Wednesday, January 23, 2013

This mortal coil

Photo from UK's Telegraph, with apologies
Up until yesterday I could think of only one journalist who had been killed while testing a vehicle for the enthusiast press: Car and Driver's Don Schroeder tragically crashed in 2000 during a closed-course top-speed run in a modified Mercedes and did not survive.

Today that number goes up to two. Kevin Ash, the terrifically respected and admired motorcycle correspondent for the British MCN magazine and Telegraph newspaper, died while on a BMW test ride in South Africa.

Details are scarce right now, but I think this is a fair time to reflect on the misunderstood idea that a car or motorcycle tester's life is somehow all fun and thrills. Those folks go out and do legitimately dangerous work so that the rest of us can make informed decisions, or at least have some greater understandings.

Acceleration runs and top speeds may be so much bench-racing grist, but the human factor - the feel of the controls, the responsiveness of the setup - must be investigated and described. And if you're doing it right, you're often way outside normal margins. It's a serious risk.

We all face mortality in one way or another. And this is not about some "died doing what he loved" excuse either. I detest that dismissal. I'm sure he would have very much preferred to die of old age at home in bed, maybe after one last brilliant ride through the English hills.

The physics of motion can be thrilling. They can also be brutally uncompromising.

My deepest condolences to his family and coworkers and friends.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Wasted youth

The consensus take on the North American International Auto Show seems to be that it expressed a sense of relief as much as anything. After several angst-filled years, the Detroit show offered a view of an industry returning to stability and normalcy. The new products on display - crossovers galore, big powerful lux sleds, experiments with electricity - all indicate a renewed faith in the market and a desire to get back to the good times now that the crisis has generally been weathered.

Photo: Joy Van Buhler
The flip side is that everyone is still playing it super-safe within existing trends and not really looking at any new niches or opportunities. And most absent from those displays is any indication that the industry as a whole plans to do anything - or knows what to do - about its very real youth-market crisis.

If "youth market" can be construed as "inexpensive, mostly basic cars," then okay, there's a bit of shimmer thrown into the mix at Cobo: the Toyota Furia is an attractive and promising update of the offensively dreary Corolla, the Nissan Versa Note holds down the super-cheap end of things with a bit more class than its sedan sibling (which has the worst interior of any car I have ever sat in bar none), the Dodge Dart GT adds a helpful dose of power to its Alfa underpinnnings...that's about it, though.

None of these likely do anything to move the needle (or LED display) on anyone's want meter. And two small sedans and a basic hatch hardly indicate any sort of movement in the face of the multitude of slick crossovers on display. (Honda's Gear up in Montreal was something else entirely, but again, why was it up there instead of in Detroit?)

This passivity comes after some very public (and borderline embarrassing) hand-wringing about what is to be done about the troubles selling vehicles to those oh-so-fickle and tricky Millennials, the neo-Baby Boom that occurred between 1982 and 2004 and which will make up the core of the new-car market in the decades to come - and who have as a group shown about as much interest in cars as they do in full-sized stereo gear or skilled-trade careers.

Taking a pass on this issue is maybe tolerable right now as the market situation continues to stabilize, but reckoning is soon due. And it's going to be a very interesting reckoning because the problem is both sociologically complex and has been allowed to fester for a very long time.

As I see it the Millennial car debacle exists on two levels. Yes, there's the perennial issue of selling a specific product in a competitive market, but there's also a really scary subtext here: Most teens and twentysomethings think cars are boring.

Not that single specific cars are boring. Cars in general are boring.

I don't blame them, even though that sounds terrifically wrong. I think that a lot of us who are so emotionally invested in speed culture usually don't appreciate how the "normals" relate to vehicles or the ways in which understandings about wheels develop for 95% of the population.

Think about what a typical kid has been through, vehicle-wise, over the past few decades. Representations of cars in the outside world seem to cluster under three headings: status symbols for ballers and reality-show stars (common if distant), antisocial drift machines for a suicidal lunatic fringe (marginal but noisy), and most immediately the everyday tasks of the modern family (inescapable). Maybe the neighborhood weirdo down the street had a crusty old MGB in the garage, but lots of bad vibes accompany that whole zone. 

The "everyday tasks" one is the important one. A car to most people is a way to facilitate the perennial dullness of adult responsibilities. It's a commuter pod, something designed to sit in the slow crawl of traffic along major intracity arteries on the way to an office job or discount-shopping supercenter or other menial destination of some sort. Some are flashier, but all pursue the same essential ends.

So you tangentially associate "car" with "dreary office existence" or "family management chores". And what makes up most of the traffic in between the places where that stuff happens? If you're in your teens or twenties, the only vehicles you've likely ever known are deathly boring creations. The family hauler was likely a crossover or SUV, which is almost by definition ponderous and numb and not much fun to drive. If it wasn't an Explorer or a Highlander or a Tahoe, it was something like a Camry or Taurus. Maybe the car Dad drove to work was smaller, but it was still usually pretty bland.

So a lot of kids were never directly exposed to machinery that was at all compelling, and so missed out on a lot of potential enthusiasm. But: Internet! Video games! Whatever magazines are still left for the kids who know where to find a bookstore! (Dorks.) And internet!

Fair up to a point, But you can't drive a Web page. Even the best video games are incapable of simulating even a comfortable afternoon cruise in the ways that your inner ear and soul appreciates. The experience - basically the whole real point - is missed completely.
Not a car. Illustration:
Then there's what gets featured in those pixelated representations in the first place: Paganis, Koenigseggs, this week's Lamborghini Gallardo variant, Nissan GT-Rs and Porsche GT3s. The unobtainable. The exclusive-in-the-bad-sense. Stuff that should require an FIA license and does require a race track to drive at anything approaching their physics-class limits. And which does nothing to promote cars as anything more than a fantasy adolescent interest that should soon get put away with other childish things, if that.

So, big umbrella task for the car companies: convince kids and young adults that cars aren't boring. More importantly, convince these people that cars can be both fun in and of themselves and a very valuable complement to other kinds of fun, that the world cannot truly be known through a DSL line and engagement and involvement and immersion is thrilling and valuable. By the way, private transportation is absolutely great for doing this.

How to change a broadly held opinion? Basic human sociology stuff, mostly. Be positive and outgoing and agreeable. Don't pander to a group whose respect you want to earn, don't condescend their developing attitudes. And please don't depend on marketing and lifestyle-study teams to make up what isn't there.

Because there isn't a lot there right now, which is the second part of the problem.

Millennials think cars are boring because all they ever see in real life are boring cars designed to do boring things. It's a product problem. It's not about marketing what's there, it's not about PR and sponsorships, it's about making cars that are innately appealing to twentysomethings. And that's where the huge disconnect has happened.

And the worst part for car companies is that this is not a new thing. This is a strategic decision that was all but specifically made long ago and never corrected. Automakers don't know what to do with millennials not just because they're a bit inscrutable, but because they've regularly dismissed the youth market for, literally, decades.

I don't think it's an intentional attempt to deprive the market of fun cars. Part of this is sociology, part is accidents of history. Obviously the collected numbers and spending power of the Baby Boomers still loom large in every automaker planning session even as that much-heralded group dodders off to retirement homes and the great beyond. The demographic gulf that follows - me and my fellow Gen Xers - didn't warrant as much attention, and really still don't by those criteria. And we suffered neglect as a result. Simultaneously, the multiple effects of the Malaise - not just the choked engines but the general attitude of driving as something less than socially conscientious - punched a huge hole in auto enthusiasm in the '70s, and correction was a long time coming.

Personal testimony: I grew up in the Eighties in the Midwest - Illinois, Minnesota, even suburban Detroit. Cars were great for scooting around our suburban wasteland existences, but deep-seated gearhead attitudes were scarce. The smart and ambitious kids gravitated towards rapidly-developing computers, the mechanical heads towards Reagan-era advanced military gear, the antiestablishment types towards postpunk rock.

Which makes some sense. I started really getting into cars around model-year 1985 as a sort of outgrowth of my fondness for military aircraft, helped immeasurably by a healthy stack of Road & Track magazines lying around my granfather's house. (My Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment is still probably the August 1984 cover with the new Ferrari GTO.) But what was available in 1985 to someone of average means who had no clue or care about family responsibilities? Honda had just released the CRX. Porsche's brilliant 944 was marginally within reach. The Mustang was on the comeback trail after years in a sort of funk. Hot hatches were a burgeoning field, taking basic platforms and boosting them to near-respectability.

But a lot of the magic was gone. Convertibles verged on extinction. (Alfa Romeo ran ads calling the Spider the "Last of the Red Hot Sports Cars.") Serious engines would redevelop as computerized fuel injection improved, but that was a slow process. The shift to front-wheel-drive gave handling feel a big dose of Novacaine. Something had shifted.

Fast-forward about twelve years. Assume that you're a graduate of a good college, class of 1995. You scored a decent job in a somewhat soft economy. After a year as a junior account manager or the best saleperson at the microbrew supply company or something, things were looking good and it was time to upgrade from the old Buick Century that your great aunt had passed along as a graduation gift and get some fun wheels. What's out there for someone who enjoyed driving with a budget of about $25K in model-year 1997?

Honda had the revised Prelude; corporate sibling Acura had the Integra. Nissan's 240SX had just changed to its grumpy Kouki face. The Ford Probe and Mazda MX-6 twins were still out there; you had to deal with the name on the first one and know the second even existed. Ponycars? The Mustang GT was in a bit of a boring phase with the Crown Vic modular V8, the Camaro/Firebird was excessive if exciting. The Diamond-Star Talon and Eclipse were compelling despite a rep for being a bit shoddy.
Photo: SarahNaomi
That was about it. It's not a long or varied list. Some of the stalwarts were missing or had undesirable replacements: The Civic Si was on retreat, and the del Sol was hard to take seriously. Volkswagen was having a serious identity crisis and the contemporary GTI was lackluster, BMW's 318ti was fun to drive but remarkably unattractive, and everything else from Germany was out of reach. Toyota's Celica was a nice car in desperate need of another 50 or so horsepower. I'm about ready to say that the Miata doesn't even register as a "youth" car given how it was and is mostly driven by British sports car vets with gray hair around their ears and Beatles vinyl in their basements.

Even more telling: go back to that rundown. Those were not new cars. Each had at least one preceding iteration in its history, usually dating back to the late Eighties. And more importantly, many - the Prelude, the 240SX, the Probe - would soon be cancelled. This was not a sector full of ambitions for carmakers.

As profits from SUVs and upmarket sedans began to light up sales reports, the sports-coupe/GT/fun car sector suffered neglect. Sure, you want to put the effort towards the paths that will lead to the greatest rewards, but a bit of long-term thinking and broader market consideration is never a bad thing. That's why the traditional Japanese makers continued to develop their small and midsized sedans as Detroit was seduced by SUV profits, and that's how they weathered the late-2000s storm much better than Detroit.

Another consideration: It's not that our enthusiast in 1997 was truly deprived of options, either; they just tended to be old. Any number of seriously good, vivacious, compelling vintage machines were available back then for well under that $25,000 limit: 356s and longhood 911s, Alfa GTVs, Sixties Mustangs, Alpine A110s. What you lost in somewhat reduced comfort and increased maintenance requirements you gained back in style, feel, and a certain attitude.

Think about those vehicles. Realize that the original Mustang is still the quintessential youth-market car: it looked good, it drove pretty well, it was passably practical. (Famously, the fraternity brothers that Ford invited to its clinics insisted that the rear seat be big enough for comfortable make-out sessions with dates. It was.) It may not have been an E-Type, but it did the two things that its Baby Boomer prospective customers most appreciated: It was good in iteself, and it made it possible to do more fun things.

That's not an age-specific preference. That's why they were still compelling in the face of blander modern machines in 1997 - and why they still are today, although in many cases prices have appreciated beyond reach or reason. And there is no reason why those same lessons can't be recognized and applied to modern cars.

What do modern carmakers need to do to attract young buyers? Simple: Make a car that is fun to drive and easy to own. Period.

Yes, the modern emphasis on connectivity must be served somehow. That's probably the easiest and most obvious part of the whole process. More important is finding a way to escape from the endemic seriousness and self-restraint and bourgeois stuffiness that afflicts the entire new car market.
What makes a car fun? It's not just styling, because otherwise the Hyundai Elantra would be the perfect twentysomething-mobile. It's not practicality and frugality, or else the crown would go to any number of Toyotas.

This is not a call for a new Scion. Toyota's youth-oriented brand is an interesting though ultimately incomplete effort. It seems to rely more on fad-chasing and trendy options than in making lively cars. Underneath the appliques and stereos they're still bland. The tC could have been the next BMW 2002; instead, it seems like it's trying to be the baby 328i Modern Line, all businesslike and reserved and subdued in spite of itself. A youth-market car needs to be more than that, even if Scion does share rights to the one truest example of the idea available today.

It has to be something innate, something essential. You don't add "youthfulness" to a car; if anything, you take stuff away until you get there. A good fun car something that facilitates experience and enjoyment, and it doesn't do that so well with a hundred pounds of soundproofing and blind-spot sensors.
A real youth-market car is a Mustang or an original Mini or an original Golf/Rabbit GTI or an Integra GS-R. Or the FR-S/BRZ, which in its reasonable price and moderate power and everyday usability and exceptional handling completely nails the idea. Those are your youth-car templates. Those are what this is all about. Nothing exotic, nothing magic, nothing unknown. Yes, directness and feel might be compromised a bit at first in these DSC and SRS and EPS days, but those can be sorted out and overcome with enough attention. The automakers just have to want to do this, and keep wanting to do it long enough to make up for a long drought.

A great youth-market car is not one with a "like" button; it's one that people like.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Honda Gear: Dreams - and memories, and wishes

Okay, a divergence from yesterday's mission statement but too good to ignore:


Just when you think they'd completely forgotten about how they were the greatest mainstream car company ever and turned into just another boring appliance maker, Honda goes and cooks up the Gear.

No real idea why they chose to drop it in Montreal instead of Detroit - didn't want to completely outshine all those boring Acuras? - but God,'s a Honda.

It's only a styling exercise for now, but somehow that shape promises so much - simplicity, eagerness, frugality without dreariness. The PR people are making exactly the right noises about its intentions: inexpensive without being dull, fun without forgetting about practicality. It's like the early - real - Civics that made the company's reputation brought back from exile. It's exactly what Honda should have been making all along and needs to make again.

I want one. As it sits. Use the Fit drivetrain, keep everything simple and light....

It's wonderful.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


A little bit about what's going on, in both the macro and micro senses:

I started this with the intention of doing something different from the big mainstream car sites. A place like Jalopnik or TTAC or Autoblog has a specific mission and mentality and structure; they usually go for straightforward high-impact articles posted up as quickly as possible. That's a major part of the auto-journalism infrastructure, and Jalopnik is as good at it as anyone, especially under Matt's direction. Working with him was an education in the best sense, and a lot of what I learned there will carry over to here.

But the four-paragraph structures and sprint deadlines definitely favor some styles and considerations over others. If you read my old stuff, it often looks like a thesaurus pileup; I was trying to cram a lot of thought and impression into a tiny space, which usually didn't work so well. That was just a symptom of some other underlying things I want to deal with here.

I want SoM to be something that allows for a bit more development and thought about the often complex ideas and realities that run through the motor industry. Part of it is going to be my own little soapbox where I can rail against the boring and stupid; part of it is going to be attempts at serious analysis and critical consideration.

A good analysis isn't going to just write itself. The pieces I want to do for this are going to usually take time to write and arrange and edit. This is not going to be updated every half hour; instead of an automotive CNN, I want this to be more of a Harper's or New Yorker. So instead of a few quips a day count on a sizable article or two or so per week, hopefully with a good bit of depth and intellectual content in each. Yes, there will be smaller notes and observations, but mostly this is in pursuit of something bigger.

So that's what I'm in the middle of right now, working on a first real magnum opus that will take a few good days to fit together and shape to my satisfaction. That's why it's been a bit quiet lately, and that's why this isn't going to be something that needs to be F5'd every fifteen minutes. But I do want this to be saying things worth saying, and hopefully it'll be saying it to a lot of people, hopefully including some important ones, soon.

Cars and motorcycles and the like exist in a complicated world. They deserve serious consideration. And they'll get it.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The unforeseeable

My DSL line went kaput early this afternoon. Blogging will return after Verizon gets things back to how they should be and after I get a grip on what's going on in Detroit.

Hope everyone's okay.

UPDATE: It's just after 10:30 and I'm back on. No idea if this is a temporary recovery or the Big V actually fixed its (ahem) issues, but it's good for now.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Liveblogging the Corvette introduction

6:40 - It doesn't matter what sort of direction or identity this little creation ends up taking. If you care about cars, you care about the Corvette, and tonight we get a new one.

And if you call yourself a journalist or writer or critic or whatever of the scene, it's doubly on you to write about it. So here we go.

I'm here with the official Chevrolet feed at like everyone else who can't be there, and will be passing along impressions as quickly as I can get them out. Hope everyone out there is following along too; leave comments and your take on it all as it develops.

6:45 - Used to be that Corvette intros were about as common as solar eclipses, but Chevrolet's seen fit to speed up their refresh cycle over the past few generations. C3 lived for fifteen model years ('68-'82) and C4 for thirteen ('84-'96). They've brought that down to single digits, at least.

6:51 - I don't think anyone is expecting anything radical tonight. No mid-engined overhead-cam Ferrari hunter, no turbo V6 econoVette. Corvette development is about as traditional and established as any in the industry.

The big question is how close the Jalopnik renderings from earlier this year late 2011 are to the real thing. The leaked magazine covers, if accurate, are pretty much dead-on.

6:55 - What we know so far: Small-block V8, likely still with pushrods but with modern tricks like cylinder deactivation. A choice of seven-speed transmissions - one manual, one automatic/semiauto/flappy-paddle/something with two pedals that is rumored to have development issues. No real word on whether there's anything ambitious going on with the suspension to replace to age-old plastic leaf springs.

6:58 - Yeah, feeling it even though the video link hasn't even started

7:00 - Down to seconds, but leaked pics still popping up:

7:01 - Video is LIVE.

7:02 - Someone really loves the whole clay-sculpting thing.

7:04 - foot tap foot tap foot tap. I know we need to do this, but C'MON....

7:05 - Okay. Tech, check. Stiffer, check, Lighter frame, check. Carbon fiber, check.

7:06 - Direct injection, VVT, cylinder deactivation. No surprises. 450/450 - good.

7:07 - Active throttle blipping - another art fading fast. Driver mode select = ugh.

7:08 - Interior reminds me of the '90-later C4 brought up to date. Kinda cool

7:09 - International design? Don't tell John Birchers. Bit of 599 in the side - not a bad thing.

7:10 - Wow, you think they've heard the criticisms of the interior design and seats? Liking it.

7:11 - Showtime. Who's the guitarist?

7:13 - Boom.

7:14 - Hi, Mark. (Babble babble okay we get it you're a fan.)

7:15 - Killer side profile. Kind of a big ass from the top shot.

7:16 - Stingray is back. Cool.

7:17 - Smallish greenhouse, huge rear haunches....

7:18 - References to "base" or "entry-level" model. Z06 next year?

7:19 - Presentation over. Have to do something; back quick.

7:23 - Back. And it's over anyway.

Right. So what do we know?

The Jalopnik drawings were pretty damn close. Details are a bit more refined on the real thing. (I know one former Editor-in-Chief who's feeling pretty good about himself right now.)

So here's your new Miss America:

Photo: Chevrolet

7:28 - Reports say it still has leaf springs. Not a problem.

7:30 - Impressions? The exterior design seems fantastic from some angles and kinda bulky from others. The interior looks great. Not a fan of seven-speed manuals; will have to see what the two-pedal arrangement is (torque converter vs. robot clutch) before leaning one way or another. Will be interesting to see how the fuel economy numbers look; Corvettes already are pretty impressive on that score, and the cylinder deactivation and direct injection and the rest can only help.

7:38 - Will wait for final judgement until I can see it in real life, but feeling it in a good way. Definitely a positive development from the current car: more aggressive, more interesting - and again, this is the normal one, which currently leaves me a bit cool. Wonder what the monster versions will be like.

7:42 - Okay, time to let it sink in. Everyone will have tons of closeups and details overnight and into tomorrow. Done from here.

Hope you all had fun too.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

A New Hope

Quick note:

One of the kids in my SAT course has a picture of a Cobra (guardsman blue, white stripes) as the wallpaper on his lock screen. He says it's one of the ten (!) cars he wants to own before he gets married.

Disregarding the complex financial logistics that would be involved in such an arrangement, this pleases me greatly.

Friday, January 11, 2013


I would love to observe a modern vehicle-planning consumer clinic. Not necessarily be involved in one: I think I'd rather just sit back and see what happens in the course of one of these events with a group of more mainstream people. (Besides, I'm not sure how valid my answers would be to most companies once they understand that my idea of the perfect car mostly relates to small-displacement roadracers from the Sixties and early Seventies.)

Photo: jfhweb
No, it would be fascinating to just watch both sides at work and try to parse the underlying intentions. The responses from the attendees would be intriguing, of course, with their views on what a car or small truck or crossover or [insert marketing term here] is supposed to be in the modern world, but the questions and guidance from the automakers would maybe be more illuminating. What do they want to know? How are things presented, and how might that lead to certain responses?

Is it a checklist of "Should we include this?" and "Would you like to see more of that?"? Is there ever an opportunity to say, "Is there really too much of something here?"? Do they ever try to get into the more metaphysical end of things, with ideas about how a car should feel? You set up a question a certain way and you can direct responses towards a certain result, even if it's a superficially neutral question.

Not to sell the preferences and viewpoints of the attendees short, though. It'd be great to get a read on the state of modern consumer consideration, especially to see if there's still any ripples of liveliness present. Has anyone ever really leaned forward during the discussion and said, "Y'know, what I really want is a brand-new version of my Integra GS-R/'90 325is/Cherokee Sport/240SX with as few changes as possible"? I hope so, although I worry that such an idealistic voice would be drowned out by those clamoring for self-driving maxi-crossovers with child-amusement/detention centers in the back.


If I could be on the org side and set up a consumer focus group (I'm sure there's some official statspeak name for these attendees, but if I've ever heard it I blocked it out) I'd like to try to do one with one specific group trait: people who had at some point owned Honda Civics made between about 1986 and 1995.

Photo: Honda
It's fun to talk with people who had one of those about their experiences, especially if they are not what anyone would call a gearhead. They sometimes get this weird happy look in their eyes, like they're remembering a great vacation or a really wonderfully intense relationship that just couldn't last. "Oh, that thing was so great. It'd cruise all day at 80 like nothing and got forty miles to the gallon and was just so nice...." Drift off to silence of fond memories.

"Nice" in this case can probably be best interpreted as being very close to "enjoyable to drive." No one ever said that their 1980s Oldsmobile inherited from a great-aunt was "nice," regardless of how cushy or feature-filled it was. Important thing: Those Civics were not bought because Honda was busy dominating Formula 1 or because they had charmed every grumpy auto writer on the planet into a state of giddy partisanship. They were just great small cars that were deceptively simple (not many parts, each profoundly well-engineered) and had a significant degree of fun - direct controls, nimble responses, eager motors - built in without much ado. Most people bought a Civic from that era because it was reliable and practical and sensible, but there was always another side to it: it always acted like a mostly dutiful Buddhist monk novitiate who constantly wanted to go outside and play soccer.

Maybe they should have pressed the fun factor a bit more; maybe more people would have realized what it was about and kept asking for it when someone needed to know later on. Especially if that someone was Honda itself.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

On the nature of the Good

History is important. We should know not only from whence we came, but also just maybe what to do about where we are. And that takes a bit of analysis and a bit of perspective.

Consider the Beetle. Not that mutant version that made so much noise going through New Jersey a few weeks ago, but the car as produced for several decades. And just as important, consider the times in which it existed.

(Photo: Carl Spencer)

Leaving aside its star-crossed origins as the official ride of the Kraft-durch-Freude division of the NSDAP, we can see what it is: first, it is elemental, almost primal. There's not much there. A Beetle doesn't have what can be called a heater. Early ones didn't have a gas gauge. It was basically a steel shell with a smallish drivetrain in back connected to the rear wheels, a steering wheel connected to the front wheels, brakes, and seats.

Second, and in hand with that, those pieces are exquisitely well-designed and well-built. The car itself is extraordinarily solid and durable and built with attention to fit and finish well beyond any reasonable standard. The driving position is rational and comfortable, more in an office-chair sense than an overstuffed sofa sense but when driving this is preferable anyway. The car was inexpensive to buy and own, required little of its owners except some respect for its mild idiosyncrasies, and was a pleasant match to American highway speeds and the curvy roads of the East and West coasts. It was very enjoyable in its way.

It was also completely at odds with mainstream American automotive dogma of the time, which in the case of the early days of the Beetle was the 1950s. Why on Earth would anyone buy a weird little thing like that (from Europe, even) when you could have Longer! Lower! Wider! and with the BIG engine and the deluxe chrome package and more jet-age pushbuttons? This is America! We want more! More!

The Beetle appealed to people who didn't want more, or more accurately wanted something other than flash and intentional excess and design apparently influenced by the latest batch of Air Force fighter planes. Yes, it was very much an economy car, but it appealed to a certain neo-Enlightenment subset of the population - professors, artists, free-thinkers - more than it did to people who would be normally attracted to inexpensive reliable transportation, who may have actually wanted that kind of more for certain reasons. There's a sociology issue in there too somehow, but that's not really the immediate concern.

The point that these folks got was that the Beetle was innately good; it didn't rely on gimmicks or flash to appeal to a buyer, but rather it was a straightforward and well-made device that did what it was made to do with dignified aplomb, and proved that solidity and functionality and an appealing simplicity were important - and excess swoopiness and gimmicks were not. It was a lesson in a certain kind of aesthetic appeal, one that went beyond surface excitement into tactile feel and usability and a pervasive sense of quality.

Another example of the general idea, from about the same era but with a different purpose: the MG TC. In an America where big engines and big power had always been king, the idea of the little MG as a performance car was a profound anomaly.

(Photo: Rainier Karthaus)

The TC was a tiny spindly little thing with a small four-cylinder engine and the steering wheel on the wrong side and a decided lack of fancy features. It was also the immediate descendent of a family of successful Continental racers. The TC was focused and direct and nimble and responsive and intensely fun to drive. Tom McCahill, the godfather of American automotive writers, once courted popular blasphemy by calling it the fastest point-to-point car of its day over curving roads.

Same idea as above: if the TC wasn't as profoundly solid as the Beetle, it kept to the minimalist ideal and added an almost hardcore racer's purity in its place. Road racing in this country exists because of the TC, the school of legendary US drivers that came up in the Fifties - Phil Hill, John Fitch, Carroll Shelby - started in TCs, and the modern performance-car scene is almost inconceivable without its example.

So take these ideas - simplicity, quality, directness, liveliness - as exemplified by these two cars. Let them exist and develop in certain marginal if quietly influential pockets of American culture, nurtured by automakers with the long view very much in mind. As the Baby Boomers mature in a society being reshaped by Kennedyesque cosmopolitanism and social progressivism and the appeal of the counterculture and a broader sense of experience, their colossal spending power and modern preferences are brought to bear. They start to understand that a seemingly austere creation like a Mercedes or Porsche is tangibly better than a Cadillac, even if it's something that has to be experienced instead of explained. And other manufacturers pick these ideas up and incorporate them - some better than others, but all to the good.

Robert Pirsig wrote "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" in the late Sixties and early Seventies, and the message of that brilliant work parallels this entire dynamic: Find and cherish that which is innately good, that which has quality. Something which is well-considered and well-crafted should be appreciated far more than that which is flashy and tantalizing on the surface but lacking substance underneath. You could take the entire thing as an advocacy of a snobbish "I deserve the best" proto-Yuppie approach to life if you're predisposed to cynicism, but it really goes much deeper than that. And as the main character's motorcycle is so often used as an example of various concepts, so can those concepts be effectively related to other mechanical devices. Simple quality is its own bliss.

Why the history lesson? Because I see a lot of what was so wrong with the cars of the Fifties being repeated today (like they have been again, but that's for later). The details are different - no tailfins or dagmars or deep-sea-creature chrome grilles this time - but the attitudes are too familiar: more, bigger, faster, comfier, more stuff, more power, more more. It seems to indicate that a lot of people have apparently run out of ideas and don't quite know where to go, so they just add more of the same.

Except this time there's no Volkswagen or MG, among others, to be shipped over to instigate a conceptual revolution this time. And I wonder, and worry, about what elements of modern life have the most influence on designers and product planners instead. And I wonder about those who once had it right but now are among the most lost.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A sort of trip

It's not so much that I found truth in an old, loud, frigid Volkswagen as it snarled up the New Jersey turnpike so much as knew it was at hand again, a welcome presence returned after far too long, a flare in a world that had become a dark and dispirited place.

The fount of that truth was Raphael's new - first - car, a Baja-modded 1973 Beetle, $1500 worth of flappy fiberglass and oversized tires and ill-considered mods (underbody LEDs?) and a not-too-rusty shell resplendent in a curious shade of primer, bought from a heavyset guy in suburban Philadelphia. It wouldn't idle due to a gummed-up Solex carburetor. The exhaust system was a tangle of tubing that fed burned gases into two cherry-bomb mufflers which took the edge off the explosions, if little more. Each gearchange was an exercise in aim, feel, and hope. The brakes were a reminder of the lesson learned long ago at the Bertil Roos Racing School to look as far ahead as possible, because stopping required exactly that much distance minus two feet. The typical air-cooled VW lack of heat was exacerbated by the need to keep the windows cranked open in the chill of a night two days before Christmas lest we pass out from gas fumes wafting up from somewhere behind my side of the dash.

And we were having an absolute blast.

The setup and contrast to this was the trip out from Manhattan, a mechanically silent affair in which Raphael and his brother Jacob and I sailed along in their family's second-generation Prius. We talked as I studied the odd texture of the dashboard plastic, prognosticating and pontificating and adjusting the heat via the multifunction touchscreen panel. It was my first time in a Prius, and I found it...inconsequential, I guess. Beyond the willful complexity displayed on the touchscreen and the curious choice of trim it was a cipher, a semi-perceptible form which encapsulated two rows of seats in a weatherproof space and moved them and their occupants along a road. We were in it, we were going from one place to another, but nothing really seemed to be happening.

In the Beetle, things were happening with the bright hard tactile nature of a skier on the charge down an icy face at Val d'Isère. The driver would feel what was happening and know that any number of things were also going on and cause other things to happen and work to stay on top of it all. (The passenger just felt everything.) And the entire experience was so charged, so vibrant and intense, that it couldn't be anything but an existential thrill.

The drawing-room discussions of the outbound trip were between irrelevant and impossible in the frigid airflow. We could do little more than laugh compulsively, keep up a steady babble of awareness of everything that was going on like two test pilots who had each done four espressos before takeoff, loose some random barbarian yawp of tribal supremacy as we howled past a sluggish New Beetle while departing a toll booth.

We were in a vehicle that was the antithesis of a modern cushy hypercomplex motion device. We were in something that had identity and presence. The person in the left seat was actually driving, performing a series of actions that translated into the (mostly) smooth operation of a machine. And we were having an outrageous amount of fun.

Even in its primitive specification and ragged condition, that Beetle is so much more a car than the Prius can ever hope to be.

That was the truth that was once again made apparent. That was what had lingered in the background of my thoughts during an eight-month stint writing for Jalopnik, that was what had been implied by its absence while following a growing number of new-model releases and updates, that was what I had tried to argue in any number of comment-board debates. That was what was found while running my old Audi hard along central Pennsylvania two-lanes, while helping to reanimate a Triumph Spitfire in my uncle's small garage, while poring over every curve of the Cisitalia 202 at the Museum of Modern Art, maybe even while riding in Mom's Porsche 912 as a toddler. That was what had laced through the repeated assessment of the Beetle as both the best and worst car that a steady stream of people had driven that year, or in memory.

It's not that modern cars should be drafty buckets without bumpers or effective brakes. (Actually, truly great brakes are much too rare as it is.) It's that cars - and light trucks, and motorcycles - need to be something of note, need to mean something significant, in a society that too often thinks it wants a sort of well-padded undistinguished excess to its accoutrements. A car really should be brilliantly vivacious, or aesthetically profound, or forcefully utilitarian to the point of being modern art. It should be simple and solid and direct. It should be less complicated and less isolated than the modern norm, less a showcase of irrelevant considerations. It should have a character, a sense of an identity. It shouldn't just be a robot that generates acceleration in various planes. It needs to work as a well-balanced creation that acts in a very real world instead of permitting people to hide from it.

It's about that very real world that needs the Beetle in its various individualized forms. It needs the Alfa 1750GTV, the Lotus Elan and Elise, the Yamaha SRX-6, the FT-86 clan, the BMW 2002tii, the Jeep CJ-5, the Citroën SM, any number of Mustangs, the Caterham Seven, the Ferrari 328, the Honda CBR250R, and much much more. It needs the small and smart, and it also needs the interesting and progressive, and it needs the artistic and the irrepressibly cool -all of which are in scarily short supply these days.

And all of which will clearly not be some things. Example: That New Beetle at the toll booth that was the target of our vocal derision was an attempt to go somewhere interesting or endearing, but something about it fails on a philosophical level. Is it that it's just a set of new clothes over a Golf chassis and somehow a letdown to both its intention and basis, or is its earnest homage to/parody of a prior identity just not something that works? Why not that, and why do we know it?

Much of this, both the good and the wrong, makes some sense intuitively to a lot of us, but it deserves to be described and explained and investigated. These understandings have to be exposed to some intellectual light to see if they strengthen or fade. And they have to be mapped so that they all make sense relative to each other - or at least as much as that's possible.

So that's what this experiment in conceptualization and experience will be: a pursuit of some greater sense of meaning in what is both a normal daily activity and an act of amplified will and velocity, an analysis of the state of an industry and culture that has always been terribly important to me and lately seems a bit lost, an advocacy for vehicles that exist beyond the dreary and insipid safety of contemporary consumer clinics and consultant reports.

It's also going to face the reality of the modern world, with its very real environmental and social concerns that seem to suggest certain directions - although not necessarily those already taken by many. We live in a supremely complex and interwoven situation with hard edges that cannot be ignored. 

It's also going to hopefully be a pretty good take on the individuals and specific machinery that have made this both a major part of modern life and an extraordinarily vibrant subculture. Understandings can be reached through ontological games; they can also be found behind a good direct steering rack on an empty back road. 

We've got three significant cases to show the state of modern affairs already due this year: the new Corvette next week, and the new Mustang and Miata likely towards the end of the summer. And we've got a lot of stuff to try to understand with and beyond that, both good and bad.

Knowing truth is one thing; knowing what it really means is something else entirely.