WARREN, Mich. — It was once a white Acura Legend, Japan's most expensive and glamorous automotive export. Designed to fly down the highways and byways of America, it could have sleekly satisfied the upscale tastes of some yuppie in California or New York.
But it never got the chance. Instead, coldly, mercilessly, like a frog in a high-school biology class, this brand new car has been ripped apart, its parts now spread out for intimate viewing by dispassionate engineers in a drafty old warehouse here.
Today, this unrecognizable pile of Japanese steel, with all of its glamour gone, is just one of 13 automotive subjects under scrutiny by General Motors engineers in a massive hall hidden away in the back of the General Motors Technical Center in suburban Detroit.
Call it GM's "Intelligence Center."
Officially, it bears a different name of course, one better suited to the strait-laced world of General Motors. But while GM executives may call this their "Vehicle Assessment Center," there is no mistaking its real purpose: This is where GM tears apart its competitors' cars to spy on the enemy.
Fender by fender, crankshaft by crankshaft, even bolt by bolt, the center's staffers dissect the latest Hondas and BMWs, Fords and Porsches--and any other new cars they can get their hands on. Then, they splay out the contents in seemingly endless rows for up-close and personal inspection by as many as 19,000 GM managers, designers and engineers each year.
Here, the purpose is for the men and women working on GM's next generation of cars and trucks to get a very palpable sense of the opposition before returning to their drafting computers to do battle once more.
Here, as they walk past the center's long tables, loaded down with forged metal and molded plastic parts from Nagoya and Stuttgart, they can put their hands around a Toyota transmission, or a Mercedes dashboard display, and feel both the physical and the intangible factors that make the imports such formidable foes. Often, the innards of a competing GM car are on display nearby for a quick comparison.
And here, finally, arguments are settled.
"It's pretty difficult for an engineer to argue that something can't be done if you can bring him down here and show him that it is already in production on somebody else's car," says Donald Runkle, GM's director of advanced vehicle engineering, who oversees the center.
GM has been ripping open its competitors' cars at least since the early 1960s, back when GM's only real competition was just across town, not across the oceans. But the company didn't get really serious about the practice until the early 1980s, when the Japanese onslaught finally forced the company to take its quality problems more seriously.
15 Cars a Year
So to better understand just where it really stood on quality and technology, GM opened this center in 1983, and turned what had been an informal process into a highly detailed, systematic approach to industrial voyeurism.
Now, the center's half a dozen staffers, most of whom are car buffs on a dream assignment, rip up and display on their long tables as many as 15 new cars a year; choosing carefully, of course, to slice and dice only those that are of some technical interest to the thousands of GM engineers who use the center.
But to find the cars carrying the latest applications of new technology from Japan, West Germany and all points in between sometimes takes some doing.
Paul Klauer, the center's taciturn, German-born superintendent, is constantly scouring obscure Japanese, British and German car enthusiast magazines, looking for products that have not yet hit the American market, but which might be equipped with something of interest to GM engineers. He doesn't bother with American car magazines--"by the time it hits them, it's too late," says Klauer.
When he hears of an obscure car he wants to check out, Klauer calls on GM's overseas offices to track down, buy and ship two--one to be torn open and one for engineers to test drive.
And sometimes he comes up with unheard of automotive nuggets that pique the curiousity of even the most seasoned GM hands.
Take, for instance, the Midas Gold, which Klauer has just received: a British, limited-edition, plastic-bodied two-seater that customers must build from kits. Klauer says that while its major internal components are well-known to GM--it is built with Morris Minor parts--its composite plastic exterior is intriguing.
Or take the 1988 Mazda Capela CG, a right-drive version of Mazda's 626 line sold only in Japan. GM engineers wanted to get to the bottom of Mazda's four-wheel-steering package on its 1988 cars as early as possible, so Klauer sent away to Japan, where Japanese auto makers typically introduce new models first.
Mostly Mass-Volume Cars
Or try something even more exotic, like a Subaru Justy with a gearless transmission designed to reduce wear and improve fuel efficiency--a technology that doesn't exist yet on cars produced in the United States.