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Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Inner Drive

When someone says “that’s a beautiful car,” I’m thinking to myself, “What are you looking at? It’s a hunk of metal.” What is it about cars that makes them supposedly attractive to people? Why are Corvettes allegedly ‘easy on the eyes’? Why are Jaguars aesthetically pleasing to the observer? Is it that those curved hunks of metal look better in the right places?

I can’t think of automobiles as works of art, I guess because I’m more utilitarian. I can’t get around the truth that the car’s principal function is to get me from Albany to Timbuktu, and then hopefully back. The degree of elegance to which it performs this task doesn’t come into play on my radar screen until I'm back home safely eating popcorn and the car's already parked. Points for style don’t work with utilitarians. It’s the cake, not the icing. Hmm. Not 21st century enough, eh?

So I suppose we’re talking about a piece of art that gets me to work in the morning. I’m artistically driving from city to city, whether I realize it or not. We’re a bunch of artisans rolling along down the highway, with one piece of art passing the other, in a kind of symbolic Byzantine nod to the superiority of one sculpted work over the less impressive contemporaries. Traffic, therefore, is a montage. And you thought it was just something that made you late for appointments.

If a car didn’t have wheels, then perhaps I could see it more aesthetically, but I’m considering too much the moving parts to put it in the same class as a Rembrandt. Cars are closer to being contraptions in the Wonka chocolate factory than they are to being bona fide museum displays.

So then this also raises the question: why isn’t a school bus considered attractive? Is it not ‘sleek’ enough? Aren't its midtones captivating? And if not, why don't they build school buses to be more visually appealing? Do other cultures look at Volkswagen Beetles as being stunning? Is stylishness all in the eye of the beholder? These are the things they should talk about in those car magazines, but they're occupied with championing design, handling and performance.

Many car owners seem to have a special pride about their hunks of metal. They act like it's an extension of themselves, that it fits into their persona like any other characteristic. They are one with their mode of transportation. Some mortals seem to enjoy working on their cars every day on the calendar, as if it’s some hallowed ritual that must be performed, though that’s antithetical to me. I would only work on my car in three instances: a) If the pope told me to and I were Catholic; b) If I suddenly no longer had 762 other more important things to do; or c) I was dead. Other than those, there’s no compelling reason to work on a car that I can see.

When you get down to it, a car is a shell. It’s a snail with a chassis. Deal with it. I hate to demystify whatever castles in the sky some of you may have built up over your lifetimes, but someone had to do it sooner or later. That thing out in your driveway is a junkyard waiting to happen. It has no soul, and it won’t take you to the promised land. Look inside it — it's no more than an ambulatory cocoon.

Motorholics keep their works of art well-polished, much like a trophy. Cars can be status symbols. If you have a car with a certain insignia on it, that can denote prestige, sophistication and wealth. But before we start frothing at the mouth, let's get back to the original purpose. A car takes you places by rolling along a road, and then with that accomplished it attempts to let you do so comfortably while having an enjoyable time. However, the road doesn’t care what emblems are attached to the car, or how much you’ve shined the tires. Those are just for show.

People look for excuses to use their cars even when they don't have somewhere to go. They'll just go out for a drive. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's an interesting development. Does this happen in other areas of life too, where we use something just for the sake of using it? Do you turn on a light just because it flips your switch? OK, then. You proved your point.

Perhaps cars have transformed more into mobile living spaces over the years. If we could get wheels under our house, might we be tempted to take it around the block for a spin? Are we finding ourselves with the urge to be in constant motion? One thing about being on the road is that people are always coming and going. Neither direction can figure out which is preferable, so they alternate. "We'll go this way, and you guys go that way. If you find something, tell us, otherwise when you get to the end, turn around and we will too." It's the law of vehicular distribution.

The anthropomorphizing of the machine is part of the industrial age's post-evolution vestiges, but it’s a phase we will hopefully soon overcome, because cars have done nothing substantive to deserve this form of admiration.

Have you ever wondered why cars come in different flavors? But the thing is that it’s just like M&M’s — all the colors taste the same. It wasn’t until I was 11 years old before I learned this revelation, which is also about the same time I stopped playing with cars. Coincidence? I think not.


Anonymous said...

For me it's not so much the vehicle itself, but what can be done with it. If one's hobbies or likes involves generous amounts of kinetic energy, then cars such as the Corvette, Ferrari, and others have such abilities to keep a mathematician calculating vectors and acceleration, or just simply place a big smile on the face of one who'd rather not do the equations in the first place.

Interestingly, these same vehicles are often focused enough in purpose that they are difficult to live with for other tasks. A trip to Costco is more of a sightseeing trip if one takes a Ford GT as opposed to the family van. Some cars try to be "sporty" while still retaining usefulness, as most people may not have the means to have multiple vehicles. Sporty-like cars have come a long way from years ago when "sporty" meant a right-hand mirror, a trunk spoiler, and an "S" on the end of the model's title.

But in all, how often do people just go out for a drive just for the drive itself? Taking to the traffic-filled streets is not enjoyable, so it involves planning ahead to get further out of town. Some people do.

Myself, I haven't really enjoyed it as much in a car. It has a steel floor, steel roof, with vertical pieces of steel connecting the two. Reminds me of a cage and there's a disconnect between the inside and the outside. However, going to two wheels on a motorcycle, there is that point where the bike itself melts away and no longer exists, and it's just you and the road.

Rusty Southwick said...

Thanks for those comments, Robbie. It's good to have the perspective of a true connoisseur like yourself. Good point about cars vs. motorcycles too.

Tell me when you start blogging!

Anonymous said...

Ray -

The new car smell. Shiny chrome. Stereo blaring. Speeds approaching 100 mph. Accelerating quickly. Cornering on a mountain road. There are lots of things I like about cars. Even the sound of a door closing or the way it looks right after being washed. Very nice.

But alas, as Spider-man's Uncle Ben (not to be confused with your favorite rice brand) used to say, "with great power, comes great responsibility."

Along with some of the excitement of cars comes: car payments, car insurance, car registration, speeding tickets, brake repairs, oil changes, new tires, flat tires, photo radar, traffic, drunk drivers, idiot drivers, and mechanics (who know more about cars than you, know it, and know that you know it and can't do anything about it).

So, I think having to pay for cars takes a lot of fun out of owning one.

Other people no doubt love working on cars as a hobby. I don't, but I can understand and appreciate that they do. It's gardening with less dirt and more grease.

I tend to enjoy my vehicle most when I'm going on a long trip or driving on the weekend when others aren't around. And, over the past 10 or so years, my cars have worked remarkably well. I can't say that I've enjoyed earlier cars as much (it's never any fun driving something that is just waiting to go to that big junkyard in the sky).

This being said, I've found that I can have that same sort of "driving" excitement mountain biking - it's better exercise, gets me outdoors, and still has that element of speed and danger (without having too much).

I've also gathered that if I were much, much more wealthy, I could afford (and occasionally drive)a higher end vehicle. Getting beyond the obvious status symbol that people seek with such purchases, I've no doubt there is a difference in driving such cars too.

Anonymous said...

I can appreciate design in anything but for the most part it's safety I look for in a vehicle and some basic comforts.

Maybe you should buy some socks that are NOT white. Just an idea. ;-)

Rusty Southwick said...


Should I maybe get me some stylish argyles, perhaps with a Ferrari insignia on them? It could be that I've been going with ultilitarian white for so long that I forgot there were other types.

P.S. - Do argyles come in an over-the-calf size? :)

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