There are more than a million Priuses in the U.S. And if you live here in the San Francisco Bay Area, it might appear that 995,000 of the quietly efficient hybrids are here, doing their concerted part to combat the carbon demon. I have to applaud the mighty miles-per-gallon, the hearty hybrid powerplant, the eco-engagement of ownership—but frankly, the cars themselves leave me cold.
You see, I am guilty of forbidden love. I love the cars of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, and lament the thought that they are reviled because of their drunken-carburetor consumption. For me, a car must be seasoned; like a good cigar, its oils must be developed. Naturally, in the course of that development, some of those oils might end up in your driveway, but that’s part of the romance of used car ownership: it’s a little like the affection you felt for your first girlfriend because she had a bit of a temper or crooked teeth. You have a relationship with your used car, you must negotiate—this can’t take place with these new robotic machines that go 100,000 miles before they need a tune-up. Where’s the challenge, where’s the evolution of your relationship with your car in that?
So, the flourishing of the Prius, the jolt of the Volt, the turning of the Leaf are all planetary plusses. But I fear the flare of a fin will no longer excite the eye, the capaciousness of a titanic trunk will no longer bewilder and thrill. Gas prices are once again fluctuating near their $4.00-and-climbing crime, and that pulsing of petrol sticks a sharpened fuel needle into the veins of classic car lovers. The carbon footprint of most 8-cylinder behemoths is Godzilla-like. But tally up cookie-cutter hybrids on the cool scale: zip, nada, nuttin’.
Gin-Dripping Rides and Fluid Drive
Some cars were engineered to leave those telltale deposits on your driveway, or so it seems. I had an ‘81 Jaguar that leaked everything: oil, power-steering fluid, transmission fluid, antifreeze—I’m pretty sure it was leaking gin before I sold it. My mechanic seemed to think it was perfectly normal. Of course I’ve had a guilt quiver or ten about the un-ecological consequences of owning these old gas guzzlers and oil drippers, but you have to look at the big picture: sure, I recycle, yes, I ride my bike when I could drive, I admit to once belonging to the Sierra Club and contributing to other Commie organizations—I’ve got to balance that with some forbidden pleasure, the delight of Detroit sin. Even an éminence grise of the environmental movement, Edward Abbey, had an abiding love for old Caddies, the ones that approach the length of the QE2, and he’s practically a saint.
My second car was a ’48 Dodge, a long, black voluptuous thing with suicide doors and a massive steering wheel. In that marvelous marketing vernacular, it possessed something called fluid drive, which allowed you to either drive away from a dead stop in high gear without using the clutch, or manually go clickety-clacking through the three gears on your way to its ponderous but satisfying top speed. That Dodge infused in me a need to find substance in a car, substance of look, of mass. Many of today’s cars seem to drive themselves; they are polite and transparent and subservient under the slight wiggling of your fingers at the wheel. That’s not a car, that’s a trained terrier. Give me a car like the ’62 Caddy I owned, a vast expanse of carchitecture, a car whose rear end was in another time zone.
Edvard Munch Express
Of course, they don’t all have to be as big as a 747 to be intriguing. I owned a ’58 VW bug (with a decayed rendering of Tweety Bird, possibly done by Edvard Munch, on the driver’s-side door) that was a mottled rainbow of colors, a car that wept at the sight of an upcoming hill. It was so small and I am so stringy-legged that I could sit my rear on the top of the driver’s seat and still be able to operate the pedals—with my head and shoulders out of the sunroof—so that summer driving was the pleasure it’s meant to be.
One of the sweetest vehicles I owned was a ’65 Galaxie 500, for which I paid less than $200. After I had some cheap valve work done, the fire-engine red Galaxie became a fire-breather: a charmer with the perfect V-8 purr, something that no computer-tuned lithium-ion-battery-pack buzzer will ever have. OK, OK, so 15 miles to the gallon isn’t truly economizing—knowing that when I leaned on the gas pedal I’d get that soulful sound and satisfying surge wasn’t something I put a price on anyway.
Strippers and Stolen Cars, Oh My!
There are a few other cars I’ve paid less than $300 for—and some of them even moved under their own power. However, one of the more interesting cars I’ve owned didn’t cost me a dime—until later. It was given to me and my Las Vegas housemate on the freeway spot where we picked up its frustrated driver. He’d left it for dead—a serviceable ’65 VW bug that simply had some problem with its coil wire. I was later able to legally register it (under something like an “abandoned vehicle” statute) as mine. Later, I drove it to Northern California, where I began college. I used it there for several months, so that I no longer even considered how oddly it had been acquired; it was my car.
Even when a uniformed police officer came to my English class and asked if there was a Tom Bentley there, I figured that it was my hair that had probably broken some law (my 1976 hairdo was very expressive). No, it seems I was in possession of a stolen car, of all things, and that I’d have to come to the station and straighten it out. It was easily straightened out: the car was owned by a woman in Vegas that had just loaned the car to our freeway cluck, and she’d discovered his poor stewardship upon her return from Japan, where she’d been touring with an entertainment group.
Her particular talent was removing clothing from the profound grounds of her architecture. (I found some black and white glossies of her in/out of costume in the trunk; she might put you in mind of Elly May Clampett after five vodka tonics, wearing a mail-order Lady Godiva wig).
Her name was (and might still be) Angel Blue. Under her name, the tag line on the glossies read: The Heavenly Body. As Dave Barry says, I am not making this up. And neither were the cops, who despite my protestations (and my registrations), took the car and gave it to Ms. Blue’s lawyer, who had tracked me to my academic lair. The real question I wanted answered was this: what was a stripper of Lady Blue’s talents doing with a ‘65 Volkswagen? Ah, America, where Flannery O’Connor could have one of her unforgettable characters, Hazel Motes, say, “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.”
Atomic-Bomb Toasters and Eye-Popping Brassieres
I have to agree with that, and that’s why I once bought a ’64 Studebaker, long years after the company went out of business. Hey, it had a beautiful rear end (yes, absolutely true, every sexual association made about men and their cars), and some lovely instrumentation. And, since Studebaker parts are about as numerous as King Tut’s first digital recordings, I got to meet some of the upholders of the Studebaker’s tradition of independence, the parts suppliers I had to drive an hour and a half to get to. Just a poke to the right of Karl Rove, they provided me with intriguing NRA slogans on every repair receipt.
Of course, Mother Earth cringes a bit when pedals like that hit metal, so that today it’s almost embarrassing to drive some Detroit pride from the Mad Men era. But much as I admire the concept of today’s hybrids and electrics, I just can’t dig the feel. Old cars have such a different texture, being of an era when toasters were shaped like atomic bombs, and brassieres could poke out an eye. I had a ’63 Mercury Monterey that had such a nice heft in the wheel and an appealing “floating roll” when I swung it wide at speed. It had enough chrome on its long, wide bumper to blind drivers behind me, or at least melt their ice cream. The grandmothers of everyone I know could have played bingo in the trunk.
And some old wheels have such distinctive irregularities: My ‘64 Dodge Dart had a perfectly operating 8-track player. (For those of you too callow to remember the 8-track, it was an audio device used by Nero to play back his first recorded efforts on the fiddle.) But who am I kidding? Those cars really are beasts of another, more profligate time. I raise my mad martini to yesterday’s steel, and martini #2 to the Tesla, which at least has some style. The fin is dead; long live the lithium battery.
And who knows—maybe I can convert a ’64 Lincoln to run on vegetable oil….