Visionary vehicles

Jan 19, 2000 at 12:00 am

Vrrooooming with excitement, the Lizard of Fun has donned a pair of black leather driving gloves and a bright NASCAR jacket with an M&Ms logo. "Whoo-hoo baby!" it shouts, waving a pair of Auto Show tickets. "We’re gonna go check out the latest models, scope the hottest bodies!"

"I had no idea you were so geeked about cars," I say, as we bundle into my beat-up old red Geo.

"Cars?" says the Lizard, baffled. "I’m talking about the spokesbabes."

"Agh," I say, and we head to Cobo Center for our yearly dose of shiny metal and new-car aroma. Never mind that neither the Lizard nor I could afford any of this year’s vehicles. Never mind that the Geo, for all its clunks and quirks, doesn’t really need to be replaced. Never mind that it’s impossible to find parking once we get downtown.

"Never mind that," says the Lizard. "You go get us a primo spot for one of those song-and-dance numbers. I’ll take care of stowing this sucker."

"Okay," I say, dubiously, and relinquish the wheel to the Lizard. "But put another dent in the door and I’ll turn you into a purse and a matching pair of shoes, you hear?"

Wandering onto the show floor, I notice a video screen which announces interesting facts about the show, such as this tidbit: The value of the exhibition, not including the price of the cars, is about $350 million.

"Yum – what I couldn’t do with a windfall like that," says the Lizard, who’s caught up to me and is reading over my shoulder, a tinge of drool audible in its voice.

"That was fast," I say, impressed. "Find a good parking spot?"

"Amazingly," says the Lizard. "Real close. Just swooped on in. Do I rule or what?"

"Cool. Whatever. So, just think what Detroit would look like if that much money was spent on the city itself instead of on these displays."

The Lizard grins. "I can see it now. One day, the car show will be so big, it won’t fit in Cobo anymore. They’ll have to do just that: Make the city into one big auto show. At least it’ll be shinier!"

Searching for shiny, we wander past huge clusters of car lovers hovering around the new Avalanche, a kind of sport-utility pick-up, and the new PT Cruiser panel van, a vehicle you could imagine as a sort of ZZ Top-esque retro minihearse.

"Awright, awright, so they’re cool, they’re sparkly, but doesn’t it seem like the car industry is kind of running out of new ideas?" says the Lizard, kicking the tires of yet another pick-up.

"Sport-utes, truck-utes, sport-utility cars, car-trucks, truck-cars, hell, what’s this but an updated El Camino?"

The Lizard points at the shiny Honda Spoket and shakes its head sadly. "I’ve got my silver jumpsuit – albeit a Frederick’s of Hollywood version – now where are the rocket cars?"

We climb a set of stairs, past a cool-looking orange and white concept car that a passer-by calls a "Popsicle-mobile," and when we reach the top, we come upon a breathtaking surprise.

"Now these make me believe it’s the Year 2000," says the Lizard, bowing down in awe before a trio of concept cars from Ford. Dubbed the 24-7 series, they look like the result of an iMac-fueled merger between Ford and IKEA, boxy but shiny and distinct. The taillights look like LEDs. The headlights look like florescent lamps. They’re incredible. "Forget those SUV dinosaurs and those pseudo-retro coupes," says the Lizard. "This is the automotive future."

We peer in wonder through the cars’ open doors. Their pale citron-colored seats look like they could take us to dinner at the Jetsons’. The dashboard, instead of gauges and dials, is a sleek computer screen which displays maps, images, even fuel and speedometer readings.

Richard Pelletier, the series’ interface designer, lets us sit in the car as he explains how it recognizes your voice, responds to instructions, and even connects to the Web. It’s like a computer you can go places in.

"I want one," says the Lizard. "Now."

But alas, it doesn’t look like Ford is quite ready to mass-produce these gems. "Is there a waiting list? Please?" the Lizard wonders. "This beats the tie-dyed pants off the New Bug."

"These concept cars are the best part of the show," I agree, pointing to another people-car cluster. "Let’s go check out that one in the middle of the fuss over there."

Suddenly, the Lizard becomes agitated.

"What’s the matter?" I ask, but the Lizard pushes me aside.

"Umm, nothing," it says, its voice rising to a squeak.

I look over the Lizard’s shoulder as it’s pushing me out of the way. The concept car looks suspiciously like a beat-up red Geo. Hmmm.

"So," says the Lizard, brightly. "Whatdya think they charge for parking in here, anyway?"