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The Reluctant Gastropod

June 15, 2006, by Bill Cawthon

"Will you walk a little faster?" said a whiting to a snail,
"There's a porpoise close behind us, and he's treading on my tail.
See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance!
They are waiting on the shingle -- will you come and join the dance?
Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, will you join the dance?
Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, won't you join the dance?

"You can really have no notion how delightful it will be
When they take us up and throw us, with the lobsters, out to sea!"
But the snail replied "Too far, too far!" and gave a look askance --
Said he thanked the whiting kindly, but he would not join the dance.
Would not, could not, would not, could not, would not join the dance.
Would not, could not, would not, could not, could not join the dance.

Will it, won't it, will it, won't it? A Busch Smart Fortwo poses in front of John Tenniel's illustration of the Mock Turtle and Gryphon demonstrating the Lobster Quadrille in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."

"What matters it how far we go?" his scaly friend replied.
"There is another shore, you know, upon the other side.
The further off from England the nearer is to France --
Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance.
Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, will you join the dance?
Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, won't you joint the dance?

The above poem is called "The Lobster Quadrille" and it appears in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Of course, it is actually Carroll making fun of Victorian customs, but it nicely sums up DaimlerChrysler's attitude toward exporting their smaller car lines to the United States.

Since the introduction of the A-Class and Smart eight years ago, the company has waffled enough on this topic enough to provide breakfast for all their shareholders. Hundreds of millions of euros have been spent on new factories, marketing groups and new products like the B-Class and stillborn Smart Formore. The Smart Fortwo and B-Class are available in both Canada and Mexico but when it comes to actually shipping them to the U.S., the Stuttgart snail has always turned pale and declined to join in the dance.

Perhaps it's because BMW has toppled Mercedes from its long-held position as Germany's best-selling upscale brand. Perhaps it's because small vehicles, especially interesting small vehicles, are racking up some serious U.S. sales numbers. Or maybe it's because California-based ZAP has actually begun delivering federalized gray market Fortwos. Whatever the reason, DaimlerChrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche recently said it is probable the next generation of the Smart Fortwo will be sold in the United States, possibly as early as next year. Speaking to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sontagszeitung, Zetsche said a final decision would come later this month but the replacement for the current Fortwo will meet U.S. emissions and safety requirements. Spy shots of this next-gen Smart, with its longer nose and new Mitsubishi engine, are beginning to appear in the motoring press.

So will they, won't they, will they, won't they, won't they join the dance? Even with just two weeks left before the promised decision, I wouldn't take any bets. I remember Jürgen Hubbert, former head of Mercedes, telling journalists at the 2001 North American International Auto Show the next generation A-Class would be exported and Rolf Bartke, former head of DaimlerChrysler Vans, saying the Vito would join the Sprinter on this side of the Atlantic. The latter project got far enough down the pike that Sonny Perdue, the governor of Georgia, prematurely announced that DaimlerChrysler would build a van plant at Pooler, near Savannah, Georgia. DaimlerChrysler quickly moved to cut Governor Perdue's legs out from under him and not only canceled plans to build the plant, but killed the idea of bringing in the Vito.

Three we'll miss: the Smart Roadster Coupe, Smart Forfour and Smart Roadster have all been discontinued. The Roadster Coupe may be reborn in a new skin as the MG Midget. Models by Busch.

Whatever the decision, it will come too late for us to sample the Roadster, Roadster Coupe and Forfour. They've all been cut out of DaimlerChrysler's future plans. The latest on the Roadster is that it could reappear as an MG Midget if British businessman David James has his way. The final shoe still hasn't dropped but the buzz is the money's there to make it happen. Even if that deal does go through, we still won't get the tiny sports car. James' vision does include a car for the American market but it will be a larger car unlikely to appear before 2011 at the earliest.

I would have liked to see the Forfour; it was an interesting car. However, it was not destined for the U.S., as can be clearly seen on a billboard in Johannesburg, South Africa. Probably didn't even have the half-dozen cupholders required in a car that size. By the way, that billboard, which was intended to compare the small Forfour with large American vehicles, has been removed.

Despite years of promises, it's doubtful Mercedes will ever sell the A-Class in North America except as a scale model like this red Wiking promotional piece (a number of real A-Class cars are already here as test vehicles of one sort or another). The larger B-Class is already on sale in Canada and Mexico but not in the car-crazy nation in between. Go figure. The B-Class replica above is a Herpa model made for Mercedes, but it's available as both a standard model and in metallic finish from Promotex Online.

So what about the B-Class? According to earlier statements from Mercedes management, this was to be the North American version of the A-Class. Well, it's available in two-thirds of the North American markets, but there is no indication the snail will start tapping its foot to "Yankee Doodle Dandy" anytime soon. Even a rumored 2008 introduction seems to be in trouble. Since Mercedes must have established dealer service and support programs for the B-Class in Canada and Mexico, I am not sure how much more challenging it would be to do the same thing in what is still the largest new car market in the world. If MBUSA is worried the B-Class might tarnish the brand, I would argue it wouldn't hurt customer perceptions of Mercedes-Benz nearly as badly as the quality problems of recent years. A new model might get former customers back in the showroom.

For all the grief I have been giving DaimlerChrysler, I owe them a round of applause for doing some things right, like the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Based on sales since its introduction, Mercedes has hit this one out of the park. Even though the average sales price is around $90,000, the S-Class is outselling every premium sedan in its class except the Cadillac DTS and Lincoln Town car, both of which cost far less. Worldwide, 50,000 S-Class cars have been sold in 8 months. The new GL-Class SUV is also doing well in a tough market, blowing past the BMW X5, Lexus LX470 and Porsche Cayenne in its second month on the market.

When Mercedes gets it right, they really get it right. The new S-Class has been a smash hit since its introduction and the GL-Class outsells its competitors from BMW, Porsche and Lexus. If you don't have a handy $90,000 for the real thing, you can do like I did and get the Herpa model from Promotex.

Turning from tales of snails to flights of fancy, the new Herpa 1/87 scale Cessna 172 Skyhawk has arrived at Promotex. Bruce Penner let me know mine is on the way, so I will be taking a closer look at Herpa's first HO aircraft model next time.

Another notable Wings model in the queue, but not yet released, is the 1/400 Douglas VC-118 "Independence". This was President Truman's "Air Force One" and was named for Truman's hometown of Independence, Missouri. Only the second official Presidential plane, it went into service with the U.S. Army Air Force on July 4, 1947. Modified from a civilian DC-6, the "Independence" had a stateroom for the President in the rear of the fuselage and the main cabin had seating for 24 passengers that could be converted to sleeping accommodations for 12 people. The "Independence" served Truman for the remainder of his time in office and Dwight Eisenhower for his first four months in office. In May 1953, after nearly six years of White House service, the "Independence" was replaced by a specially built military version of the Lockheed Constellation. After its retirement as the Presidential airplane, the U.S. Air Force put it work as a VIP transport until 1965. The real plane, with the original markings and "eagle" paint scheme seen on the Herpa model, is now on display in the Presidential Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, located at Wright-Patterson AFB near Dayton, Ohio.

Incidentally, Truman's plane was the second Presidential plane, succeeding the VC-54C built for Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt became the first U.S. President to fly while in office when he traveled to the 1943 Casablanca Conference aboard a Boeing 314 Flying Boat. Wanting to have an airplane tailored to Roosevelt's requirements, the Army ordered a special C-54, the military version of the Douglas DC-4. Built with a C-54A fuselage, C-54B wings and a special aileron, Roosevelt's plane was the only VC-54C ever built and included special features like an elevator that could accommodate the President's wheelchair and a conference room with bulletproof picture window. After all this work, President Roosevelt flew in it only once. Following Roosevelt's death in 1945, the plane was assigned to President Truman. It was on this plane that Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 which, among other things, established the United States Air Force as an independent military service. This plane is also on display at the Air Force Museum.

Hopefully, by the time my next column appears, I will be able to tell you the snail has decided to get its feet wet. If not, I will have the pleasure of being able to tell you about the most successful civilian airplane ever made.

See you next time!

- Bill Cawthon


Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.

In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant working with the information technology and hobby industries. He is an associate editor for Model Railroad News and writes a monthly column on the U.S. light vehicle industry. He is a member of the 1/87 Vehicle Club and the Texas Auto Writers Association.

He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.

Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: June 15, 2006