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.

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