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BACK SEAT DRIVING - JULY 2008

This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Tue, Jul 1, 2008

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

HOT WIRES For hot and tender news wires on the car culture, see LA Car's Hot Wires Meanwhile, at the Pomona Swap Meet Mid-1990s Honda Civics are Smoking Hot Honda's New Hindsight Jay Leno Solves the Gas Crises Ford Flex More Confident Than Its Creators  

 

 

BRIAN KENNEDY: BACK SEAT DRIVING

Pomona Swap Meet

The Pomona Swap Meet has been the place where dreams began for a lot of guys (and gals) who always wanted a certain car, including me. I bought a much-loved 1967 Le Mans there. But the latest iteration of the classic swap was nothing like the ones I've been to in the past. Admittedly, before the July event, my last one was back in the winter, so I've missed a few, and the scene may simply fluctuate from month to month. Maybe it had something to do with it being July, though the weather was decidedly pleasant. But my impressions of the cars on offer this time were that most were not worth anywhere near their asking price (and keep in mind the word "impression." I am opining here. If you don't know what that means, then stop reading now). And the crowds seem to have noticed. At least, if their numbers correlate to what's being sold. "Thin" is the word which comes to mind, both about the number of autos for sale (the regular merchandise booths seemed about up to the usual number) and the number of people looking to buy. This was confirmed in a couple of overheard conversations lamenting the fact that "the action is way down. Maybe thirty percent from last time." What's wrong? Several things. First, most of what was out there was just plain junk. Oh, I'm not talking about the 1970 GTO convertible that the guy had for about $20K. That thing was nice. I'm talking about the half dozen '66 Mustang 6-cylinders with crap paint jobs, mismatched interiors, and rust spots at the bottom of the doors that were in the seller's dreamland worth an eight- or ten-thousand dollar asking price. What happened to the honest cars - the ones that haven't been messed with? The ones with one decent repaint in roughly the factory color? The ones that would actually be worth driving and then putting some money into to make really right? They just weren't there. Of the hundreds of cars I looked at, there were less than a handful which were decent cars being offered at a fair price not by a smarmy guy trying to make a quick dollar whose stories don't match what I could see plainly in front of me. I asked one guy, "How long has this been in California?" "It's always been," he said. "Always licensed?" I smelled a rat. "My grandfather owned it, so yeah." He looked over my shoulder. I briefly wondered if the cops were standing right behind me. I didn't bother to ask him why it had a modern white 4D-something something number plate on it. Don't get me wrong. I'm not against flipping a car. If someone gets to it before I do, buys it, and then wants to sell it to me at a profit, then it's up to me to decide whether the new asking price is fair. I don't mind a reasonable premium for the person's efforts. But most of these cars looked like they'd been hauled out from under an apartment carport Friday, dusted off, and put up for sale forty-eight hours later. The problem was, the last attention anyone paid to them was back a decade ago, and that was to give them a quickie paintjob without the benefit of masking anything off. Yuck. Another reason could be the auctions. I've never been to one, but I watch every hour of the Barrett Jackson on TV and tape. Most of that stuff is way over the price range of Pomona cars (which for the 1960s models that I surveyed went from about 5-20 grand, with the odd forty and fifty-thousand dollar SS454 or something thrown into the mix. I also subscribe to two magazines (no free plugs - sorry, but you should have responded when I asked for the insider price) which do auction coverage. And those consistently show cars as low as $5K and on up, and it seems like there's a fair bit out there for the average person's budget. So why would someone come to Pomona, stand in the heat, and deal with the tire kickers with no guarantee he'll get a car sold when he can take it to auction, put a reasonable reserve on it, and get his money out of it? Short answer: he wouldn't. But this month's vendors seemed to be asking auction prices without offering auction-quality merchandise. Something just doesn't add up! What can be done? If the people trying to sell cars want to sell them, they need to leave their crap in their backyards and get something out to Pomona that a collector might want to buy. Like I said above, about eighty percent of the cars I saw were piles of doo-doo that nobody who knows anything about the hobby would sink any money into, and most of those were also not nice enough that you could drive them without feeling like it was 1985 and you'd just paid $2200 for your first high school ride. To say it another way, these aren't cars that grownups with some money to spend on something decent would buy, and by the looks of it, the number of teenagers who want to pick up 60s American iron for their first ride has dwindled. So what's the market? Sharks selling to other sharks selling to other sharks, each trying for a tiny slice of profit on each deal. Well, eventually, somebody is going to get stuck with a car he can't move along any more. And all of those ended up with "big money or best offer" signs on them out on the fairgrounds. It's too bad, and I'm just hoping that this was a one-time deal. I'll test that theory when I return to the swap meet next time and let you know. Meanwhile, if any of you guys trying to sell cars are reading this, "opine" means something like "offer an opinion," and that's all this is, so take it for what it's worth, or don't. But please, find me a car I can buy for your asking price and be happy about.   

 

 

 

 

Mid-1990s Honda Civics top the hot car list

NAKANO: BACK SEAT DRIVING Mid-1990s Honda Civics are considered very hot cars among today's younger generation. Go to any high school parking lot, and you'll see an ocean of Honda Civics in various states of tune - glistening against a backdrop of import and domestic fare. The National Insurance Crime Bureau released its Hot Wheels 2008 auto theft report earlier this month for vehicles stolen in 2007. Topping the list is the 1995 Honda Civic. The attractiveness of the Honda Civic among car thieves has not gone unnoticed by police in Arlington County, just outside of Washington. According to AFP, the police there use late-model Honda Civics, among other popular cars, to bait unsuspecting car thieves in the area. When the perpetrator forces open the door of an attractive car left in place by Arlington County law enforcement, a hidden camera begins to roll. Simultaneously, an alarm goes off in the police station, and a GPS device begins tracking the suspect in the car. "Once a police team is in pace to make the arrest, they simply send an electronic command to the car to stop, locking its doors at the same time so the thief can't get out" reports AFP. "He can't do anything but wait inside for the arrival of the police." Since 2002, when Arlington police began setting out decoy cars in areas known for car theft or other crime, the number of cars stolen each year has been cut by more than half, according to AFP. With the video of the theft as evidence, the suspects have little to defend themselve with in court." "We use vehicles that are probably attractive to car thieves," John Lisle, spokesperson for the county police. AFP reports that the Nationwide insurance company has been supplying communities in several states with Honda Civics and Accords and Toyota Camrys - the three models are the most popular with car thieves in the country, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Our own BT just acquired a mid-1990s Honda Civic Coupe to add to his motor vehicle collection (which includes a Corvette, a drift-ready 240SX, the OJ Simpson Bronco, and a Honda Blackhawk). He got the vehicle for a great price. We assured him that one of two things will happen: Either he'll be able to sell it off for as much or more than what he paid, or it will get stolen. In the meantime, Chuck D suggests that BT rent it out to the local police as a decoy car.   

 

 

 

 

NAKANO: BACK SEAT DRIVING The latest battle raging on the Internet boards revolves around some spy photographs of what's believed to be Honda's new competitor to the Prius. If you've been keeping up with the news, you'll know that Honda has admitted that it was a tactical error to simply offer hybrid vehicles that were virtually indistinguishable from its non-hybrid counterparts (e.g., the Honda Accord Hybrid and Civic Hybrid). In hindsight, Honda believes that it would have sold more hybrids if its cars were styled with a more eco-friendly signature ("hey, look at my car, it's a hybrid!") - like the Prius. Well, if the spy shooters are correct in identifying the vehicle as the new Honda hybrid sedan, it's a shameless copy of the fabulously successful Toyota design. It so closely resembles the Prius that some enthusiasts can't believe it's a Honda. Although the grille is clearly similar to Honda's new FCX fuel cell vehicle, the grille and bumper integration as well as the headlight assemblies bear a striking resemblance to the newly facelifted Toyota Avalon. The four-door hatchback in the spy photos also has a horizontal character line running along the upper half of the side flanks - just like the renditions of the yet-to-be released 2010 Prius. It's also hard to tell if that taped-up logo is a Honda trapezoid or a Toyota oval. On the other hand, the dashboard and wheels look like Honda issues. To confuse the lookie loos even more, the spy shot car is accompanied by both a current Toyota Prius and a current Honda Civic Hybrid. Did the Honda people bring the Prius along for comparison? Or did Toyota bring the Civic as a decoy? The most convincing evidence that this is a Honda comes from readers who point out that the license plate 3421 appears to be an often seen Honda manufacturer plate number.

Some sources are asserting that Honda will resurrect the "Insight" name for the new car. If true, it will be a deft and dandy move. After all, the Insight was the first high-volume hybrid sold in America, and using the Insight name will serve to remind the public that Honda was first in America with a hybrid. Moreover, the design of the 2004-2009 Prius borrowed heavily from the original Insight. Honda can say the new car is not a rip-off of the Prius; on the contrary, the Prius design is but a four-door rip-off of the original Insight. One area I wish Honda really would rip-off Toyota is in using a full, dual-mode hybrid design. Alas, reports are that the new car will use the Integrated Motor Assist mild hybrid design of the current Civic Hybrid. That means the new car can't be driven in electric car mode at low speeds - a nice feature enjoyed by Prius owners. Assuming that this is indeed Honda's new Prius-fighter, we are getting a pretty clear picture of a signature look for hybrid sedans. Don't be surprised if other manufacturers follow suit with similar-looking hybrid sedans.   

 

 

 

 

JAY LENO: BACK SEAT DRIVING      

 

 

 

 

Ford's new Flex

BRIAN KENNEDY: BACK SEAT DRIVING FLEX MORE CONFIDENT THAN ITS CREATORS     Marketing is a funny thing. You dream up and idea that you think is good, and you tell people about it, and sometimes, they can't get enough of it. That's what happened with the original Mustang in April of 1964, when the sales figures went crazy beyond Ford's wildest dreams. By the end of the second model year, they had sold over a million Mustangs. Sometimes, it works the opposite. Your confidence in your idea and your eager relaying of the message are paid back in apathy and unsold units. Check out the history of the Plymouth Superbird, which sat unsold on dealer lots for as much as two years back in the late 60s-early 70s. (Forget that they're hundreds of thousands of bucks at auction now.) Then there are times when you put your heart into something, make good on it, and yet still don't quite know what you have. That's kind of what, it seems to me, is going on at Ford right now with the Flex. In fact, Ford hasn't hidden its doubts about the Flex, as you'll see shortly. But after I show you how they feel, I'm going to explain why I'm sure they're wrong. The Flex is going to sell better and more broadly than they seem to hope. Why? The car is clever. It's fresh. It says "confidence". It's a good idea that doesn't blindly follow the herd - not that I'm accusing Ford of doing that - just that this is the case with auto companies in general. (Don't you ever drive down the road and say, "My goodness, those taillights are so similar to the ones on that guy's car (of a different brand) that it's like the designers had lunch at the same restaurant, doodled on their napkins, and picked up the other one's after the meal"?). But despite the impression that the Flex gives, Ford themselves seem a little puzzled about how to label their new wunderkind. Witness their press release on the Flex: "Flex is a vehicle that dares to be different. Its contemporary design provokes strong opinions." Later, the same release says, "Ford is confident that . . . will have strong allure, especially after experiencing how much consumers warm to Flex the more they explore it." One of the design executives is quoted in the press release as saying, "At first we were uncomfortable with the way Flex could polarize, but its ability to compel an opinion, good or bad, was fascinating." This sounds something like the "there's no such thing as bad press" line, but when it comes to selling products that consumers are meant to fall in love with and buy on emotion, that is just nonsense. If the car looks bad - call that polarizing or whatever you like - nobody is going to buy it. But that's just not true of the Flex. Still, reading these words before the event which launched the car on June 26th in LA, my first thought was "Aztek." As in, Pontiac's colossal flop, which was so butt-ugly that it's surprising it got beyond the focus group clay-model stage. I was half expecting something worrying like that when I walked into the parking lot of the hotel where the Flex sat. But instead of ugly ducklings, a handful of cars were arrayed there, each saying, "Look at me. I like myself." And my first thought was, "This thing's right. Why the heck are they so unsure about it?"

Maybe what Ford is saying is that they think they screwed up because they didn't pen another boring box with freakishly angled taillights a la everything out there these days. But how might they be convinced that what they've done in that regard is a virtue, rather than a fault? More likely, what they're saying is a confession that someone in a focus group in Charlotte or Topeka or San Francisco said "polarizing" and that's all Ford heard. (I've been on the advertising side of those focus groups, and believe me, weird stuff happens and that's all the client remembers afterwards). But if I could add a rejoinder to that, it would go something like this: Forget that freak comment. How about all the people who didn't say anything because they were just quietly happy that Ford is willing to do a gut check and design a car that people might actually not hate to look at? Why not concentrate on their reaction? If Ford is unsure about that they've got with Flex, they're just listening to the wrong people. Here's the truth - Flex may be different, but it's the kind of different that will appeal to a lot of people. It may not be mainstream, but it's not so far outside as to disqualify itself when people put new cars on their shopping list. Really, my dear Fordians, it's OK. Quit saying otherwise. You're making me jumpy. Ah, but here you go again, in the brochure: "It's not for everyone/which makes it just right for you." (These words echo those in the aforementioned news release, which says, "Ford Flex is like no other vehicle on the road today, and that may mean it's not for everyone.") Well, obviously no car is for everyone, but I just don't agree with the implication here. It may just be me, but this reads either as "We're not sure, but we think people who are slightly weird might like this car" or "This is for bold adventurers like you, big guy." Wrong on both counts. The Flex is not so different as to be odd, and neither is it an adventurer's car. It's a car that will let us do what we do with cars - drive to work, the grocery store, and on summer vacation. It will stand up to some towing or hauling work. It will go confidently in all weather. It will not climb a rocky hillside or hit the Rubicon trail. But who cares? You buy the Flex, and you've got a car that will serve you well, make you take a longing look back after you park it, and be an important part of your history when you think back on the era you owned it later on. So if I could sit in a meeting of the Ford big-mucketies, I'd say this: "Relax, guys. Your people have given you something that you can sell." Better yet, if I were Ford, I'd let the Flex sell itself, but I'd point out a couple of things that I think potential buyers might want to hear: You get this car, and you're supporting North American union labor (the assembly plant is Oakville, Ontario), you're refusing to cave in to the me-too-ism of most car companies these days, and you're getting something that has some edge to it while not being silly in a boy-racer kind of way. Maybe that message is just too dull, though, and in fact, the roll-out for the Flex is anything but droll. The marketing campaign involves swanky press junkets (before you get all whiney, I've slept on enough motel room floors and eaten enough cold hot dogs in the service of covering racing and car events to have earned a filet mignon at a fancy Hollywood restaurant) as well as internet content like short films.

For instance, the LA premiere of the car had press people driving around town, stopping at a gallery for a show by young urban artists, and then heading to dinner. The idea they're trying to convey is that Flex is connected with "inspiration and discovery" according to Eric Peterson, Crossover Vehicle Communications Manager. He commented that, "It's not what you will do with Flex we're modeling here, but what you might do with it." I like that - it's kind of like the feeling you get when you're on vacation that life can always have a sense of openness and possibility. I believe that driving something you love makes your life better, and I think Flex is the kind of car to fit that bill, because it's not like everyone else's big car. That feeling is the reason I drive 60s cars most of the time, and it's why you have what you have if you're car crazy. But if you're not driving something that you love, or it's time to trade in your boring-mobile and get something that's both practical (the family angle) and sexy (the urban artist angle), you might want to open your eyes to the Flex. It's not for everyone. So what? It's probably just right for more of us than Ford believes.

FLEX OVERVIEW Brian Kennedy What is it? In marketing-speak, it's a car-based crossover, available in front-wheel or All-Wheel Drive with a six-speed automatic and Duratec 3.5-litre gasoline engine. Flex comes in three trims: SE, SEL, and Limited. AWD is an option on the latter two. You and I might call it a big wagon-like car. And those of us who grew up in a Ford Country Squire might find more than a passing similarity in terms of what the vehicle does. But at the same time, it's much more than the old Ford wagon of your childhood. It's sleek and comfortable and available with goodies that make your dad's deluxe Philco AM-FM radio look just sad. What does it look like? Handsome. Kind of like the child of a Scion XB and a MINI Clubman. Like a lot of American kids these days, though, young Flex has already outgrown his folks, but he retains their winning proportions. It's hard to imagine a more distinct profile and gratifying not to see another Lexus SUV clone. Good on ya, Ford, for inventing a look rather than recycling or copying one. The Flex is 201.8 inches long with a wheelbase of 117.9 inches. It's low rather than tall, standing only 68 inches at roof height. When you see it, you're definitely going to think car, not truck, and that's the whole point. How does it drive? Confidently. It's large, but low, so you get a stable feeling, even around a fast corner. Taking a speed bump at 15mph, the Flex rolls up and over without a whimper from the chassis. In fact, if you're trying to find a word that defines the driving dynamics, "flex" is the last one you'd think of. More like "solid." The engine works well, though at 262hp, it's not going to overwhelm with its power. There will be a towing package available in the fall with a 4500-lb. rating. Taking that to the limit might make the car fell a bit wheezy, but that's just a guess.

How does it work? As a people-hauler, it's got six or seven seats (depending upon whether the second row is configured as a 60/40 bench or optioned with two bucket seats). Your option for hauling is to fold the rear seats (or the rears and middles) flat. The one thing you can't do is remove the third row of seats, but I'm not sure people who have SUVs (which this is not) with removable third rows ever do that, do they? What will you do with Flex? You could drive this car to work and be quite happy playing with its gizmos, including the excellent stereo, really easy-to-use nav system (optional on SEL and Limited), electronic doo-dads, and adjustable everything (including the pedals as part of the Convenience Package or standard if you get the Limited). Or you could use it for road trips. There are four 12-volt power points, ten cupholders, reading lamps for second and third-row passengers, fog lamps, privacy glass (aft of the front doors), and safety features like a safety canopy which rolls down to cover seventy percent of the glass in an accident, and much more. How much will it cost? You can spend twenty-nine thousand bucks and get a nicely equipped SE, or forty-two and get the loaded Limited, which has beautiful perforated leather seats, nav, backup camera, 19-inch wheels, and a long list of other features. When can I grab one? Rollout is on an ongoing basis throughout the summer, with full availability promised in late August. Keep your eye on your Ford dealer's front lot and you'll spot a Flex soon.  

 

 

 

A JOURNAL OF LOS ANGELES & ITS CAR CULTURE

LA Car

That was LA Car's subtitle when it started back in 1997. It's original website address was about five times the size of lacar.com. Since then, La Car became LA Car. Its subtitle became Reporting From Car Culture Ground Zero, then From The Heart of Car Culture, to today's The Cars and Culture of Southern California. At all times, however, we aimed to chronicle the Southland's automotive spirit - much like one's own journal or diary. LA Car has always been a great source to come back to from week-to-week, to see what articles and reviews have been added to our rather staggering database. With Back Seat Driving, a.k.a. BSD (note the similarity to two well-worn abbreviations, BS and BFD) and Live Wires - Hot & Tender News From the Car Culture (co-located with Back Seat Driving, and updated at least daily), we give you some reasons to come back more often (all opinions, by the way, are those of the respective author). So, go ahead and bookmark www.lacar.com. We'll be sure to always provide a link to Live Wires and the latest Back Seat Driving blog entry. In the meantime, welcome to the journal and journey from the heart of the car culture. - Roy Nakano 

For past Blog entries, click the following: June 2008 May 2008 April 2008 March 2008 February 2008 January 2008 December 2007 November 2007 October 2007 September 2007 August 2007 July 2007 June 2007 May 2007 April 2007 March 2007 February 2007 January 2007 December 2006 November 2006 October 2006 September 2006 August 2006 July 2006 June 2006 May 2006 April 2006 March 2006 February 2006 January 2006 December 2005 November 2005 October 2005 September 2005 August 2005 July 2005 June 2005 May 2005 April 2005 March 2005 February 2005 January 2005 December 2004 November 2004 October 2004 September 2004 August 2004 July 2004 June 2004 May 2004 April 2004

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