Saturday, August 15, 2009

But Do They Come With A Factory-Installed Eight-Track Cassette Player?

Let’s begin by getting my pious posturing over with: I bristle at the consumerist “I am what I buy” mindset. If you want proof, just look at my wardrobe. I’ve spared no expense stocking it with comfy, practical, inexpensive clothing.

This attitude applies doubly to the internal combustion engine. It seems like every white guy turning 50 feels compelled to buy a Harley Davidson. Talk about a quick fix to that pesky surplus of fossil fuel we’ve been suffering from! No, I did the motorcycle thing in my 20s, and found the switch back to pedal power a great deal more to my taste.

Some guys obsess over what car to buy. I page through Consumer Reports, find the one that burns the least gas, requires the least maintenance and has the least expensive price tag. Then I ask for it in silver — the color that best deflects summer heat and holds on to a wash. You can just imagine the attention I attract when I roll into a parking lot.

And yet, and yet . . . I have to admit Detroit’s current retro-fixation is strangely compelling. Just what does that say about me?

I have a friend who drives a Porsche Carrera. He’s let me take the wheel, and I’ll be quick to admit: it’s a lot of fun. But even if someone in a butler's suit were to hand me a blank cheque with instructions I spend it on a sports car (or forfeit the privilege to some other clod) I wouldn’t head for Europe. There’s no question Europe produces the fastest, sexiest, most suave and sophisticated sports cars on the planet. But they are so suave and sophisticated I doubt I’d ever feel at ease behind the wheel.

Chevy’s new Camaro (below), or Dodge’s much-hyped Charger (above), on the other hand, are a very different story. I could definitely picture myself driving something along those lines, and feeling like it “fit.” Why should that be?

As with the Hot Wheels vs. Matchbox debate, this goes all the way back to the sandbox. The people I grew up with occasionally managed to buy Detroit muscle cars. A Super-Bee or a Trans Am were attainable and socially respectable status symbols. I might have known a few people with European cars, but they were doctors and lawyers: people we grudgingly paid and relied upon. Watching someone drive by in an Alpha Romeo felt like the guy was lording it over us; someone driving a Shelby Mustang, on the other hand, couldn’t help but draw out a kid’s admiration.

Ah, the Mustang — a car with aesthetic pedigree. Even during the 80s and 90s — the Mustang’s lost decades — it was still quickly identified as a Mustang, while Corvette, Camaro and Trans Am seemed to flow into a singular amorphous blob of fiberglass. At the moment Mustang has regained its cache as a head-turning vehicle — especially with Ford’s release of the limited “Bullitt” edition. Hey, butler guy: I think I just found the recipient for that blank cheque!

The final selling point to these retro-styled Detroit muscle cars? The back seat. ‘cos as fun as it can be taking your woman out for a spin, there is nothing finer than taking the family out for ice cream.


paul bowman said...

Hmm ... pleasant thoughts.

(Not that I'd be any more likely to take one of those home, if I could, than you are.)

My first car was a '67 Mustang, twenty years old when I bought it, summer between my junior & senior yrs in H.S. It was just a six-cyl. & an automatic and hadn't been kept terribly well by previous owners, but it ran fine (couldn't hurt that motor if you wanted to, basically), and I had a small stack of Car Crafts & so on, with notions of turning it into something 'special.' I had no background & no remarkable talent either for car work or for making money, so transforming it was never more than a dream. But with a neighbor's help I spent a lot of time fixing various parts of it in the driveway — learned a lot. It rewarded, somehow, even the attention I could give it. Moreover it had a place in car culture, particularly on aesthetic grounds, as you say, that lent me a little pride. Only wish I'd done as good for that piece of history, until I had to give it up, as it probably did for me.

Whisky Prajer said...

I had a friend with a '67 'stang. His father taught auto-mech at the city's technical-vocation school, so the thing was in mint condition. My friend was mockably prissy when it came to his car: he drove it like a granny and bitched us out whenever our fingers strayed past the door handles (the only thing we could touch on his car). But it was a lovely car, and that straight-6 was a marvel of engineering simplicity.

Whisky Prajer said...

I should add: this all occurred in my high-school daze.