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Shall… we… play… a… game? How ’bout that old Sesame Street standard, “One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other – One Of These Things Just Doesn’t Belong.” I’ll name four people, and you tell me which one “doesn’t belong”. Ready? Setta? GO!
- Brock Yates
- Alex Roy
- Felipe Massa
- Lawrence Pargo
Okay, time’s up. Which one doesn’t belong? That’s right – Felipe Massa, who is an actual race car driver. The other three are non-racers who have become semi-famous for jerking around on the freeway and endangering other drivers at triple-digit speeds.
Wait – you didn’t say Lawrence Pargo, did you? I mean, come on! Pargo’s right there with Yates and Roy, having recently been caught on a speed camera running a rented Hyundai Sonata down the road at a staggering one hundred and forty-seven miles per hour. In Pargo’s defense, it must be noted that his attorney told the court that he couldn’t possibly be guilty of the crime. It turns out that the lowly previous-generation Sonata, commonly considered to be a crapwagon suited only to “credit criminals”, elderly people, and minimum-wage healthcare workers such as Mr. Pargo himself… well, it can only do 137.
Consider if you will, dear reader, that when Sir William Lyons released his all-new sports car in 1948, he was so proud of its top speed – a speed that made it possibly the fastest standard production car in history to that point – that he simply named the car after that top speed! The XK-120! One hundred and twenty miles per hour! It was the stuff of legends. Fast-forward to the modern day, and Hyundai doesn’t even bother to name a 137-mph car something appropriately cool like “G6DB-137″. Instead, it’s simply the “Sonata”, staple of rental fleets everywhere, capable of blowing by top-end postwar sports cars as if they were bolted to the ground. This Pargo fellow was no race car driver; he isn’t even a wannabe racer like, ahem, certain other people named in the list above. He was just a young fellow who was late for work. It didn’t take him an ounce of skill to reach triple digits, didn’t cause him a moment’s worth of concern, didn’t require a Nomex suit or a competition license. With a simple shove of the drive-by-wire, traction-controlled accelerator pedal, he was running a rental car at the same speeds Stirling Moss reached in the Mercedes 300SLR.
How did this happen?
In our last episode, we discussed how the concept of “luxury” became utterly debased during the nineteen-seventies, eventually resulting in such oddities as the Buick Skylark Limited. The democratization of luxury features, trim, and nameplates had a number of far-reaching consequences for the industry, but perhaps the most significant of those consequences was the American public’s realization that “luxury” simply didn’t mean much anymore. No longer would it be possible to shock and depress one’s snooty neighbor by pulling a new Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight into the driveway; that bastard knew full well that his Caprice Classic matched or beat it, feature for feature. No longer did the gas-station attendant whistle with respect at the arrival of a Lincoln Continental; his Fairmont packed an equal velour punch and didn’t look that much different at a distance. Luxury as everyone had known it was all but dead.
And yet human nature will prevail. No drug, extreme sport, or disturbingly acrobatic sexual position has yet been invented that can compare with the raw thrill of putting one’s foot directly on the neck of one’s peers, so it stood to reason that people would figure out a way to indicate their economic status regardless of the domestic manufacturers’ puffy-seat promiscuity. There had to be a way to obviously spend more money, right? If a Cadillac wouldn’t show the Joneses who was running ahead in the rat race, perhaps something else would.
The answer wasn’t long in coming. By 1980, the efforts of import pioneer Max Hoffmann and his imitators had ensured that there were a few German-car dealerships in every major American city. The cars they sold were ruinously expensive, thanks to currency fluctuation, a variety of tariffs, and the obscene dealer markup required to make their sale profitable at relatively low volumes. They were also rather Spartan.
Spartan! That was a code word for “Although this Mercedes-Benz 200D costs more than a Skylark Limited perched on top of a Cadillac Fleetwood, you’re still gonna roll the windows up by hand.” The Europeans had different ideas of luxury, you see. Their idea of luxury could best be characterized as “owning a car”. Then as now, the standard of living for the average person in Europeland was quite a bit lower than for his American counterpart. It cost a German driver far more to own a four-cylinder diesel Mercedes than it cost Joe Sixpack to drive a Fleetwood d’Elegance – and thanks to all of the aforementioned economic factors, the same was true on this side of the pond.
The initial virtue of the Mercedes-Benz was simply that it cost more and everybody knew it. By putting a Benzo in one’s driveway, one was declaring that one had not only forgotten the vagaries of the now-discredited American luxury ladder, one had soared well above it on a refreshing wave of cold cash. The 220D, 300SE, or 450SL might be outstanding cars, but that was beside the point. The point was that they cost more. I cannot stress this enough. They were not necessarily “better”. The Cadillac deVille of 1975 was larger, roomier, faster, quieter, more comfortable, and probably more reliable than nearly any Mercedes-Benz available on these shores, but it mattered not, because the Benz was more prestigious due to its cost. By 1984 or thereabouts, there was only one genuine way to climb to the top of your neighborhood heap, and that was to drive a Benz. Period. For those unlucky shlubs who couldn’t afford the double-deVille price necessary to put a sixty-three horsepower, vinyl-interior, stick-shift 240D in their driveways, it was possible to still proclaim disdain for the American “tanks” by driving a Saab, a Volvo, or perhaps even an Audi – but Mercedes-Benz stood alone at the prestige pinnacle, and nobody doubted it.
Make that almost nobody. There was a small group of drivers, most of them devotees of David E. Davis, who believed that BMW made the best sedan in the world. They were generally Autobahn-obsessed wearers of string-back gloves, the sort of fellows who purchased vinyl bras for their cars and attended SCCA races as spectators. They were evangelists for the BMW brand, and they tended to be wealthy, influential people, so as the Seventies wore on, Bimmers became the car to have for successful young people who considered a Mercedes to be far too staid for their active lifestyles. And, of course, those proto-yuppies liked the idea of owning the Ultimate Driving Machine.
Let’s get something straight. No BMW was ever the “ultimate driving machine”, period. The famous four-cylinder 2002 was a great car, but it wouldn’t have stood a chance against a Porsche 911 or – whisper it – a Corvette Stingray. And yet driving a Bimmer was still a very different experience from the Mercury Monarchs and Buick Regals which had traditionally been the province of America’s middle class. They were frisky, nimble, different-looking, and, don’t forget, they were just as drab as Mercedes-Benzes on the inside. This drabness led to endless self-righteous drivel from American auto-rag writers regarding the unbelievable superiority of having a cheap, dark interior, because that’s what the Germans preferred, dontcha know. With benefit of hindsight, we now know that what the Germans really preferred was the blonde-wood bordello known as the 2001 BMW 745iL, but the fine people at Car and Driver didn’t have a functioning crystal ball and therefore didn’t know that the black-vinyl-and-silver-paint cockpits of their contemporary Bimmers just meant that the Krauts were marking time until the buttock-massaging twenty-one-way contrast-piping seat could be fully perfected.
As the famous “morning in America” took place in the early Eighties and our country emerged blinking into the sunlight of the post-Carter era, there appeared to be no limit to what Mercedes-Benz and BMW could accomplish in the United States. Eighty-horsepower two-door sedans containing less metal than a Chevy Citation but selling for more than a Cadillac deVille? Check! Thirteen-year-old two-seater convertibles with smog-strangled 3.8-liter V8s priced to compete with four-bedroom homes in the Chicago suburbs? Check! Bullying the wealthiest people in the United States into placing their privileged rumps on perforated vinyl seats, simply by calling it “MB-Tex” instead of “perforated vinyl”? Check! As a nation, we’d gone cuckoo for German Puffs. It seems difficult to believe today, but people actually paid good money for satin jackets which said “PORSCHE 924″ on the sleeves. Remember the Porsche 924? It was a twenty-four-hundred-pound vinyl-seat penalty box powered by, and I use that term loosely, the limp-wristed engine from a Euro-market VW commercial van! It was very possibly the most disappointing Porsche in history, and it still rated its own satin jacket!
From their palatial offices in downtown Detroit and elsewhere, the executives of the American automakers looked upon the complete crumbling of their velour-lined Fake Luxury empire with stunned disbelief. They’d spent decades convincing Americans that personal achievement was inextricably linked with chrome-plated plastic, pillowy seats, and singularly unconvincing wood trim, only to find that, while they were busy waging their own little inter-divisional wars, the public had gone crazy for cars with none of that stuff! The most miserable Buick Century “Custom” Aeroback sedan made the Mercedes-Benz 300D look like a taxicab, in part because the Mercedes-Benz 300D was a taxicab everywhere else in the world, and the customer didn’t care! He wanted black plastic! He wanted perforated vinyl! He wanted a weeble-wobble four-or-five-cylinder engine! A more enlightened generation of men would have inquired as to whether or not these preferences were a byproduct of something more significant, such as appreciation for German build quality or enthusiasm for the relatively taut way in which the European sedans went down the road, but these were not enlightened men. If Americans wanted black plastic instead of chrome, GM, Ford, and Chrysler would provide it to them. If the man in the street wanted a four-cylinder car that combined an excitingly aggressive airdam with a depressing inability to drive up a five-percent grade in any gear above second, they would receive that as well. Also, since the magazines kept bleating about “handling”, they would make the cars “handle”.
This last point was how the era of Rich Corinthian Swaybars began. Detroit had always been full of weekend racers who designed Landau tops during the week, but in the new era of Euro emulation these fellows were given carte blanche to cover their cars in black plastic and make ‘em “handle” around their test tracks. Lateral “G” figures began to displace mileage in the two-page Motor Trend ads. The Chevrolet Celebrity “Eurosport” – a car that bore, incidentally, perhaps the most humiliating nameplate in automotive history, being named after the general concept that another continent was better than this one – could generate .80G! The Pontiac 6000STE retaliated with .84G! The Dodge Shelby Lancer beats ‘em all with .88G! An entire generation of sad, square FWD econoboxes such as the GM A-bodies and Ford “Erica” cars, conceived to compete with the Japanese on the battlefields of cost, economy, and rear-passenger hiproom, now found itself dressed in blackout plastic, saddled with overstyled alloy wheels, and sent out to do battle on an imaginary American Autobahn. Each new car was given more aggressive suspension tuning. Oldsmobile introduced three levels of “FE” suspension, with the top “FE3″ level having spring and shock rates roughly equivalent to what you’d find on a Street Prepared-class SCCA racer nowadays. These cars hopped and skipped over bumps, transmitted every possible road imperfection directly to their owner’s fingers via their always-buzzing steering wheels, and rhythmically kidney-punched helpless children over freeway expansion joints. Even Cadillac got into the act, creating an Eldorado Touring Coupe which looked about as Euro as Euro Disneyland but which had the spring rate to cheerfully shake the dentures right out of its elderly owners’ mouths.
Turning heads, corners, and the occasional stomach — the ’84 Eurosport! Named after Europe! And, er, sport!
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Meanwhile across the Atlantic, the European economy was finally recovering to the point where people could buy gasoline on a regular basis again, leading the almighty Germans to open up the taps on their powerplants. The 380SEL became the 500SEL and then the 560SEL. BMW introduced a three-hundred-horsepower twelve-cylinder engine in the 750iL and Mercedes-Benz retaliated with a four-hundred-horsepower twelve in the 600SEL. The 318i became the 325e, then the 325i, then the 328i. Power and speed was the order of the day, and woe betide the company whose entry-level sedan couldn’t outperform a 1984 Ferrari 308. It was no longer enough for a car to annihilate a laser-leveled skidpad somewhere on the GM proving grounds; it was now necessary that family sedans haul ass.
Our Japanese friends had been slow to pick up on the whole “handling” thing, their home-market being a place where cars crawled through day-long traffic jams and rarely reached triple digits on a kilometer-per-hour speedo, but as a nation of splendid engine builders they immediately saw that they could meet the Germans on level ground in the power wars. Camrys and Accords sprouted V6 engines from beneath newly bulging bonnets. Turbochargers appeared on the exhaust manifolds of everything from the mighty 300ZX to the three-cylinder Chevrolet (by Suzuki) Sprint. Nissan revealed the astounding Infiniti Q45, a 276-horse sedan capable of walking a 500SEL down any stretch of highway with power to spare.
The battle for ridiculous family-car power reached its climax in the killing fields of the mid-sized sedan market, where the Americans were weak and the Germans were disinterested at best. Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Subaru and Mitsubishi engaged in an arms race to capture the loyalty of a very particular customer: the angry middle-aged man who was forced to drive a CamCord by his nagging wife but who insisted that it be a sporty CamCord. The glory from victory in this battle would shine its light over an entire sedan range, so the Japanese fought for each milestone like Marines coming up the beach at Iwo Jima. Who could be the first to provide two hundred horsepower in a mid-sized FWD-based sedan? It was Toyota, with the 1999 Camry. Who would reach 250 first? Subaru, with the 2005 Legacy GT. Who would provide a three-liter V6 before the others? Toyota, in the Camry V6. What about a 3.5 V6? Nissan, in their Altima 3.5SE.
What the Japanese could do, the Koreans could copy, so it didn’t take long for Hyundai to make sure their Sonata and Azera had more power than a top-of-the-line 7-Series BMW from the mid-Eighties, complete with “Sport Package” monster alloy wheels and oversized swaybars… which brings us back to Lawrence Pargo and his triple-digit freeway exploits. The world didn’t need a Chevrolet Caprice with dual power velour seats and fake wire wheels, and it certainly doesn’t need a Hyundai Sonata capable of blowing past a Jag XK120 in a straight line, but as we have seen, the American auto market has never concerned itself with what people really needed. Marketing and trend-awareness drive vehicle availability with all the relentless of young Mr. Parago’s late-night Sonata blast. What’s next? Just look for price premiums. An entry-level BMW sedan used to cost twice what a top-of-the-line Accord sold for; today, they’re priced about the same. The price premium nowadays is on a little hatchback which has about as much room as an old Chevy Citation but sells for Chrysler 300 money. That’s right – the next trend might just be called Pious Prius Pods.