I can't remember the exact date or even the year, but I can remember him as clear as if it happened yesterday. I still wince when I think about it.
It was a furnace-like day in July and we were both standing in the hot Indiana sun grinning, sweating and oozing enthusiasm. I was a still-young reporter caught up in the most exciting car program in decades. He was the president of a big conglomerate's hot new automotive division. He was showing off a huge new plant completely dedicated to making plastic body panels forCorp.'s yet-to-be-introduced APV minivans. "If demand really gets hot, we're ready to build a sister plant right across the street," he told me proudly.
We both nodded knowingly. He knew what those new minivans looked like. I'd seen spy shots. They were gorgeous, and so far ahead of their time in styling it would takeand years to catch up. His company, GM and plastic cars were all on a roll, and I had a great time writing about it all.
I don't know what ever happened to him, but I'm sure it wasn't pretty. His company is gone, too, torn and scattered into more pieces than William Wallace's body in Braveheart.
There's a good story in between.
It starts with a sleek, sporty two-seater that even Joe Six-Pack can afford. Its all-plastic body dramatically cuts costs, and allows designers freedom they'd never have working with steel. And it represents a totally new way of designing and building vehicles that could revolutionize the auto industry.
Of course, you know the vehicle I'm talking about: the Pontiac Fiero.
Oh, you thought I was talking about the Plymouth Pronto Spyder,'s sexy new plastic concept car? The one everyone is speculating is going to be the first real car using Chrysler's new plastic manufacturing process? Sorry, easy mistake to make.
Both the Fiero and the Spyder are interesting, attractive cars that represent daring and innovative design, engineering and manufacturing concepts. In its day, the Fiero was an incredible piece of work. The old body engineering rules were thrown away and engineers took a new look at how vehicles could be constructed.
Chrysler's composite concept vehicle also takes a new approach to body engineering. It uses four giant injection-molded thermoplastic parts bolted to a steel ladder-frame to form an entire car. The process is so simple it has the potential to save hundreds of millions in manufacturing and facility costs. If successful, it could redefine how many vehicles are built throughout the world.
But Fiero proponents also made grandiose claims for their concept. Space frames made of steel or aluminum or high-tech composites surrounded by plastic panels would someday be the way all vehicles would be built, they claimed. The prophecy appeared to be coming true when GM gave the go-ahead for a high-volume minivan based on the same design and manufacturing concepts as the Fiero.
And that's when suppliers started investing - and risking - big money. You know the rest of the story. The Fiero was all show and no go, and buyers lost interest after a couple of years. Instead of being hailed for their innovative designs, the GM minivans were ridiculed as "dust-busters" and were spectacular failures.
I see the same industry and media frenzy building up for what looks like a crop of new plastic vehicles from Chrysler. Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. is investing $10 million in a new tech center to support Chrysler's research, and many other suppliers are fighting over the privilege of spending research dollars for this program, Yeah, the cars and the manufacturing technology are very exciting. But that doesn't mean they still couldn't hit dealerships and bomb like the Edsel.
And if you think I'm being overly cautious or negative, then I've got an old friend I think you should meet. If I can find him.