Saturday, February 10, 2018

Chicago Auto Show Spectacular: #1. All revved up, nowhere to go

1948 Tucker Torpedo (Smithsonian Museum of American History)
     The Chicago Auto Show opens at McCormick Place today—assuming you are reading this Saturday, Feb. 10.   
      While I make a point of going to the housewares show, the auto show is such a mob scene that I studiously avoid it. Though occasionally the paper dispatches me, and I manfully try to do my best, such as this report—I'm proud for noticing the aspirations to elegance of any car can be gauged by the grandeur its makers lunge for when describing "white."
     But skirting the show doesn't mean I don't get excited about cars. I do, and have fun when the opportunity arises to write about them. The show is open until Feb. 19, and during its run I'm going to share some fun, auto-related columns from years past. 

     Some sort of cosmic malevolence has always kept me from appreciating automobiles.
     I want to. I try. But the effort inevitably falls flat.
     I just came from five hours of wandering around the Chicago Auto Show. There was only one car that I kneww ahead of time I rather liked, just for its styling—the new Audi TT Roadster. Sort of like a Volkswagen Beetle for guys. When I realized that you could sit inside the cars, I opened the door of a very promising silver TT and got inside.
     Or tried to.
     The same cut-down roof that gives the car its low-slung line makes the car nearly impossible to get into. I had to fold myself in half and shove my body in, dragging my head against the frame. And I'm not quite 5 feet 9.
     In general, actually seeing the vehicles took the sheen off the idea of owning them. As rugged as the Hummers look, a peek inside shows that the driver and passenger seats are about a yard apart, separated by a chest-high central console. Your passenger might as well be in the next lane.
     As I strolled, I became more interested, not in the vehicles themselves, but in the ballyhoo used to push them. For instance: They seem to be running out of car names. The contender for the "Impact" award for a bad car name goes to the Chevy Avalanche, which denotes not just mountains, but mountains sliding down on top of you.
     The Echo Reverb—an economy model from Toyota—was runner-up, though I also appreciated the name of the sound system in the signature Sony vehicle from Ford: Xplod, pronounced "explode."
     I administered what I called the "white test." You could tell how pretentious a car is by what term the company applies to the color white.
     For instance, while Saturn calls white "white," Ford calls it "Oxford white." Moving up the scale, Cadillac has "white diamond" and Porsche, "Biarritz white." Rolls-Royce can't even utter the prosaic syllable "white." For them, it's simply "Artica." (And yes, it's true, the Silver Seraph does come with one of those little doughnut spare tires, as opposed to a full-sized spare).
     The color of the future seems to be yellow. Most every concept car is that hue. Saturn's concept car is the horrible gold of a 1959 refrigerator. Daewoo's Sporty concept is the same greenish yellow found on the reflective strips on firefighter turnout coats.
The most arresting color I saw was a Ford Taurus painted "chestnut clearcoat metallic." It looks like radioactive chocolate pudding. Ford also has a jarring "autumn orange" that's hard to describe. Not quite a burnt orange. Maybe a little toasted.
     There is a good deal of inadvertent humor at the show. The centerpiece of Secretary of State Jesse White's display is a sort of shrine to White—his portrait, 2 feet tall, flanked by flags and mounted on a white wooden tableau.
     The highlight, for me, was noticing Trooper C.T. Pfotenhauer at the State Police display pushing sober and safe driving. The booth is located directly across from the 208 mph Lamborghini Diablo VT Coupe at Shell's exotic car display.
     "They do it to us every year," sighed Pfotenhauer, who was nonplused by the speed of the Lamborghini, particularly compared with the range of a police radio. "The bottom line," she said, "is can they outrun Motorola?"

          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 15, 2000


  1. That's a 48 Tucker, not 47. Really cool car made right here in Chicago.
    The engine is in the rear, if I remember. The middle headlight swivels as you turn. Only 51 were built. Surprisingly, almost all of them still exist.

  2. 208 mph is obscene. If my math is correct, you could get run over by a Lamborghini going half a block a second without even seeing it.


    1. It's crazy but a Lamborghini is safe at 208 MPH. A Honda Odyssey, however, is not safe at 120 MPH. That Lamborghini will stick to the road while a minivan will begin to lift at half the speed.

  3. Funny column! And Jesse White was Secretary of State way back then. He is the methuselah of State politicos.

    The rhapsodizing on the color white brought to mind my days in the advertising game, when I learned about the limits placed on lying in an ad, defined in law by the charming term "permissible puffery." It means you can make claims that a reasonable person will recognize can be neither verified nor disproved empirically. The example often given was soap sellers claiming their product makes clothes "whiter than white."


    1. In Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" Optic White included a few drops of black. Without the black, it wasn't white enough.

  4. NPR's Click and Clack used to do a routine about badly named cars; I remember their getting after the Ford Aspire, which they lampooned as "wishing to be a car."


  5. Saturn is making cars again? And Hummer? Well I guess I'd heard something about that. I think they got sold to an Asian company . Yeah I agree cars just don't grab me. Never have even when I was a kid .my oldest liked to go to the auto show so we'd go. But he like cars that go fast fast as he would say. I'm more a Volvo station wagon guy. So he shows me the new Volvo xyz 90000 a couple years ago .says it has a 600 HP engine and goes 0-60 in 1.2 seconds. I'm like wow! Then I look at the price and it's close to 70 grand . I guess I'm more of a mini van guy now .

    1. I looked up Motorola, thinking it was out of business and one entry did mention the company in the past tense, but it (or a successor) is still advertising phones and the like, and maybe remains in the police radio business as well.

    2. My last three cell phones have been Motorola. Great product. I wouldn't switch to another brand.

    3. reading the column seems like a lot to ask Neil. and hummer is being made again by the way.

  6. Saturns were great vehicles, almost as durable and as long-lasting as the original VW Beetles. Drove two of each. My wife bought one of our Saturns in South Carolina when her VW Golf finally died. We drove it back to Ohio and eventually racked up at least another quarter-million miles over the next 13 years (hard to tell for certain, after the odometer froze up).

    The other Saturn survived for ten ungaraged Cleveland winters before finally succumbing to terminal cancer of the undercarriage (which wass, of course, metal...not plastic like the body shell). We were saddened when GM killed off the make, and still miss them. Mid-six-figure mileage totals were not all that uncommon.

  7. I lost interest in cars when chrome disappeared. Oh, and white side-wall tires. And fins. A few years ago, I was driving down LSD on a beautiful summer day and saw a perfect red Caddy Eldorado ragtop gliding along. What a beaut!


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