Chicago Auto Show

N ew and far-from-new vehicles peacefully existed side-by-side at the 99th Chicago Auto Show, held Feb. 9-18 at the McCormick Place complex at the lake front on the city’s south side.

While dazzling concept vehicles, nearly a thousand 2007 and 2008 models from manufacturers around the world and a sprinkling of vintage and racing machines attracted a million-plus visitors during the run, perhaps the biggest news and surprise was a trio of face-lifted products from the Ford Motor Co., which got new/old nameplates attached as the result of an apparent last-minute decision.

 It was announced that the 2008 Ford Five Hundred sedan, introduced the month before at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, would now be named the Taurus. Expanding the submake, the 2007 Ford Freestyle SUV will now be the 2008 Taurus Z, and the 2007 Mercury Montego sedan would be transformed into the 2008 Sable.

 Taurus bowed in 1985 as a 1986 model, and production was discontinued last November. It spent its final two model years as a fleet-only model. Sable also bowed as a 1986 model and was last seen in the 2005 lineup.

 Five Hundred, Montego and Freestyle are all assembled in Chicago.

 “The truth is, only four in ten people are aware there’s a car called the Ford Five Hundred, and the numbers are even lower for the Ford Freestyle and Mercury Montego,” said Mark Fields, Ford Motor Co. President of the Americas.

 “Clearly, something is wrong. The Taurus name today is still recognized by 80 percent of consumers, so we’re making another bold move,” he said.  

 Will it help? Is it an act of desperation? It sure had both press and public talking about Ford at Chicago.

 General Motors was taking a different path to enhance its lineups at the show, importing new models from its overseas operations.

 Pontiac showed off its new G8 sedan, a rear-wheel-drive, performance offering fresh from GM Holden’s of Australia. Saturn dealers will get new Astra two- and four-door hatchbacks with few changes from their European Opel counterparts. They replace the domestic Saturn Ions, which are being phased out.

Architecture production is being transferred to Oshawa, Ontario, Canada for the upcoming Chevrolet Camaro, rear-drive Impala and Pontiac GTO, but will not be ready until later in 2008 or 2009. GM wants Pontiac to be a rear-wheel-drive performance division again and is speeding up the process by importing G8s starting late this year.

The new 2008 G8 has an available 362-hp 6.0-liter V-8 and six-speed manual transmission giving close to the performance of the departed Australian GTO. A V-6 is standard. G8 is to eventually replace the Grand Prix in the lineup.

Over at Chevrolet, a pair of special-edition Corvettes made their first appearance: the 2007 Indianapolis 500 Pace Car convertible and the Ron Fellows Limited Edition Z06 coupe.

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 The Atomic Orange Metallic pace car with gold graphics will be available to the public in replica form for the first time since 1998. It was announced that 500 copies would be available.

 Celebrating Ron Fellows performance in American LeMans Series competition, which has helped Corvettes collect six straight GT1 manufacturer’s championships, the Arctic white coupe with red striping will also be available in limited form, with only 399 cars to be built, each signed by Fellows. An exclusive black-and-red interior is part of the package.

Introduced at Detroit, the Camaro concept convertible was a hit at Chicago and looks far better than last year’s coupe concept. Rumor was it would pace the Indy 500 in 2009, which was confirmed by a Chevrolet spokesman.

 In the Chrysler Group’s expansive layout, the news at Chicago all came from Dodge’s truck operations.

Dodge returned to the medium-duty segment for the first time in about three decades with new Ram 4500 and 5500 chassis cabs. There was also a 2008 Dakota pickup shown.

While not especially noteworthy for Old Cars Weekly readers, the Ram 5500 flatbed sure attracted attention when a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T convertible with the mid-year 440 Six Pack was the cargo of the tow vehicle. It gave a good chance to look at the perfectly restored chassis of the forerunner of the coming 2009 Challenger production car.

For the second straight year, a Chrysler 300C Heritage Edition was made available mid-year. Literature was available.

There was to be a press conference celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first International-Harvester truck and the introduction of the production MXT 4×4 and MXT Limited pickup trucks by International Truck and Engine, but unforeseen financial problems prompted its cancellation.

 Originally shown at Chicago as a concept vehicle in 2005, the production MXT was on display.

 International’s first production truck was built in 1907 at the McCormick Works in Chicago, but an Auto Buggy high wheeler was not on display, though several still exist.

 On the import brand side, Toyota had a pair of introductions: the 2008 Highlander/Highlander Hybrid SUVs and 2008 Scion xB and xD, but they lacked the impact of the 2007 Tundra pickup intro the year before.

Racing was central to Porsche and Volkswagen news.

Porsche held a breakfast to celebrate its 2007 RS Spyder and competition records, which includes 79 class wins at Sebring, Fla., among countless others. VW showed its new limited-edition R32 and announced a return to a racing support program this year with an SCCA contingency fund with $300,000 in the kitty for VW racers. There will be a GTI Cup series for 2008.

 Maserati noted its early and 2006 racing success, but its news at Chicago was confined to a new Certified Pre-Owned program.

 The Bridgestone tire brand dominated its exhibit, but on display was a replica of the Firestone-shod 1967 Holman & Moody Ford Fairlane that Mario Andretti drove to victory in the 1967 Daytona 500, upsetting the NASCAR regulars. Next to it was grandson Marco Andretti’s Dallara-Honda IRL Indy Car, which also uses Firestone racing rubber. The younger Andretti is to return for his sophomore season in 2007.

 Volo Auto Museum continued its tradition of displaying collector and interesting cars at the Chicago Auto Show. It has been there every year since 1977. There were two displays this year, each with movie cars. Included was the $2.8 million Fastlane concept car built for a movie that was never made. It was contrasted by the massive Dr. Suess-mobile. Military and collector vehicles were also shown, including an impressive 1936 Packard V-12 dual-cowl phaeton.

 For those expecting the early signs of an invasion from China, they were not exactly overwhelmed by the Zap display, which featured products of the Shandong Jindalu Vehicle Company. The three-wheeled electric Xebra Flash four-door sedan and PK pickup truck attracted moderate attention. However their future collector status is open to question.

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