I CHUCKLE TO MYSELF WHEN I GO TO AUTO SHOWS and automaker new product previews. Each company is proud of its latest so-called hybrid pickup-car-sport-utility vehicles.
There's the Ford Sport Trac, Chevrolet Avalanche and Nissan Frontier. They are but a few examples. All have varying degrees of cargo space, utility, comfort and performance.
This relatively new phenomenon is an attempt by the manufacturers to capitalize on the popularity of pickups and SUVs. By most accounts it's a successful strategy. But is it all that new? Not really.
DaimlerChrysler's Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills, MI, publishes a historical magazine, Forward. It focuses on the history of Chrysler and all of the companies that it acquired over the course of its history.
Two stories in the most recent issue show that the recent hybrid craze isn't such a new idea after all.
The 1951 Frazer, for example, featured a hatchback and a fold-down tailgate with a folding rear seat that converted it from a six-passenger car to a cargo carrier.
Immediately following World War II, Willys-Overland, which manufactured military Jeeps, needed to create something for the post-war consumer in order to stay in business. In July of 1946, Willys introduced a two-door station wagon. Although much less refined that the current day Grand Cherokees, Suburbans and Expeditions, a look at its sales brochures shows the Willys wagon as the forefather of the present-day SUV. They show cutaways of comfortable six-passenger seating and 98 cubic feet of luggage space in the rear. There was, however, no mention of safety belts, air bags or cup holders.
We also can look to the 1960s and 1970s for hints at what's to come in 2001 and beyond. Chevrolet's car/pickup hybrid El Camino was the first of its kind. In the late '70s, American Motors Corp.'s Pacer drew chuckles from industry observers. It garnered even more laughs as a key player in the Wayne's World movies. Now we have the Buick Rendezvous and the Pontiac Aztek. In 2002, we'll see the Mazda Protege 5 and probably more Pacer-ish vehicles. Could it be that the Pacer was ahead of its time? Party on!
All's not well at DaimlerChrysler It may enjoy the best factory-dealer relationship in the industry, but DaimlerChrysler got a double dose of bad new on the same day in late September.
First, the American part of DC announced that it would post third-quarter losses of almost $530 million. The company blames high rebates for consumers, an aging truck fleet and costly new-vehicle launches for its first loss in recent memory.
Rebates on some vehicles are $4,000. Bringing redone minivans and refreshed Chrysler Sirrus and Dodge Stratus sedans to market has hit the automaker harder than expected. Opening a new plant in Toledo - replacing the one that built the military Jeeps and Willys wagons mentioned above - also has affected DaimlerChrysler's balance sheet in a negative way.
"I don't know what's going on over there," says Carl Galeana, president of Van Dyke Dodge in Warren, MI. "But the rebates cost a lot of money. We have the best product out there, but it's getting a little long in the tooth. And it costs money to sell them and replace them."
Mr. Galeana expects DaimlerChrysler's fourth quarter to look much better than the third.
Perhaps also damaging to Chrysler is the announcement that Tom Gale, the company's chief designer, would retire at the end of the year.
Of all the other executives - including co-chairman Robert Eaton and president Thomas Stallkamp - who have either retired or been forced out of the company since the Daimler-Benz/Chrysler Corp. merger/takeover, Mr. Gale will be most sorely missed.
He took over Chrysler's design studio in 1985 at the tender age of 42. Mr. Gale was a major player in the first minivan, which put Chrysler back on the map. He is at least partly responsible for creating the Dodge Viper, the Dodge Dakota pickup, the Plymouth Prowler and the PT Cruiser. Mr. Gale also was the driving force behind the company's cab-forward design, which added leg room to cars without increasing the vehicle's length.
"He's been letting on for a long time that he was getting ready to retire," says Mr. Galeana. "He's very capable and I love the guy, but I'm not concerned about the future of Chrysler. The mark of a great guy is the crew of people he leaves behind. And he's left a very deep bench."
Mr. Gale will be replaced in the design studio by Trevor Creed and in the product-development office by Richard Schaum. Good luck, gentlemen. You have large shoes to fill.