As we write this, we have just returned from the Detroit International Auto Show, and are preparing to make a quick turnaround and head to the four-auction carnival in Arizona. If one had to choose between the two places, certainly the baking heat of January in the Southwest would win over the blustery cold of the Midwest.
However, the allure of a major auto show has nothing to do with its location, but everything to do with vision. For the first time in years, the array of production and concept cars displayed by the manufacturers in Detroit demonstrated a commitment to imagination and style. For too long, enthusiasts have had to watch as the vehicles dominating the displays and the showrooms have been either Honda Accord/Ford Taurus "my vanilla is whiter than yours" variants, or Chevrolet Suburban/Ford Excursion offerings in the "mine is bigger than yours" vein. Hardly the stuff of gearheads' dreams.
But there's been a shift. The new Mercedes Vision SLA is a striking, rule-breaking (when was the last time you saw exposed shock towers on a car?) compact sports car. Even if full of visual references to the SLR-Roadster show car, it shows that a car can be small of stature but large of impact.
The Audi TT cabriolet on display at the show demonstrated that nearly every practical shortcoming a car may have can be overcome, if not overwhelmed, by superior styling. We've recently been driving a TT Coupe Quattro and came to the following conclusion: while the TT may have ergonomic problem areas and be hard to see out of, these difficulties are a direct result of the eye-catching styling, which causes us to not only overlook but embrace the shortcomings. Whereas we would bitterly condemn a Camry if it had such a small greenhouse, and complain to no end if our right leg rubbed constantly against its center console brace, we accept these difficulties with the TT as part of the compromise involved in bringing a truly dramatic shape to market.
This is in the same vein that a Speedster enthusiast forgives the water dripping on his leg in exchange for the visual excitement of the cut-down windshield, or the Healey lover dismisses a superheated, shoe-melting floorboard and focuses instead on the glorious exhaust note.
James Bond finally has a car worthy of his exploits in the new BMW Z8. In marked contrast to the cartoonish shape of the Z roadster and coupe, the Z8 has a mature, sexually alluring and definitive presence. It is immensely satisfying to see BMW enter, for the first time since the 507, the high-performance roadster arena. While a company with great technological prowess, BMW for too long has attempted to shape its high-end market image with a succession of complex, competent yet ultimately boring 7- and 8-series saloons.
The Honda S2000 is a nearly unbelievable car, from its no-pretenses shape to its high-output engine. The push-starter button on the dash is a cute touch; too bad they couldn't have left it black and subtle, rather than splashy red and prominently labeled like a fixture from an early Batman TV show. Nonetheless, given that the two-seat sports car genre was essentially given up for dead less than a decade ago, it's extremely satisfying from an enthusiast's perspective to watch the manufacturers discover that, in fact, drivers like exhilarating cars that have tops that go down.
The Chrysler PT Cruiser, in a completely different fashion, makes another enthusiast's statement. While the jury is still out as to whether the merger of Daimler-Benz and Chrysler will form a truly transcendent car company, the best hopes for the survival of the feisty spirit of the '90s Chrysler is in the continued creation of niche-defining affordable cars like the Cruiser. Looking at the Cruiser close up, it appears that an Alfa Giulietta or Porsche 911 engine could be easily strapped in its rear cargo area, with room next to it for a decent rollaway tool chest. That might make the Cruiser the perfect support car for a legion of SCCA racers-with plenty of room on the side of the Cruiser for all of those decals that racers need to have. Chrysler announced that its PT Cruiser will have a base price of just $16,000, including destination charges.
I would venture to guess that when auto historians look back on the year 2000, it will stand as the beginning of a golden age of automobiles, much the way that 1964 and the introduction of the Mustang started an earlier revolution. We are in the midst of tremendous global affluence, prodigious leaps in technology and a market that is looking for cars to represent far more than convenient, anonymous appliances. This has led to brilliant designs with superb engineering and show-stopping visual appeal. It doesn't get much better than this.


With BMW announcing the rebirth of the fabled Mini, we thought it appropriate to show the diminutive English car at a moment of glory. This painting by Nicholas Watts depicts a 1964 Mini Cooper S, driven by Paddy Hopkirk and with Henry Lidden navigating, slashing through the snow and ice during the 1964 Monte Carlo rally. After crossing the Alps Maritimes in France, the rally ended in Monaco. Hopkirk won both the Monte Carlo rally and the world championship of rallying that year.
A limited number of prints from the original edition of 500 are available. Signed by driver Hopkirk and engine builder John Cooper, they measure 33 x 25 inches and are priced at $295. Contact Steve Austin's Automobilia, 800/452-8434;
e-mail:[email protected].

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