At the L.A. Auto Show, Luxury’s on a Roll

Times Staff Writer

They are sculptured, expensive, pampered and haughty.

And like all stars attending any international festival, these cosseted cars have been arriving by air from around the world for Saturday’s premiere of the 1989 Greater Los Angeles Auto Show at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

From Crewe, England, where it is crafted alongside the Rolls-Royce, came the new Bentley Turbo R. The car costs $149,000. The British Airways flight cost a mere $12,000.

From West Germany, on a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt, came two new cars by Bitter. One is a prototype four-door sedan. The other is a production two-door convertible. Both are big-ticket and aimed at the consumer who wants a German car that isn’t seen everywhere.


Luxury Four-Wheel Drive

From Italy, aboard Alitalia, came the first of the Laforzas, an upmarket, $43,000, four-wheel drive vehicle. Its manufacturer is hoping to dethrone the British-built Range Rover from its ermine pedestal.

“For nine days we will be spotlighting the products of all manufacturers from all countries,” said Ben Orloff, manager of the Los Angeles show, which now is in its 67th year. “That will translate to 500,000 people examining 650 new cars, trucks and vans at a show that’s a 500,000-square-foot showroom.”

That showroom will also be displaying more first season players than the opening day of spring training.

Toyota’s Lexus and Nissan’s Infiniti lines--luxury boats all--will merge approving glances with glazed stares from customers who never thought they’d see the day when any Japanese car would cost $35,000.

Chevrolet is introducing the Lumina line, a coupe, a four-door sedan and an APV (All-Purpose Vehicle)--a new family of vehicles for families with children, desires for maximum grocery space, multiple entrances and outdoor pursuits.

Geo, the new import sales arm of Chevrolet, is out to snare whatever entry-level motorists might be left over from Hyundai and Daihatsu with the Prizm, a family hatchback expected to sell for less than $10,000.

But it is the high-line cars--the ones we wouldn’t have the gall to drive, even if we had the money to buy--that sell the shows and the visitors.

Such as that 140-m.p.h. Bentley Turbo R, once described by David E. Davis Jr., publisher of Automobile magazine, as the car that will “replace the Ferrari Testarossa and the Lamborghini Countach as the most ‘in’ car in which bicoastal trendies can be seen.”

For the purchase price of a Turbo R, you could buy 20 Plymouth Horizons. Eleven cows gave leather to upholster the Bentley. Its turbocharger was built by Garrett for airplanes. It is the highest combination of elegance and power since elephants wore gold saddles.

But who on Earth--let alone in Beverly Hills--would want such a car? “Merv Griffin, Barbra Streisand, Bijan and Jay Leno all drive Bentleys,” a company spokesman replied.

Off-Road Luxury

The new Laforza (Italian for “strength”) is a rural and off-road luxury vehicle--from leather seats to burled walnut dash and audiophile sound system--that by purpose and $43,000 base price will attempt to give the British-built Range Rover (at $35,800) a tug for its 4WD money.

An Italian-American hybrid, the vehicle is powered by a 5-liter Ford engine installed in the United States. The rolling chassis, body and interior are designed, assembled and shipped by Italian coach builder Pininfarina.

“Range Rover is stately, has heritage, is the queen’s choice and is a superb vehicle in its class,” noted Gene Stinson, senior vice president of Laforza Automobiles Inc., of Hayward and Turin, Italy. “But our buyers will be offered the aerodynamic look and greater luxury in a vehicle with 40% greater carrying capacity, smaller turning circle and a 40% greater towing capacity.”

Bitter is back with the Bitter Type 3, a heftier advertising budget and loftier marketing ideas, in an attempt to find the California niche it has been pursuing since 1985.

“This year we are going from almost total handcrafting to a car that is 50% (machine) production,” explained Jim Reilly, general sales manager for Bitter Automobile Co. of Santa Monica. “As far as price goes ($47,000), we’ll be in the mid-range of manufacturers like Mercedes and BMW. But much better appointed.

“The Germans make great interiors. But they do tend to be a little vanilla. The Bitter has sharp looks on the outside and it’s real sexy. The interior will be African rosewood and Italian glove leather with a Blaupunkt stereo system so a driver can sit in Los Angeles traffic all day and not get bored.”

West German Convertible

The Type 3, manufactured in Schwelm, West Germany, is a two-door convertible with an in-line, six-cylinder engine by Opel. The car develops 210 horsepower and has an estimated top speed of 140 m.p.h.

Porsche will be introducing three new cars to Southern California--an area with a larger Porsche population than all of Germany.

Spotlighted on the main turntable will be the Carrera 4, a $69,500 version and revision of the venerable 911. This one features all-wheel drive and other technological goodies cannibalized from the company’s 959 supercar.

Porsche also will be displaying its S2 Cabriolet ($52,600), a convertible version of the 944, with a new 3-liter engine; and a new 911 Speedster ($65,480) attempting to recapture some of the cheeky elan of the bathtub Porsches of the ‘50s.

Volkswagen is moving deeper into the power picture with a 140-m.p.h. VW Corrado that will replace the Sirocco in the high-performance, small-sedan market.

Audi has a new speed toy for 1989--a four-door, V8 sedan also said to be good for speeds in excess of 140 m.p.h.

Hidden Surprises

High performance, in fact, will be a hallmark of the show. From Ford come the Taurus SHO (for Super High Output) and the supercharged Thunderbird SC (for Super Coupe). From Mitsubishi comes the turbocharged Eclipse that will also be marketed through Chrysler as the Laser. All are sports cars beneath docile duds and capable of 140 m.p.h. and beyond.

Even the beyond will be represented in Los Angeles--as Chevrolet unveils, nay, uncages its Corvette ZR1, a limited-production, specially engineered, heavily armed Top Gun.

This most expensive and fastest Chevrolet ever will go on sale later this year for $50,000. Insurance may be almost as much. The ZR1 is a 180 m.p.h. car.

“It’s the Ferrari of the domestics,” said Mickey Garrett, executive vice president of the Greater Los Angeles Motor Car Dealers Assn., which endorses the show. “Buyers are demanding more horsepower--but from engines that provide good fuel economy--and that trend will be visible at the show.

“Also, there’s definitely a return to the luxury car, especially in Southern California. The Japanese are seeing the importance of that market and you’ll see the Nissan Infiniti and the Toyota Lexus in Los Angeles.”

Deepening Affair

To industry officials such as Garrett, automobiles and their pageants are as endemic to Southern California as sunshine and sushi. And, he says, the love affair is deepening.

“We are predicting that between now and 1994, we will be seeing 50 to 60 new (auto manufacturers’) nameplates,” he said. “Many will be from nations we don’t really associate with automobile manufacturing--Yugoslavia, Spain, Australia and Russia.

“And where will they be hitting first? California.”