A Magazine Time Machine
By Chris Haak
One of the last times I visited my parents this past summer, they gave me a large plastic bin full of old automotive-related magazines. Titles include Autoweek, Motor Trend, and Car and Driver, and they appear to be mostly of the 1996-1997 vintage. I don’t know what possessed me to keep these magazines after reading them – I haven’t ever referred to them in the ensuing decade, and after I read my current magazines, they are recycled or thrown away.
Nevertheless, over the past few days, I’ve been gradually making my way through these old magazines one more time before they hit the garbage can. It’s been pretty interesting to have ten more years of automotive history, the seeming dominance of import brands, a horsepower war, high gas prices, and more happen to change my perspective on vehicles that I believed were at the top of their game in 1996 and 1997. Humorously, I wasn’t the only one who believed this.
The September 16, 1996 Autoweek has an article about the then-new Chevy Venture, Pontiac Trans Sport, and Oldsmobile (remember them?) Silhouette. Even GM fans can’t stand these vans in their current, completely uncompetitive iteration, but eleven years ago, Autoweek said things like, “despite the four-door configuration, the body-structure has tremendous integrity. There is a solidness that will be benchmarked by other minivan makers” and “these vehicles’ handling is best among minivans, bar none.” But my favorite line was, “a rear overhead console, with headphone jacks for the rearmost passengers, and separate climate controls, are other nice touches, though a tug on the headphone cord brought the whole thing down. A Chevy engineer promised that a fix has been made using metal fasteners.”
Erick Nacke, of the Great Lakes Road Racing Association, tells of a group of Chrysler execs, engineers, and suppliers riding Ninjas at a recent superbike racing school. Who won most improved? Bob Lutz, of course. “We didn’t know who he was–some silver-haired guy who was ripping it up. He was the only one who followed instructions to a tee. If we’d said, ‘ride with one hand on your helmet and both feet up in the air,’ he’d have done it. And by the end, he was the only one who dragged his knee through a turn.”
That’s a funny visual, and in the photo of Mr. Lutz accompanying that snippet, he looks very much the same as he does today, eleven years later. The accompanying photo here is just an artist’s conception of what Mr. Lutz would look like atop a Ninja.
The February 17, 1997 Autoweek has a first test of the Oldsmobile Intrigue, which to me was always the best-looking, most-capable of the GM W-body midsize cars built from 1988 to present. Again, the article’s perspective was interesting: “The Intrigue is destined to be the division’s volume leader and the true test of whether Olds has succeeded in recasting itself” and “GM expects to sell hundreds of thousands of Intrigues against the toughest competition going – imports.” Well, it wasn’t, and unfortunately it didn’t. I don’t have access to 1997 and 1998 calendar year sales results, but in 1999 and 2000, the Intrigue was not Oldsmobile’s volume leader – that title fell to the smaller and less expensive Alero, which nearly doubled the Intrigue’s sales figures in 2000 (122,722 versus 64,109). Intrigue sales only made up about 30% of Oldsmobile sales in 1999 and 2000, while Alero sales made up between 42% and 57%. While the division may have sold hundreds of thousands of Intrigues cumulatively (likely just barely; Olds sold only 209,365 Intrigues from 1999 through 2004; the car was sold for about 18 months that aren’t included in that figure from summer 1997 through December 1998), it’s safe to say that it didn’t help to stem Oldsmobile’s slide into oblivion, with the last Oldsmobile rolling off the line in 2004. Also, the plan to “make cars with an international flair to draw import intenders into Oldsmobile dealerships” sounds eerily similar to GM’s current plan for Saturn.
The next issue of Autoweek, dated February 24, 1997, introduces BMW’s “new navigation system,” available as a $2,990 option in the 528 models and $2,800 option in V8 5-Series and all 7-Series models. The article basically introduces readers to the concept of the now-familiar in-dash navigation system (this was before BMWs had the iDrive interface for navigation; instead, a small rotary knob next to the screen is used to enter inputs. The worst part of this early navigation system is that the map data is stored on nine CD-ROMs rather than a single DVD, or even a hard disk, as modern systems use. BMW’s system in 1997 could automatically dial 911 or BMW roadside assistance in the event of emergency; it’s a shame such functionality seems to be available in few cars today except those equipped with OnStar.
The March 24, 1997 Autoweek said that the Jeep Dakar concept vehicle, which was a hardtop four-door Wrangler, was approved for production, according to supplier sources. It was intended as an upscale partner for the Wrangler in the Jeep lineup. As it turned out, of course, it took until 2007 for Jeep to actually introduce a four door Wrangler, and it’s Chrysler’s hottest product. Some of the Dakar concept’s styling cues did make it to the production Jeep liberty a few years later, but given the success of the four door Wrangler today, imagine how well the Dakar might have sold even in the SUV-crazed late 1990s.
Speaking of Jeep-like vehicles, the November 4, 1996 Autoweek had two notable Toyota SUVs profiled. Most Jeep-like of these was a 1958 Toyota FJ25 Land Cruiser, which looks strikingly similar to a 1940s-vintage US military Jeep. Compared to a 1997 Land Cruiser, the 1958 FJ25 was 40 inches shorter and 8 inches narrower! Toyota only imported 61 vehicles to the US in 1958, but a California man (of course!) bought the one featured in Autoweek new to use for duck hunting trips, and traded it in decades later for a new Land Cruiser with 93,000 miles on the odometer. Toyota later acquired it, restored it, and kept it in its permanent collection.
The other Toyota off roader featured was a Japanese military vehicle called the Mega Cruiser, which bore a striking resemblance to the AM General Hummer favored by the US military. The Mega Cruiser was built to order; Toyota only sold 47 of them through the first seven months of 1996, for example. The truck had all the equipment needed for a credible (but large) off roader, except that its 6,283 pounds were moved solely by a 4.1 liter intercooled turbodiesel, rated for 155 horsepower and 282 lb-ft of torque. The seating arrangements were certainly peculiar; two front buckets separated by an enormous transmission tunnel (as in the Hummer H1), two outboard bucket seats in the second row, with a two person bench between them (meaning it had a seating capacity of six). The price in late 1996 was $87,454.
Several issues, including the March 17, 1997 Autoweek, mentioned Nissan’s Z-car factory restoration program. During the Z’s hiatus (Nissan stopped importing new 300ZXs to the US in the mid-1990s), Nissan contracted with Pierre’Z Service Center in Hawthorne, California to completely disassemble and refurbish 1970-1972 240Zs back to factory specifications. Literally every nut and bolt was removed, yet pricing was supposed to only start “above $20,000.” That doesn’t sound bad to me for a “new” classic car. If I was in the market for a collector car like an original Z-car a decade ago, it would have been really neat to get a Nissan-certified one like these, although I believe that the program was ended after only a few dozen cars were restored.
In the April 7, 1997 issue of Autoweek, the then-new (two generations ago as of today) 1997 Camry CE was featured in an Autofile. Thinking of current criticisms of the Camry – that it’s too soft, too much of an appliance, that it is favored by an older demographic – made me chuckle at a few quotes: “The Camry is so smooth and seamless that it could be the ultimate automotive appliance” and “The five-speed [manual], now available with the optional V6, is Toyota’s first step toward cultivating a crop of more youthful Camry buyers. There were also several mentions of Toyota’s cost control efforts in that generation Camry; the Yen’s relative strength to the dollar at the time made things very tricky for Japanese automakers in the US. It seems that, other than the Camry SE (and the SE, the sportiest Camry, is not available with a manual transmission), Toyota still hasn’t really made much of an effort to cultivate a performance image around the Camry. That hasn’t really slowed sales, though, as the car continues to shatter sales records even a decade later.
I hope you enjoyed this stroll through a slice of the automotive world as it was ten years ago. The lesson I’ve taken from reading these old magazines is that what was once considered good, might now considered bad if it’s not regularly updated. Expectations are constantly being elevated, and automakers cannot rest on their laurels.
There are still more magazines in the bottom of my closet, so if others find this as interesting/amusing as me, I may do another article of this type.
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