflation for my lawnmower tires. The jack stands and bushing press remind me darkly of the performance A-arm bushings I once installed in my '72 Monte Carlo. All that's left of my Honda N-600--a 600cc four-passenger hatchback with 10-inch wheels, 36 horsepower, and dash-mounted gear shifter--is a well-worn shop manual.

The pieces of cars and bikes from my past resemble a timeline in rebus form, more suggestive than explicit. The pieces about cars and bikes that I've written in the last 10 years sharpen the focus considerably upon what just may be the most momentous decade of change in the 103-year history of the automobile in North America. This decade virtually coincides with the rebirth of the Nashville Scene into its present persona. Thus a look back over 10 years of regular auto reporting for this and other media lends an interesting, and curious, backdrop to the Scene's own first decade.

There is, for example, the all-but-forgotten late-'80s mania for minivans. Now ubiquitous and multinational, these are the vehicles that saved a car company--Chrysler--and a U.S. auto industry. Until the mid-'90s, import minivans remained mostly a footnote in a market dominated by the Dodge Caravan (in spite of the irony that Volkswagen first conceived the concept decades before with the Minibus).

In the '90s, cars have watched their dominant sales majority erode into a nearly 50/50 parity with the truck category that includes pickups, minivans, and SUVs. How prescient, then, for General Motors to inaugurate the decade with a revolutionary new concept, the Saturn, whose original patina of novelty has faded into the foundering fortunes of the present. Despite ambiguous financial releases based on shell-game accounting, most analysts suspect the division has yet to post an unsubsidized profit to GM's books. Through May '99, sales are down a further 2 percent below the 8-percent slide posted in '98. At its debut, Saturn was intended to be the import fighter par excellence. A painful wince comes from acknowledging that Saturn's next new model will be a re-skinned Opel sedan from Germany.

Moreover, it's as if the real imports--by which everyone means the Japanese automakers mostly--just tippy-toed quietly around Saturn's noisy bravado. Lexus models appeared in 1989 as the upscale division of Toyota. Nissan soon followed suit with Infiniti, as Honda did with Acura. In just 10 years, these luxury and near-luxury models have defined the agenda in their respective categories and have forced American and European competitors to play catch-up. To its unending credit, Mercedes-Benz met the Japanese bet and raised it. Startled out of a sluggish complacency in the '80s, the German automaker has decorated the '90s with exciting, attractive, and supremely well-made vehicles ranging from roadsters to ultra-luxe sedans to a quirky half-truck/half-minivan called the All Activity Vehicle.

No sooner had M-B piped its own reveille than other slumbering Europeans bolted awake as well. VW/Audi has literally reinvented itself back to life in this last decade. BMW has entered the language as the epitome of panache and sportiness, as in the characterization of Macintosh as "the BMW of computers." With Ford's funds and savvy, England's Jaguar has reclaimed its role of Top Cat.

North American automakers have responded erratically to the two-front war across both oceans. Chrysler decided to join 'em rather than beat 'em and folded itself into DaimlerChrysler last year. Until lately, Ford's Lincoln Division had devolved into a fleet of luxury liners for old-timers. The mega-SUV Navigator changed all that last year--and the Lincoln LS, a new luxury sport sedan that shares a platform with Jaguar's S-type, promises even more excitement. Cadillac, bless its heart, is trying every ruse: an entry-level Catera sport sedan from Germany; the Escalade humongo-truck of its own; a skillfully redesigned Seville flagship. Even so, division-wide sales were pancake flat for '98--even before the embarrassing admission of bogus end-of-year sales data. They're down 16 percent so far in '99--in the midst of record-making results for nearly everyone else.

America's grudging revenge on the global marketplace, however, has been trucks. Nobody builds 'em better, in greater variety, and for more work and play applications than the Big Three. As the '90s dawned, trucks played backbeat while cars called the tune. Ten years on, they're singing lead. The manufacturers love 'em, because they're relatively easy to make and command as much as $10,000 margins for SUVs like the Ford Expedition or GMC Yukon. Consumers, apparently, gotta have 'em.

Trucks, in short, seem to have become the Olympian ideal of the modern automobile in the very same decade that marked momentous anniversaries of two previous automotive Titans. Chevrolet's millionth Corvette rolled off the line in '93, just in time for the car's 40th birthday. Since then, America's only full-blooded, world-class sports car has matured into the fifth-generation C5 Corvette. This is arguably the most affordable, pure-performance package on the planet, and it is indeed enjoying a modest upsurge in popularity as this decade draws to a close. Its annual sales of 29,000 units in '98, however, are but a widow's mite compared to the monthly sales rate of Chevrolet's own pickups, which clocked 57,000 units just for May '99.

Another birthday this year is somewhat more auspicious for the enthusiast. In the early '90s, Ford was seriously considering putting its fabled Mustang out to pasture. A last-minute reprieve paved the way for two major redesigns in the '90s, culminating with the 35th-anniversary Mustang of 1999. Sales are all but stratospheric--up 33 percent in May alone, compared to a year ago. While other muscle cars litter the boneyards, Mustang has hit a nerve with a curious blend of old-fashioned testosterone and trendy new sensibilities. It took Corvette 40 years to sell 1 million models, but Mustang manages to do so roughly every seven years. And in the process, Ford's trick pony is burying archrivals Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird.

There is no better automotive symbol of the 1990s, perhaps, than the pugnacious Viper RT/10 from Dodge. As a masterpiece of image and performance, it is a limited-production car that sells only about 100 models a month. And yet its sheer, V10-powered audacity heralded this decade's transformation of Chrysler Corporation from sob sister into Power Ranger. This reinvented company, the car seemed to say in '92, could do anything.

And that's just what Chrysler--oops, DaimlerChrysler--has managed to do--including taking the first six places in its class with the Viper GTS-R at this year's Le Mans. But where the true sporting enthusiast is concerned, it may turn out that the Viper is a snake in the garden. Underhood, and behind all the posture and pose, lies a 10-cylinder motor designed originally for a truck. In these closing years of the automobile's first century, you see, it is pickups, minivans, and SUVs that most elicit the enthusiast's keen lament. For the foreseeable future, Vipers and 'Vettes notwithstanding, the auto scene is all trucked up.

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