It doesn't seem that long ago: You could tell it was October because of the searchlights filling the autumn skies and the smell of burning leaves.
The searchlights were beacons that auto dealers fired up to herald the beginning of the new model year and draw some customers. The leaves were the debris that comes with the changing season; setting them afire was a convenient way to dispose of them and warm your hands against the crisp air. They also smelled good.
You seldom see searchlights anymore. Although automakers continue the ritual of October new-model launches, the fact is cars and trucks are introduced throughout the year these days. And leaf-burning, like cigarette smoking, is now considered a health hazard and is banned in most urban and suburban areas.
With only 90 days remaining before the millennium celebration in Times Square, however, let's forget the past and look ahead to some key trends that no one gave much, if any thought, only five years ago.
n Y2K: It sounds like the name of a Russian Jet, but what it has come to mean is a serious computer glitch that could bring everything to a standstill when the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve. Automakers and most of their suppliers think they're safe, but that may not be true of others with whom they interface. Maybe it's yet another manifestation of good old American confidence, but no one seems overly perturbed. Happy New Year!
n The Internet: Everyone, automakers included, at first took a gingerly approach to cyberspace. Yeah, it could do amazing things. But how could you make a buck on it? Now the lid is off, and folks are scrambling to reap benefits from the worldwide web.Corp. has established a new e-business unit that will explore everything from selling vehicles and services on the Internet to linking factories and suppliers to operate more efficiently.
The downside? AsMotor Co. has discovered, the web can be used to transmit extremely sensitive secrets, protected by the First Amendment (see John McElroy's column, p.19). That may seem unreasonable, but until it's tested in higher courts, Ford has little recourse other than to keep a tighter rein on inside information. Moreover, look for the Ford incident to trigger a rush by others to set up web sites dealing in trade secrets. Ah, free enterprise!
n Mergermania: Who'd have thought that Daimler-Benz AG andCorp. would consolidate into a global powerhouse, that would acquire AB Volvo's car operations, that Renault SA would take control of Motor Co. Ltd., that BMW AG and Volkswagen AG would fight over Rolls-Royce, that GM and Ford would organize their components groups as separate entities, and that suppliers would gobble up each other like sharks in a feeding frenzy? And it's not over: Look for another biggie involving a long-established Western automaker with a relative Far Eastern newcomer, quite possibly before year's end.
n Trucks and SUVs: Who'd have guessed in 1995 that light trucks, then accounting for 42.9% of total U.S. light-vehicle sales, would top 50% just four years later? As one result, the Senate threatened to raise the light-truck corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standard by 40%, bringing it on par with passenger cars. The effort failed.
That seemed only fair and sensible, but was a tough sell: I just paid $1.29 for a gallon of regular gas and $1.50 for 8 ozs. of bottled "spring" water. That's enough to make you want to switch on some searchlights and burn some leaves.
The 'David E.' Chronicles
I haven't fully read David E. Davis Jr.'s new book, Thus Spake David E. ($29.95, Momentum Books, Troy, MI); it just arrived. A quick glance, however, indicates I've already read much of the book - in its original form, as stories and columns in Car & Driver and Automobile Magazine.
"David E." is a legend in automotive circles. A consummate car nut, egotist, bon vivant, snob, name-dropper, wit, storyteller, game hunter, gentleman farmer and would be latter-day Hemingway right down to his beard, bearing and Stetson, he's also a creative genius.
Under David E., C&D gathered some of the best writers, who happened to write with authority and whimsy about things automotive, breaking away with a literary flourish from the more mundane buff books with their fifth-wheel road tests and lookalike graphics.
Then in 1986, with Rupert Murdoch's millions as his seed money, he created Automobile, now a part of the Primedia publishing empire. Automobile since has gone through numerous graphic re-dos, but it remains as David E. shaped it: A brash, colorfully written and illustrated publication for automotive enthusiasts who like to think of themselves as a cut above - sippers of expensive, hard-to-pronounce French wines, not Bud Light.