The day oil hit $138 a barrel, I was in ultra-rich Greenwich, Connecticut looking at 16-cylinder cars and thinking about how history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce. It was the 13th annual Greenwich Concours d'Elegance, presenting an overpowering collection of Packards, Duesenbergs and Pierce Arrows.
Show judging at the Greenwich Concours.
Why don't we see these marques today? Because they misread the market and offered big, powerful and expensive cars during the depths of a Depression. Sound familiar? At least gas was cheap back then. Does GM have an excuse for filling its showrooms with Tahoes, Sierras and Hummers when average folk are having to choose between putting gas in the tank and food on the table?
I stood in awe before a 1937 Delahaye 135 M Roadster with an unbelievably gorgeous, over-the-top streamlined body by Figoni and Falaschi. French-made Delahayes could fetch as much as $20,000 (just for the chassis, without a body!). In the 1930s, the average American salary was $1,368. A year. Can you buy a Delahaye today? No, you cannot.
Oil prices have doubled in the last year. Automakers are frantically shutting pickup and SUV plants and making hasty plans for new subcompacts with four-cylinder engines. GM is likely to put Hummer on the block for peanuts.
A magnificent 1937 Delahaye: misplaced opulence in a time of great austerity.
I lingered before a Rolls-Royce Phantom III Town Car, also from 1938, which probably spent its youth splashing mud on people waiting in bread lines. Today, the Rolls is favored by Saudi princes and oil sheikhs.
The latter are famous for erecting air-conditioned tents in the desert, but the only air-conditioned tent in Greenwich housed the Chevrolet Volt. In contrast to the echoes of the past on the show field, the Volt represents the future. It's a futuristic four-door electric car with a tiny turbocharged three-cylinder gasoline engine that's there only to keep the batteries charged. Unbelievably, GM says it will have the Volt on the market in the fall of 2010.
The author's daughter and a (non-working) Chevy Volt.
The Volt has reportedly demonstrated 40 miles of range on its lithium-ion battery pack alone, but its Greenwich minder, Brad Beauchamp -- GM's driver relationship manager for fuel-cell activities -- says its actual tested range depends on the terrain and probably the climate, too. The Volt is still clearly a work in progress.
The Volt on display was a non-functional model, with no gasoline engine. I peered inside and saw cool-looking controls that actually don't control much of anything. One hopes the Volt is not just a mirage, a morale builder for a company whose name may soon resound in the august company of Duesenberg, Pierce Arrow and Packard.
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