The Fin Is Dead; Long Live The Fin

My sweet two-tone '62, many moons ago

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….

30 thoughts on “The Fin Is Dead; Long Live The Fin

  1. What a wonderful love story, Tom. I whole-heartedly agree: a car that doesn’t speak to me isn’t worth driving. That said, I’ve owned a Prius for a few years now just because I wanted to know what hybrids are about. they are everything they say but the Prius has no soul at all. So it needs to go.
    Apart from that: there is nothing wrong with the dinosaurs. Given the few miles they do they are ecologically irrelevant. So keep it up. And you may like to hear that there is even a country named Finland. There are still plenty of newborn Fins there, I am told.

    Wonderful blog, thanks!

  2. It is a love story, isn’t it Bodo? And man, those engines are HOT! Yeah, I do admire the electrics & hybrids, but none have given me that little thrill I talk about in the piece. But I think Cadillac is coming out with something pretty nifty soon.

    By the way, you did make me laugh with your Finland comment. I don’t know what that says about our sense of humor, but perhaps a doctor might.

  3. “a vast expanse of carchitecture, a car whose rear end was in another time zone”- ah, this is why I love your writing so!

    And the story of the stripper and the VW- now I see where that particular subplot in your first novel came from!

    Yes these cars are more Visceral than many of today’s, though I counter that by the challenge of trying to maximize mpg in my Prii. The older one, the 2003 of the very different design, “stealths”, or runs on battery only, much better. And its styling is unique and preferable to the Karman-tailed newer generations.

    What I still look forward to is a carbon-nanotube super-capacitor-powered fly-by-wire electric rocket with e-motors in each wheel and 0-60 accelerations limited by the rubber not the power. Ah, well. Be a few years yet.

  4. Rick, I know it’s a mad obsession for Prius owners to try to maximize mileage. You’ve probably customized your cars with wind baffles and contoured fender scallops from kits downloaded from NASA. There is sure fun in that (and it’s nice on the wallet.)

    But I still love the weird and wild cars of yesteryear. Of course, since I have the mechanical ability of a turnip, owning approximately 40 cars in my lifetime has kept me from becoming an industry titan, since all my investment money has gone into repairs, alas.

    I will split the down payment on the rocket with you when it’s ready.

  5. Niiiice caddy! But then, 1962 was a good year for a well-built chassis.

    A gorgeous bit of writing here, sir.

  6. Why thank you, madame. One always has to consider how high to raise the fender skirts on vintage vehicles; discretion is advised. I would have included the photo of me sprawling on top of this car, in powerfully unattractive sweat pants and a mop of hair, but I couldn’t find it, so taste was preserved.

  7. Well, I’ve never owned a car (does that make me a Commie?), but my favorite was my dad’s Lancia Appia. Here I am “driving” it.

    Not sure what the other car in the pic is, but I think my parents did own a Studebaker at one point.

  8. @ Rick: great advice. I would think, however, that the accumulation of garbage, body parts and traffic signs will diminish results over time. Despite the fancy rear view camera.
    @ Jodi: Lancias are an even bigger staple of the true car enthusiast than, say, Alfa Romeos. They practically never worked which explains the backup vehicle in the background. Your dad probably “drove” it the same way you did?
    @Tom: doctor? You mean the guy who sells me those shiny pills downtown?

  9. @Bodo: yes, yes- I need a bigger screen inside the vehicle! The whole driving-backwards vibe is especially difficult whilst texting, emailing, shaving, and sipping a latte all at the same time. All those issues except shaving, espacially the Burma variety, were non-existent during The Era of the Fin…

    @Jodi: I once drove my 2003 Prius in for service and biked to work and back, picking up the fuel-sipping hybrid on the way home. That’s the day that John Ashcroft personally started a dossier on me for not doing my part to consume enough imported fossil fuels. Ah, the price of Early Adoption…

    @Tom: How did you DO that? No, no, don’t tell me- that and the magic trick with the three rings should forever remain a mystery to me.

  10. Jodi, it goes without saying that you’re a Commie, but I said it anyway. Love the Lancia! That other car isn’t a Studie (it would be weirder, for a ’60–’63 Studie, which by fin shape/size looks like the year range here); it might be a Chrysler of some kind.

    Bodo, yes, the shiny pills are best; I double the dose when I drive.

    Rick, I used to ride my bike IN the Caddy; plenty of room to stretch the legs and wheels.

  11. Ah, the 60’s-era Caddy. Riding a bike in one was just the beginning of experiencing the Extravaganza in Sheet Metal vibe.

    My neighbor’s father, a high-livin’ Titleist golf equipment salesman, had the model of Caddy that had its own Zip codes. Yes, plural. Each car took two Zip codes to identify itself.

    From the headlights to the tail fins was a good 5-iron shot too.

  12. @Bodo, oh, he drove it all right. People would stop him, and follow him, and ask for rides. More on the white car below.

    @Tom, I just called my mom and she thinks the other car was my grnadpa’s DeSoto. And ’60-’62 is about right. I would have been bigger in ’63.

  13. First car I remember is my dad’s ’57 Buick Roadmaster. Mind-boggling that this beast was 18′ long and weighed 2 1/4 tons. Top speed of 120mph, after which it would take 11 years and 492 miles to come to a full stop.

    My first car was a ’59 Renault Dauphine, which was 66% as long and weighed less than 1/3 of a Roadmonster.

    I don’t want anything that ginormous, but when I get excited about our minivan’s oomph on the rare occasions when it’s not lugging everything we own . . . well, it’s time to rent a ’57 *something* and do some 0-60 testing.

  14. Yeah Joel, a 57 Roadmaster! A juggernaut of steel and chrome! I did take my Caddy over 100 once, and it was a hallucinatory ride, because at that speed, the shocks and the car’s girth, which gave it a floating effect of not being on the road regardless, magnified that sense of drifting into the apocalypse. I loved it, of course.

    I will race your mini-van against my ’81 380SL that I have right now. Beautiful car, but even with its tiny V-8, it has no go. Probably because though it’s a two-seater, it weighs about 5,000 pounds. Or feels like it, at least. But it’s pretty…

  15. 1981, eh? That car is from a period where U.S. emission regulations forced German car makers to strangulate their engines to comply with the law. Since now your car is a classic I am sure you could get it tuned without anyone looking. If you really want to smoke that mini-van, that is…

    And hey, try weighing it without you in it. Wikipedia says the curb weight should be around 3,500 pounds which isn’t bad for a car this size.

  16. Race, as in, you think you’ll win?

    As far as I know, the only time I’ve ever even been in a car doing 100+ was Dad’s ’64 Buick (nothing remotely like the Roadmaster) on Interstate 8 in San Diego. At rush hour. Because my 17-year-old big brother thought he should see if it could be done.

    I can. 110mph. God clearly had a plan for me, ’cause I’m still alive. I do cry easily since then, though.

  17. Joel, my fastest ever in a car (though I wonder about the speedo accuracy) was in a very souped-up early 70s Camaro, driven by my friend’s brother who later was the owner of several race cars. We were heading back to Long Beach from San Diego at around 3am, and his speedo, which went to 140, was at 130.

    Whether it was 130 or 120, it was eyeball-spinning fast, and I was both thrilled and horrified. Kind of like how I am at breakfast.

  18. Jodi, now I know the identity of that crazed blue-haired tailgater who was trying to play bumper-tag with me on my coast-to-coast drive many years ago. Bubbe Kaplan, always a troublemaker!

  19. Bodo, I just KNEW you were going to leave us all in the dust with some Autobahn-spawned comment.

    Jodi, I meant that Grandma was a pioneer—that she had a blue mohawk way before the Sex Pistols days.

  20. So, Tom, summarizing your story: your friend’s brother’s Speedo went to 140, which was memorable for you. Got it.

    I tried going over 100 on a motorcycle once. Kawasaki 1000. I’d get the speedo to 99.9 and my right arm went limp, proving that it was smarter than my brain at the time.

    The slowest I’ve ever gone is this week, trying to get any work done on these books. I hate technology, and plan to hand write every copy of my next book.

  21. Since Joel is going to be n (Gack!) New Jersey soon, I wish to describe the scariest thing I’ve ever seen on the New Jersey Turnpike. I was in the middle of three lanes. Doing around 60. Suddenly a blue blur went past, a car with the kinetic energy of a small asteroid hurtling through the Kuiper Belt. Or Oort cloud, whichever would make it seem faster.

    That car contained three nuns.

  22. Living where I do, and with Jodi car-lessly out of the race, I think I can easily claim the “minus” record, too. I have repeatedly wasted 3-4 hours of my life doing the 30 miles into New York or back. My highlight being a 1 1/2 hr traffic jam in front of the outbound Lincoln Tunnel – AT 1:30 AM!

    Gee, this almost sounds like I am proud of it. I should really find another doctor.

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