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Driving the New Wickenburg

As I was driving the secret car across the Looking Cross Ranch, we paused to howdy a couple of cowboys mending fence. I’m pretty sure they were heterosexual.

One looked at the car and asked the other, “What in the world is that?”

“Looks like a car wearin’ a tuxedo,” his pardner said.

What it was was the 2007 Wickenburg, encased in dark canvas for security reasons.

The Wickenburg will join all the other cars and trucks named for places: The Kia Sedona, the Chrysler Pacifica, the Dodge Dakota, the Toyota Tacoma, the GM Denali, Saab’s Peoria, and so on.

The Wickenburg is one exciting automobile, and it ought to put our town on the map. Can you believe that lately I’ve met people in Canada, and even down in Cochise County, who never heard of Wickenburg? One fellow in Sierra Vista asked, “Who was Wicken?”

We can’t show you a picture of the Wickenburg, or tell you which manufacturer is producing it, which is why it was wrapped up. Such secrecy is common around here. Fleets of test cars, their distinguishing marks covered with canvas and tape, cruise the highways hour after hour to see how they’ll hold up under desert conditions.

Some cars are too distinctive to disguise. One night we met a fleet on U.S. 60 and Miss Ellie said, “I can’t believe it. They got five Jaguars to run at the same time.”

The Wickenburg that I drove was completely covered, except for the windshield and windows. And the “sun roof,” which I’ll explain in a moment.

We can tell you that the Wickenburg will come with optional Wyoming license plates—that’s the plate with the picture of a bronc rider on it—to reflect the character of Wickenburg in winter.

Gambling that gasoline prices will make SUVs unfashionable, the manufacturer has made the Wickenburg a sedan, with lots of options.

Some manufacturers have been biting into the market with “retro” models, reminiscent of earlier eras. The Wickenburg out-retros them. I’m guessing that the car under the canvas had lines similar to the 1929 Cadillac, or the 1930 Marmon Big Eight.

Again, this reflects the character of Wickenburg, where there is a larger-than-usual concentration of guys who restore classic cars.

The most exciting thing about the Wickenburg is that it is the ultimate, fuel-saving hybrid, and it should do its bit to fight global warming. Summers here were hot enough before polluters heated up the whole world.

The Wickenburg automatically switches from gasoline (or propane, or reclaimed corn oil) to electricity, whichever is most efficient at the moment. “Sun roof” refers to the solar collectors cleverly embedded in the top of the car. The collectors could easily be mistaken for design elements.

In summer, the Wickenburg can even run on steam generated by heat off the pavement. This feature is part of the “Arizona Package,” which also includes oven mitts for the steering wheel, and dust wipers for the windshield.

The “Quartzsite package” enables the Wickenburg to run on the fumes from other people’s motorhomes, whether you’re in Quartzsite, or Yellowstone, or at the Wickenburg post office.

With a 136-inch wheelbase and 17-inch wheels, the Wickenburg should clear any rock on the desert, and intimidate the devil out of motorists on the 405 in Los Angeles.

Yet the car is so maneuverable that I rear-ended myself in a really tight turn, while swerving to avoid a roadrunner.

A GPS system, standard on all models, includes a gold finder for the prospector in all of us.

Frank, the factory representative, explained the Wickenburg’s features, and its controls. Inside, it looks pretty much like my Buick, except for the Prius-like screen on the dash. The screen shows what mode you’re in, battery level, and how far it is to the nearest public restroom.

I drove tentatively at first, letting the Wickenburg choose its own mode of locomotion. This quickly bored Frank, who commanded, “Put your foot in it.”

Whoa! The Wickenburg’s powerplant slammed me back in the seat and we roared across the desert, scattering quail and rabbits, and raising a huge dust cloud.

I was distracted by a couple of horseback riders. They quickly got out of our way, but I let a wide desert wash sneak up on me. There was nothing to do but jump it. I found the Wickenburg to be quite stable in flight.

Frank and I didn’t realize how close we were to U.S. 60-93, near Morristown. When we came to our senses, we were crossing four lanes of divided highway at 75 miles an hour. Luckily, we slipped between two 18-wheelers headed for Vegas.

The Wickenburg came to rest in a mesquite thicket on the other side of the Highway. Unfortunately, we had crossed right in front of a sheriff’s deputy.

He stepped out of his cruiser, adjusted all the equipment hanging from his belt, and swaggered over to where Frank and I were trying to look nonchalant.

The deputy walked all around the Wickenburg, then demanded to know, “What the hell are you gentlemen doing driving a tent on a public highway?”

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