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The Big Con

My whiskey bottle had been drained the night before, and I had a headache the size of an iceberg, pre-global warming

By Novella Carpenter

This November, I became one of 35,000 people to take part in National Novel Writing Month (www.nanowrimo.org). That's right, 50,000 words in 30 days. That's 1,667 words a day. What's my novel about? Glad you asked. It's a detective story about forests and plants and mothers and daughters, but I don't have a plot yet. Writing fiction is such tortuous work; I look for every possible reason to procrastinate. This is how I found myself playing a game called the Secret Agent Car Game.

The sky was the color of dryer lint. I was in my office, keeping one eye out the window, where a major highway inched along. My whiskey bottle had been drained the night before, and I had a headache the size of an iceberg, pre-global warming. I spotted one, a secret-agent car, and immediately called my buddy Maria, an auto mechanic, who confirms or denies my hunches.


"Maria." She seemed glad to hear from me, up for the challenge.

"Got one." I put one foot on my desk. "Looks like a Isuzu Rodeo, but it says Honda Passport." I put my other foot on my desk.

"Oh yeah, that's one."

"That's a secret-agent car?" I checked another drawer for more whiskey.

"Yup, bingo, kid."

"Tell me some of your favorites--what do you call them again?" I felt like a junior Girl Scout, but she was the pro.

"Cross-dressing cars. My favorites: Mazda pickups are actually Ford Rangers. Geo Prizm, made by Chevy, same exact car as a Toyota Corolla. And finally--that fancy Acura SLX sport utility vehicle?"

"Yeah, what about it?"

"An Isuzu Trooper in disguise!"

Maria, she's good, she blows my mind. I had to get to the bottom of this. Why are so many cars branded one way on the outside while the guts are from a completely different company? There are a myriad of reasons, connections, partnerships and buy-outs that explain these double agent automobiles.

To get to the bottom of the Acura/Trooper connection, I had to go to a source, the one place I had been avoiding all my car-column-writing days: Car Talk. I've had a one-sided rivalry with those guys since I started writing, and now, there I was on their website, looking for knowledge. The deal with the Acura SLX, according to Tom and Ray, is that Honda wanted to get in on the Sport Utility Vehicle market in the mid-'90s but was going to have to wait years for a factory to build the things. Instead, it bought some Isuzu Troopers, loaded them with options like a shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive, leather seats, four-speed automatic transmission, which comes equipped with "power mode" and "winter mode" functions and seven "oh crap" handles, and slapped an Acura logo on the beasts. Mystery solved.

In terms of the others Maria mentioned: Ford has owned a share of Mazda since 1979, and hence they mix their lines pretty regularly. The Mazda B-series trucks are basically Ford Rangers with a slightly different grille. In 1992, Ford's ownership of Mazda increased to 33 percent--a controlling interest--and so many of Ford's cars, like the Probe, are actually based on Mazda models. More often than not, if you look under a Mazda hood, you'll see Ford Motor Company imprinted on the engine.

As for the Corolla-Prizm double agent business, it all boils down to the New United Motor Manufacturing (NUMMI) facility in Fremont, Calif. In the early '80s, Toyota and GM made a partnership to offset costs by sharing this factory. Apparently, it made sense to share platform, suspension, mechanics and engines, too, and the Geo Prizm/Toyota Corolla twins were born.

Outside my office window, the sky's gone black, and the highway is now a giant string of Christmas lights. People in cars that aren't always what they say they are. Watch your back, people--nothing is as it seems.

Another secret agent car is the Mercury Villager/Nissan Quest. Send your favorites to [email protected]

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From the November 17-24, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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