Honk if You're Going to L.A. Auto Show

Times Staff Writer

Little known fact: There are more Porsches driving the Los Angeles freeways than you'll find on Autobahns.

Better known fact: More new cars, domestic and imported, are sold in California than in any other state (far ahead of New York, Florida and Texas) and in 1985 those sales represented more than 10% of the national market.

Emerging realization: The Greater Los Angeles Auto Show that today begins an eight-day run at the Convention Center is rapidly accelerating to a unique status among the major auto expositions.

The Chicago show has history. New York has formality. But only the Los Angeles showcase, say car industry watchers, can claim a make-it-or-break-it influence on sales.

New Yorkers Don't Buy

"New York is a madhouse for aspiring buyers," believes Dutch Mandel, West Coast editor for Detroit-based Autoweek magazine, who maintains, nevertheless, that very few New Yorkers actually buy cars. "The only car that interests these people comes in (taxicab) yellow.

"Chicago is a black-tie offering. Los Angeles, however, is jams and tank tops and these people are buying because they're car-conscious."

Climate certainly helps that worship. Particularly the sales of convertibles and sporty cars and high performance sedans that seem to motor much better in soft sunshine. A 25-million-person market doesn't hurt. Especially one geared to three-car (his and hers plus at least one toy) families and daily commutes on a crash-work quilt of freeways.

As Chrysler president Lee Iacocca noted in his best-selling autobiography: "Although the car industry was born in Michigan, it came of age in California. It's been said many times before, but it's worth saying again: California is really the mirror into the future. Sometimes we (auto makers) don't like everything we see . . . but we'd be crazy if we didn't take a good, hard look."

The good, hard looking at this year's Greater Los Angeles Auto Show will be at more than 600 cars, trucks, limousines, replicars, race cars, street rods, antiques born yesterday and concept cars that might not survive tomorrow.

By timing alone, the exhibition has progressed into something of a New Year's rite for Southern Californians window-shopping for wheels. It obviates those periodic crosstown, uptown, downtown treks to cover all dealers. At the show, everything is at one location and the inventory, from cars to car covers, is total.

$169,000 Rolls-Royce

The Yugoslavian-made Yugo will be displayed, and its list price of $3,990 wouldn't even cover the sales tax on the Ferrari Testarossa (at $110,000) that costs more than a six-month vacation in Rome, or the Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible (at $169,000) that costs more than most houses. Contrasting with big-name manufacturers will be the limited, almost custom offerings by builders of speciality cars--from the new Canadian-built Enterra, a two-seat, mid-engined sports car with a sticker price of $25,000, to the latest nouveau classic from Zimmer Motor Cars Corp., the two-seat, etched glass, leather and burled walnut, Gatsby-appointed Quicksilver boulevard cruiser. "The Los Angeles show is a dress rehearsal for the opening night of sales and automotive trends across the country," a spokesman explained. "Here, you'll see a giant like Cadillac starting to shape its new image with an exhibit that includes a concept car, a presidential limousine and the Allante that is ready to compete with the Mercedes luxury market . . . this from a manufacturer that at one time was considered by the automotive press to be staid and unprogressive.

"You'll see the trend toward what are being called pocket rockets, small, high-performance sedans such as the 16-valve Volkswagen Golf. . . .

"But a major appeal of the show is that it is an informal, friendly, family affair where nobody minds if you get into the cars, play with the knobs and look under the hood . . . except with the high-buck cars that have to be coralled to prevent damage."

British Off-Roader

Among more than a dozen model unveilings at the show will be the American introduction of the British Range Rover--an up-market, chic, luxurious 4x4 that could become to American off-roaders what the Burberry raincoat is to those who like to walk wet countrysides.

This aluminum-bodied, V-8 slogger (an aristocratic offspring of the farming, 40-year-old Land Rover that continues to be built) costs $30,000. A price fit for royalty. But then Queen Elizabeth does carry her Corgis aboard a Range Rover.

Fiberglass Fun Car

More down to earth (certainly closer to the average credit union) is the Dallas. It is a fiberglass fun car built in France. It takes the image of a Texas city and a television series. It is seeking an American place in the sports/utility trend currently commanded by the nippy Suzuki Samurai for much the same yen. Or francs. About $6,995 worth.

The Dallas is manufactured by Societe des Automobiles Grandin near Paris, and its stylists must have been heavily impressed by the Willy's Jeeps that liberated the French capital in 1945. California shipments should begin in the spring.

A 'World' Car

Of other debuts and other hybrids:

--August Rover of England is combining the engineering of Japan (an engine from the Acura Legend's 2.5-liter V-6) with the craftsmanship of Britain (leather and wood interior) to create the Sterling 825i sedan. For about $25,000.

--One more step toward the inevitability of a "world" car incorporating international technology and design will be shown by the Pontiac division of General Motors. The new Pontiac Le Mans subcompact for 1988 features a German design and Korean assembly. The name, of course, is French, but its heritage, dealer network and servicing will be all-American.

--Chrysler's new Le Baron convertible, already the official pace car of the 1987 Indianapolis 500, will be unveiled at the show. So will Chevrolet's Beretta and Corsica, five-passenger coupes that look more European than bratwurst. GMC's new pickup, the Sierra, all soft lines and rounded corners, will represent the latest in Detroit trucks.

--Specialty cars. This show division will be crowned by the Presidential Limousine, a Cadillac Brougham (longer than most sailboats at 22 feet) covered with armor and stuffed with writing desks, cellular telephones, a bar, cosmetic console, color television, VCR, mine-proof flooring, anti-explosive gas tank, bullet-proof tires . . . all handcrafted by O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt Armoring Co. of Cincinnati. Similar to President Reagan's limousine (non-partisan Hess & Eisenhardt have been suppliers of limousines to every president since Truman), the car comes with air horns hooked to a device vital for all heads of state. A panic button.

--Sports cars. Le Car hot from Renault this year is l'Alpine, a two-seat, mid-engine car built to take its place with the 1987 generation of sports sedans quite capable, thank you, of topping 150 m.p.h. It'll list for "around $30,000."

--Concept cars. These futurists, an international fleet of rolling science fiction built to preview the designs and engineering of the 1990s, will be led by the Peugeot Proxima. It is testing the feasibility of a 600-horsepower (rear mounted) car with two turbochargers and a swing-up, "Top Gun" canopy befitting a car that looks like a Stealth fighter.

A Dodge Speedster

Dodge will display its 175-m.p.h. PPG M4S, Chevrolet will show off its Corvette Indy with four-wheel steering, a Pontiac Trans Sport will wear gull wings and so does the Oldsmobile Inca. Even doughty Cadillac has a concept car--a convertible advancing to the past by its dual cowl, Phaeton styling of the '30s.

Organizers hold that the appearance of eight concept cars, Friday's media day of back-to-back press conferences and the premieres of 15 new vehicles, is heady proof of the stature of the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show. So are 400,000 people through the doors last year; floor space rationing this year no matter the clout of the manufacturer; and enough exhibits to stuff the Convention Center and all its outbuildings.

"We're using 450,000 square feet and that's all the available space," said Ben Orloff, veteran (since 1961) general manager of the show. "And when the Convention Center is expanded in 1991, we'll need every inch of its 610,000 square feet."

Mickey Garrett, executive director of the 185-member Greater Los Angeles Motor Car Dealers Assn., which endorses the show, said that as far as U.S. auto makers are concerned, "L.A. is the away game of the whole country.

"But it doesn't stop them (Detroit) coming in force. Because if it sells here, it sweeps the country. It's as simple as that."

The Home Field

By the same token, manufacturers and distributors of imported vehicles consider the Los Angeles Auto Show to be their home field.

For although imports fill 28% of the national market, said Jeanne Hoover, director of sales for Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America, they account for more than 50% of new car registrations in California.

"It has reached a point where the imports in California are considered domestic cars," said Christopher Cedergren, an industry analyst with J. D. Powers & Associates of Westlake Village. "Toyota. Nissan. Honda. The names are embedded in the American Way . . . these names are more mom and apple pie than Chevrolet.

The L.A.-Detroit Link

"So Detroit has to start here. That's why Chevrolet is premiering the Beretta car here and why this (Greater Los Angeles) show is where the domestics are really going to pour on the steam."

If there is any consensus, it is that the Greater Los Angeles Show is a fun show; a place for light lunacy and promotions prepared to pivot more on show-biz celebrities than industry brass.

Take Mitsubishi and today's debut of its new line of vans. Only in Los Angeles could they have come up with such a lineup for the launch.

"We've picked celebrities with Van as their names," said Hoover. "That way, you get to meet the van of your choice."

So there's Vanna White on one day and Jerry Van Dyke on another. Then Joan Van Ark and Vanity and football star Vann McElroy.

Mitsubishi could have continued with Van Johnson or Lee Van Cleef or Van Cliburn or even Vanessa Redgrave.

But the final spot on the list was already filled. By Dale Evans.

Show dates are today through Jan. 11 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, 1201 S. Figueroa. Weekday hours, except Wednesday, are 4 to 11 p.m. Wednesday, 1 to 11 p.m. Weekends, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Adults $4, children 12 and under free when accompanied by an adult. For further information, call (213) 748-8531.

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