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.

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