Cracking Up on Thunder Road

A 300-mile-per-hour, 10-cylinder motorcycle? It seems this clattering metallic nightmare stole the spotlight at the Detroit auto show. Spectators were said to be quivering, no doubt even drooling, at the sight of it. From the photos, it looked to me like a waste-water turbine on wheels, but I confess that I parted company with the auto show crowds years ago.

The ear-splitting detonations of the 500-horsepower engine apparently sent some spectators -- chiefly those evolutionary throwbacks Homo holeintheheadicus -- into full spin as they grabbed for their wallets with both hands. It wasn't enough to see and listen to this macabre "concept" of the future. They wanted to buy one right then: $250K. Yee-haw.

Just think: At last a motorcycle that gets fewer miles per gallon than an SUV! And loud enough to rattle dishes and frighten children all through the neighborhood.

Here, friends, is the glorious metaphor for Detroit's demise.

The Big Three race along at 300 mph on the road to being the Smaller Three.

In case you missed them, 2002 automobile sales figures showed this: North American manufacturers provided an estimated $40 billion in sales incentives to push their iron and still lost market share.

Quite a feat, if you ask me.

How can this be happening? Well, consider the Tomahawk. That's the name Chrysler thought up when it stripped its Dodge Viper of ordinary things like a body, paint, bucket seats, seat belts and stereo CD player. The company bolted some handlebars across the engine and called it transportation. Just what we need, a gas-guzzling motorcycle that can go 40% the speed of sound. What a concept. Good thinking, Chrysler.

You could say the same about the 16-cylinder, 1,000-horsepower "concept" Cadillac that also set the motorheads buzzing at the car show. I added up the horsepower of all the cars that I've owned in my life and I still come up short of a grand. Yet I haven't been late to work in years. Oh well.

Detroit simply cannot understand -- or accept -- that tastes are changing, and changing with the imperatives of the time. Hello, Gulf War? The Mideast? Oil? What in the world are these people thinking?

Yes, there remains a market for the absurd, as anyone in California can attest. But with its troubles, you'd think Detroit would be absorbed with mainstream tastes, not the nitwit niches.

I have seen a man riding a V-8 engine made into a motorcycle, and all I can say is he looked as natural as a fellow astride his washer and dryer.

But, of course, this is about image. The dreams that cars still, sort of, evoke. Detroit still argues against every advance in safety or mileage standards on grounds that consumers choose best. At the same time, of course, the industry continues to spend millions trying to shape our tastes so we'll choose big.

It's not working. But the Smaller Three cannot break the habit of trying to compensate in torque and gross tonnage what they cannot hold onto in customers.

The car shows in Detroit and Los Angeles are places where manufacturers let us peek into their imaginations. We see the year ahead and supposedly the fashion trends for the years beyond.

So what is emphasized in the face of a looming war in the Mideast and rising foreign competition at home? More cylinders.

Detroit is still foolishly glamorizing muscle -- only now to absurd extremes. It's not spotlighting cars that people drive. It's hyping vehicles that shouldn't even be on the highway. Here is what GM says about the "aggressive stance" of its 3 1/2-ton Hummer: "Created to allow it go places cars and trucks just aren't supposed to go."

What a concept. Apply that standard to airplanes and we'd have submarines.

If you read the second paragraph of the 2002 auto sales reports, you see that most Asian manufacturers did not match Detroit on 0% financing or other come-ons but still gained overall market share in the U.S.

My colleagues who cover the auto business note that Detroit commanded about 72% of the U.S. market only six years ago. Last year, the share was down to 62%, and analysts say the Smaller Three are looking at the possibility of dipping below 50% within five years. After that? Well, you have to wonder how far behind you can fall with 10 cylinders at Mach 0.4.

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