In the US-Japanese 'car war,' why did Ford enlist an aircraft carrier?

Was it one of Ford Motor Company's ''better ideas'' - the launching of its new compact-size cars, Tempo and Topaz, on the flight deck of the USS Intrepid? Or was it in exceedingly poor taste?

The USS Intrepid, or ''Fighting I of World War II,'' did the job it was launched to do in the war - beat the Japanese. In fact, it did its job well - and in doing so destroyed hundreds of enemy planes and ships. As a result, it was badly damaged more than once, including kamikaze attacks, and scores of officers and men were lost.

Now the ship is drawn into the ''trade war'' between Japan and the United States. I say it should not be.

Among the attendants at the new-car launching was a correspondent for Japan's Kyodo news agency.

True, the Intrepid is no longer owned by the Navy, but by a foundation which operates it as a sea-air-space museum in New York Harbor. Even so, it attracts throngs of visitors to its decks and busloads of schoolchildren scramble from site to site. Displayed are mementos of World War II, including restored aircraft, guns, threedimensional diagrams of famous sea fights, scorecard, and narrations of its battle-starred - and -scarred - history.

The symbolism was vivid. Flying from the island on one side of the flight deck were signal flags that spelled out TEMPO and TOPAZ.

Ford chairman Philip Caldwell, a naval officer in World War II, was once a passenger on the Intrepid from the West Coast to Pearl Harbor.

The ''car war'' between the US auto industry and Japan is taut. Some argue that it is unfair, that the Japanese have a clear advantage over the West because of lower wages, cultural differences, currency-exchange rates, government involvement, and more.

In meeting the threat to its survival, the US automobile industry is spending at least $80 billion to develop and launch new car models which, it hopes, will be competitive in the marketplace with the Japanese as well as the Europeans. It is a long, frustrating job at a time when hundreds of thousands of US auto workers are out of a job.

Chrysler Corporation almost collapsed as a result, and it still is not entirely out of the woods. Without its rescue by French carmaker Renault, American Motors might be in ruins as well. Even General Motors and Ford Motor Company have been severely buffeted by the imports.

The US auto industry, in fact, has lost $12 billion in the past few years.

But shouldn't the US auto industry win its way back by coming up with competitive products that more and more car buyers will buy?

Ford, or any other automaker, should not try to enlist the fervor and emotionalism of a time of national crisis in selling its cars.

Quality is sharply improved over the past several years; and brand-new car plants are coming on stream with state-of-the-art robotics and processes that will, Detroit executives hope, give it, if not a competitive edge, at least an equal shot at the buyers who come into the showrooms.

The Intrepid was part of the wartime competition at sea, both in World War II as well as Vietnam. It was also involved in the pickup of American astronauts after adventures in space. But it has never been used as a showroom to sell cars.

Ford's jingoistic launching of its new compact cars may have gone a step beyond what is called for under the circumstances.

Perhaps the ''Fighting I'' deserves a better fate!

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