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Industry News | The Highway 1 List

An Off-center Look At Southern California And The Car

November 19, 1998|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's Wisdom in Age: Yutaka Katayama, the 89-year-old patriarch of Nissan's U.S. operations, is the father of the Z car, which Nissan killed in 1996 as prices topped $40,000 and sales plunged. But much as he loves the cars, says the real "Mr. K" (Katayama is the inspiration for the popular Mr. K character in Nissan ads), the last Z he owned was a 1980 model. Why nothing since? "They got too big and too complicated after that," he tells The Times. "We need to come back to simpler cars for common people, not just cars for the rich."

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Another Big Three Takeover? The usual assortment of hot-rodded Hondas, nifty Nissans and turboed Toyotas were there. And VW's New Beetle was literally swarming, with nearly 50 tricked-out versions of the Bug among the more than 300 customized cars and trucks on display at the recent Specialty Equipment Market Assn. convention in Las Vegas. But the vehicles of choice were from General Motors, which was a big sponsor of the automotive aftermarket trade show. And Ford had a ton of stuff there, as did Chrysler. In fact, some of SEMA's members were heard to grumble that the Big Three, with just under 10% of the display space at the huge show, seem intent on stealing away an event that is dedicated to promoting the glories of the thousands of businesses that make things to put on and in cars and trucks after they come off the factory floor.

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Gee, No, Says GM: Actually, the car makers' big presence at the show this year is good news for the aftermarket--and for auto enthusiasts in general--says GM President Rick Wagoner. He predicts a day, dawning sooner rather than later, when the car factories will work with the aftermarket and rapidly create scores of niche vehicles to serve every taste and budget. And with cars lasting longer--only one in 15 on the road today is a new vehicle--the aftermarket could play a key role in what Wagoner sees as the "used chic" movement, in which people who want to freshen the look and performance of their older cars and trucks will turn to the specialty equipment market "to accessorize."

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Another Honest Moment: We opened with some frank remarks from an industry icon, so why not close on an above-board note as well? Charles Blum, executive director of SEMA, is head cheerleader for an industry that rang up $19.3 billion in retail sales this year and has been growing almost four times faster than the national economy overall. The aftermarket industry's success certainly shows that we love our cars and trucks: All that money wasn't spent on stuff anyone had to have. SEMA's members make things like fancy wheels and speed equipment and colored radiator hoses. Says Blum: "Face it: 99% of the products our members sell serve a want, not a need."

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Not Your Granddad's Lexus: The oversize wheels, vinyl graphics, custom grille, lowered stance, flared wheel wells, spoiler and aerodynamic body kit on this Lexus LS 400 (pictured) show what the automotive specialty equipment market is all about. Not visible is all the work done in the interior, under the hood and tothe exhaust and suspension systems. The car was prepared by Stella Technologies Inc. in Murrieta in Riverside County. The company, founded in 1995 by Miya Sasaki, who says she grew up in a car-oriented family, designs and manufactures urethane "ground effects" kits that add aerodynamic styling to production cars.

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