Planes, Trains and Automobiles
(Filed from Chicago, Illinois at 7:10 a.m. on February 11, 2000)
Day 1: Fen and I fly to Chicago via United Airlines. We're seated in one of those rows with extra leg room and tray tables that store inside the seat's armrest. When I pull mine out, it's lopsided -- precariously so. Fen goes for his and finds it woefully tilted as well. The flight attendant soon pays us a visit, "meals" in hand.
"Um, is there any way you can straighten out my table?" I inquire. "I'm afraid my meal is going to slide off."
"What you see is what you get," the flight attendant sniffs. So much for the friendly skies.
The skies are clear upon our arrival in Chicago, no small feat for a Monday in February. First order of business is pizza. Deep dish pizza. The kind of stuff I've never had in Chicago since I've never been to Chicago. We head over to Gino's East Pizzeria, an East-coast-looking pizzeria started by two cabbies and a pal in 1969. Apparently this threesome wanted to escape rush-hour traffic so they started flipping pies in an old downtown storefront which has since been subsumed by the Magnificent Mile, a retail row populated by the likes of Tiffany and Bloomingdale's. Fen and I order the Gino's Supreme, a pan o'pie laden with sausage, onion and green pepper in addition to the customary tomato and cheese. We request fresh garlic for good measure. Our waiter tells us that this pizza is going to take a good long while, since it's a labor of love and all that. No probs, we split a salad first and down a quick brew. When our pie finally does arrive, it's piping hot and loaded with cheese -- and the other good stuff, too. The verdict: delicious crust, delectable cheese and delightful flavors. The only bad news is that Gino's is leaving its (charmingly) graffiti-laden location for newer digs come March since the building has been condemned. Condemned to a Cartier, perhaps? Fen seems oblivious to this impending doom as he doodles on one of those paper placemats that have fill-in-this-'n-that games for kids. I notice my guy is quite proficient at drawing tomatoes and onions. We finish our beer and head out into the windy Chicago night, thankful for those two cabbies (and their pal) who thought rush-hour traffic was a real drag.
* * * * *
Day 2: We skip breakfast in favor of a ride on the El, Chicago's elevated train. Fen would ordinarily choose food over a train but me, I have another agenda. I've spent years seeing the El on TV and in the movies. Nurse Hathaway, for one, was forever being walked to the El by the gorgeous Dr. Ross on "ER" -- sheesh, that's where they had their most meaningful conversations! I decide I need a bit of this El stuff myself.
Fen and I walk from our lakeside hotel over to the Loop, Chicago's financial and business district. Trains criss and cross overhead, and I quickly surmise that they are running in one continous loop around this part of town. It also appears that the orange, purple and brown lines are all running on the same track so we step up, buy our tickets and decide to take the first train that arrives. I'm astounded by the proximity of the El to the buildings all around. It would appear that someone riding the train could raise a toast, turn a tight corner and clink glasses with someone hanging out a downtown window.
The purple train arrives first so we jump on. I giggle and fidget all at once and turn my head in every direction, not wanting to miss one bit of the El.
"It's only a train, you know," Fen says. And I do know that, yet this train seems so much more romantic . The El creaks and shrieks and groans down the track, soon banking for a sharp ninety-degree turn to the right. Whooo-ooo-oooosh! I'd swear the people in the building to my right stared right at me. The train makes its first stop, unloading a few passengers and taking on a handful more. We go perhaps another three blocks, my eyes taking in the people down below and the sights all around. My very own elevated carriage. Stop #2 is quicker, with only a couple new passengers hopping on board. Crrr-rrr-whoom ! As we approach what appears to be the next stop a woman's voice booms from above.
"ALL PASSENGERS MUST GET OFF AT THE NEXT STOP. THIS WILL BE THE LAST STOP ON THIS TRAIN. THIS TRAIN IS GOING OUT OF SERVICE AT THIS TIME."
Now wait a minute! This would never happen in the movies. Fen puts his arm around the forlorn me and tries to be comforting.
"Hey, it was a really good ride, huh?"
You bet it was.
* * * * *
Day 3: Fen and I have obtained press passes for the Chicago Auto Show, one of the nation's oldest (and certainly the largest) auto shows. Our mission over the next two days is to get the inside poop on new cars, new and not-so-new car companies and the people who make it all happen. First order of business on our jam-packed media calendar is a breakfast sponsored by DaimlerChrysler, that one-word marriage of German styling and American engineering -- or is it the other way around? No matter, for the folks at DC have put together a most interesting program.
Today's talk is about Chrysler's Fit for a Kid campaign, a program which will check (for free) to see that parents have installed their child's car seat(s) properly. Senior VP Susan Cischke proceeds to tell us that there's an 80% chance that parents have put a safety seat in wrong, yet 96% of parents believe they've done it right! Chrysler, we learn, has led the way in many car safety innovations, among them front-shoulder harnesses in seat belts. With Fit for a Kid, Chrysler is committing ten million dollars so that its five-star dealers around the country (about 400 of them) can inspect car safety seats. Chrysler also intends to open this safety inspection program to all car makes and to broaden it to many more dealers.
So when the Chrysler guy tells you that you've installed your child seat wrong and puts it in the right way for you and further tells you that he just may have saved your kid's life...okay, who will YOU buy your next car from? I conclude that Ms. Cischke has a deft marketing touch and her heart in the right place. If Chrysler saves only one child's life with Fit for a Kid, this program will have been well worth its while.
Next stop is Toyota, where Group Vice President Donald Esmond informs us that his company sold more passenger cars than Chevrolet last year.
"Why is everyone always picking on Chevy?" I ask Fen. He shrugs his shoulders.
Mr. Esmond, natty in his charcoal-gray suit and silver-gray hair, also tells us that Camry is the number one-selling car in the U.S., a statistic that baffles me -- that car is a box. Although Camry rules, at least in Toyota's world, the automaker has decided that it needs to compete in the truck market to really win.
"This is the year of the truck and SUV," Mr. Esmond tells us, and he proceeds to introduce a series of shiny, curvy and utterly hip trucks on stage in a scene right out of "The Price Is Right." I hear about 4 x 4's with a 150-horsepower engine. Optional superchargers. Gleaming silver paint. Gorgeous gold.
"You can go from mild to wild," Esmond intones in his Bob Barker best.
Sold. I want the 4 x 4 in gold.
We move from Toyota to Saab, where company president Dan Chasins is introducing Gary Fisher, the bicycle god. Fisher, who hails from Northern California, is resplendent in a gray suit with purple trim, trim goatee tickling his chin. On this morning, Saab is introducing a limited edition Saab 9-5 Gary Fisher Edition. This sleek Saab comes equipped with a bike rack and a high-performance Gary Fisher bike for those times when you don't need to put pedal to the metal. Saab, of course, must hope that those times will be few and far between. Nonetheless, Fisher is talking bikes and hikes along the Marin coast while Chasins answers reporters' questions about Saab's purchase by GM and whether the Detroit automaker is really committed to the Saab brand. In the distance I see a fleet of athlete/models standing next to Gary Fisher bikes while another group of healthy young things mixes up fruit smoothies for the athlete in all of us. Forget the Toyota truck, I want a Gary Fisher Saab.
Auto king GM is up next, and as we enter the ballroom where they will do their thing my ears are nearly blown into the next county.
"They all believe in loud music," one wag tells me. "The louder the music, the better you're supposed to believe their product will be."
I try to get zen as Wayne Cherry, GM's VP of Design and Development, steps on stage to talk about a couple of concept cars that he will be introducing us to this morning. Concept cars, I quickly learn, are the brainchild of car designers who are allowed to run wild with their minds. What would I want if I could have anything? is part and parcel the designer's mantra. And most concept cars do combine flash, sass and a stroke of brilliance, which is probably why they are rarely built.
GM first introduces the Pontiac Piranha, a car with the pop-up sensibility of a tent. There's a mesh sun roof which zips back, a pop-out storage basket in the trunk, fold-down-flat rear seats and front seats which snap into place or pop right out for a day at the beach. This car is a Pop Tart to me, purple and sweet yet with a naughty demeanor.
Concept car number two is the Chevy Traverse, "a car you can feel comfortable driving in today's truck-dominated market," Cherry tells us. It looks a bit like a Saab to me but then GM owns Saab and there may be some cross-pollination here I don't know about. No matter, for the Traverse has an on-board computer with Internet access, seats that slide way up and way back and a rear hatch and tail gate for "truck-like sensibility." But wait, I thought this car was supposed to get me away from today's truck-dominated market? I decide that GM needs to do away with acronyms like SUV in favor of APV -- the All-Purpose Vehicle. Then they won't have to categorize themselves at all. Or maybe the car/truck combo of the future will simply be called a cruck.
Mazda has the unenviable task of following GM's sound and fury but I quickly learn they've got a rhythm of their own. Jay Amastoy, VP of Public and Government Affairs for Mazda, starts off by introducing the latest special edition Mazda Miata, a mahogany-colored beaut with a nifty detachable hard top. It's stunning and shiny and only 3,000 of them will be made. Oh how I wish I could have one! VP Amastoy then hands the mike over to VP of Marketing and Sales Stephen O'Dell, who introduces Mazda's strategic partnership with the Surfrider Foundation, a non-profit geared toward protecting the nation's waterways. The Surfrider's surfer-in-charge makes an impassioned plea for rivers and beaches and I find myself grateful that Mazda has taken him under their wing. The surfer exits stage left and is followed by Mr. Kobayakawa of Mazda's Japan home office, who Mr. O'Dell introduces as "Kobe-san." This immediately flashes me back to Richard Chamberlain's "Anjin-san" in the TV miniseries "Shogun" of years ago.
Kobe-san's mission is to introduce Mazda's latest concept car, the Nextourer. The Nextourer is also a cruck, even if the folks at Mazda won't say so. The car's design philosophy, Kobe-san tells us, is "contrast in harmony." Read: cruck. And quite the cruck it is. I learn that the Nextourer is the size of a Mazda 626 sedan but with more interior area than either a Lexus or Mercedes S series. You can open the tailgate either part way or all the way and create a completely flat storage space with the push of a button. The car's V-6, Kobe-san continues, is the "best combination between performance, pure economy and exhaust emissions." And! The Nextourer can move up and down, not unlike a low-rider, for easy ingress and egress.
"I'll now hand it over to Watanabe-san," Kobe-san concludes, and with a quick flourish hands the mike over to a slight fellow who looks all of about twelve.
"Thank you, Kobe-san," Watanabe-san mutters. Watanabe-san is from Mazda's Research and Development Center in Yokohama, where he has spent the last thirteen years designing cars. He's also not terribly fluent in English. He gamely describes the cameras in the Nextourer which can see through fog along with the car's 7.5 inch screen which can accomodate DVD, email and the Internet. There's also a rear-seat entertainment console for kids and an air-conditioning system which can be adjusted for different regions of the vehicle. The key for the Nextourer is a metal-strip card which remembers your seat position and probably other things you'd just as soon it forgot.
"Pretty cool car," Fen says. I have to agree.
We visit Nissan next, which has both pulsating music and a light show. Jerry Hirschberg, President of Nissan Design International, hops on stage to talk about the 2001 Nissan Frontier two-cab pickup truck. The model we see on stage is a metallic baby blue.
"This is a facelift project," Hirschberg tells us, referring to the re-do of the Frontier truck. "It's unusual to be standing in front of you for a facelift, but this truck didn't have a lot of testosterone -- now it's ballsier, if you will." The man from Nissan seems to catch the weight of his words and quickly scrambles to introduce the truck's designer, a woman, Diane Allen. Ms. Allen expounds on the truck's higher hood as well as wheel wells which have large bolts going all around them. Manly touches, for sure. Plus bigger head lamps.
"Notice the robust quality of the sweep," Ms. Allen tells us. "We were thinking THICK with this vehicle..."
In the informal press conference which follows every manufacturer's song-and-dance I take a moment to ask Mr. Hirschberg if Nissan designs any trucks with a woman in mind -- someone like me.
"This truck WAS designed with a woman in mind!" Mr. Hirschberg proclaims.
Fen and I wrap up our afternoon of press briefings with a party sponsored by the folks at DaimlerChysler. Dubbed "DCompression," this corporate lounge act is designed to promote relaxation. A huge ballroom has been decked out in blue from top to bottom -- ceilings and walls are swathed in silky blue fabric, blue martinis are being poured and auto execs and press alike are invited to inhale scented oxygen, some of it blue. That last part baffles me. Hors d'ouevres, and their servers, float about the room, although many of the attendees have forsaken food in favor of a chair massage or a rub of the feet. Northern Californians that we are, Fen and I quickly relax into this vibe. I can't help but notice, however, that the folks from Detroit are still a bit stiff.
"Nothing that a little blue oxygen can't cure," Fen grins.
* * * * *
Day 4: GM opens the festivities with a breakfast fit for a king. There's both an omelette station and a pancake station here, something I hear about from Fen, who doesn't miss either. I barely eat my own food since I'm smitten by the two trucks on stage, the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra. Their fine lines and solid form are a testament to good ol' American ingenuity. The twin trucks positively gleam .
"I used to own a 1973 Chevy 3/4-ton pickup truck," I tell my tablemate, an employee of GM. "I even drove it down to Mexico City and back." He smiles.
I decide that the Gary Fisher Saab isn't quite what I need, nor is the mahogany Miata. For me, it's always been about trucks. Chevy trucks, in particular. Although I'm certainly willing to listen to what the folks at kissin' cousin GMC have to say.
(The Chicago Auto Show, the country's largest car show, takes place over ten days in February. Expect every major manufacturer, both foreign and domestic, to be on hand with their latest and greatest. Auto shows are staged in most larger U.S. cities, with the majority taking place during the first four months of the year.)
© 2000 Elaine Sosa
San Francisco, California
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