- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Late one recent evening, I heard a knock at my door. It was the 11-year-old boy who lives down the street. He hemmed and hawed. “How long do you have that Corvette?”

He was referring to the 2005 Chevrolet Corvette that had been delivered to my driveway only that afternoon. “A week,” I told him. “Why do you want to know?” I queried, knowing full well why he wanted to know.

“Do you think I might be able to have a ride?” he asked coyly.

“Well, I told the other boys that I’m charging for rides,” I teased him.

Indeed, earlier in the afternoon, I’d told the group of middle-school boys who had jumped off the school bus of the same bright yellow as the Corvette that they were surrounding, seemingly worshipping it like some kind of religious idol, that I’d give them rides for a fee.

“I’ve got money,” the neighbor kid responded immediately, digging into the pockets of his jacket.

I told him I really wasn’t accepting money, but I’d certainly give him a ride. “When?” he begged. Saturday morning, I said. “What time?” he asked anxiously. I told him to call me.

So along comes Saturday morning. I’m still in my pajamas, leisurely drinking my cup of coffee and reading the newspaper when the phone rings.

“Can I hae a ride now?” the familiar voice asked. I begged for a few minutes to get dressed. “Then I’ll pick you up,” I told him.

And I did. He buckled into the seat and off we went, traveling the country roads that I use to test drive cars. When the coast was clear, I gunned it to give him the thrill of the Corvette’s awesome power.

The boy told me how his bedroom is plastered with pictures and posters of Corvettes, past and current. He said every man in his family for the past few generations had owned a Corvette. I suspect he’ll add another generation.

I dropped the boy off in front of his house, proceeded home, poured myself another cup of coffee and went back to my newspaper. Only a few minutes had passed, when there was a knock at the door. It was the boy with yet-another 11-year-old boy from the neighborhood. Could I give him a ride, too?

And so it was that day, giving rides to the boys in the neighborhood as if I were an amusement park ride operator.

I hadn’t been this popular since, well, two weeks earlier when there was a rich red 2005 Ford Mustang GT in my driveway.

My son said when the bus rounded the bend into our neighborhood the boys went nuts. “Wow! Look! There’s a new Mustang.” And again they gathered in my driveway paying homage.

The point is the love affair with the automobile — even American-made ones (granted I live near Detroit) — is very much alive and it’s alive with the young generation not even able to drive. The question is how can automakers — especially those in Detroit — capitalize on it? And, more importantly, how do they spread that enthusiasm to other cars in their lines, ones these kids more realistically can afford when they are of driving age?

These questions are particularly critical to Detroit automakers as they continue to lose market share. A column in Automotive News recently noted that the market share of the Big Three domestic brands fell 58.9 percent this year (even with Chrysler enjoying nearly 24 percent higher sales for the year).

At the same time, the share of Japanese brands has climbed steadily to 30.4 percent.

GM talks about producing “gotta have” products; Ford talks about vehicles with an emotional connection to customers. Chrysler has hit upon a winning formula with the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum. But it will take more “gotta have,” emotional-connecting models to lure back customers and capture the young customers of the future.

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