For those of us of a certain age, cars often served as a touchstone to mark the significance points of our lives. It is said that young folks today are not into cars the way we used to be. That is not surprising given how boring most of today's cars are. They tend to all look more or less the same; the sedans all bloated like neutered cats such that you can't tell a Hyundai from a Mercedes; the ubiquitous SUVs are all variations on boxy bricks that you attempt to push through the air. Even someone as narcissistic and full of bravado as Elon Musk makes cars that look pretty much the same as everyone else's. The claim to fame of most vehicles is the technology. Many of today's cars are essentially computers with wheels. Sure they are more reliable, safer and easier to live with then cars of yesteryear but they have no personality, no defining characteristics and they increasingly are not even mechanical. When I lift the hood of my current ride I can not even see the engine as it is shrouded in a multitude of covers, pipes, hoses, wires and containers. I can not find the spark plugs or even the oil dipstick. It turns out there is no dipstick and you check the oil from what looks like a TV screen in the cabin. If you can't get you hands dirty what is the point?
Cars used to have personality, spirit - they were very individualistic; unreliable, unsafe and needing constant maintenance yes but interesting and in many cases beautiful. Like many kids who's early teen years were spent sitting on the lawn in the dark and identifying every car that drove down the road just by their headlights my 16th birthday was marked by visiting the motor vehicle office to fill out the application for my learner's permit. I began driving legally that day. For some years my car adventures were confined to the car my parents owned; putting fender skirts on their Chevy; convincing them to buy a brand new Ford 2 door hard top - a black beauty with perfect red upholstery which within the year I used to cut off an electric pole and trying to electrocute myself.
It was exactly the kind of car adventure that, if your survived, became one of your life defining stories told endlessly until your friends wouldn't put up with it any longer. In fact a good part of my senior year in high school was defined by the crashes of my friends and me. This continued on into my college career where I got to ride along on forays into ditches, fields and the occasional rollover. Given the lack of safety equipment in those days it's amazing how many of us walked away relatively unscathed. Many people opposed seat belts but I became a big fan especially after the rollover.
The first car of my own was a lowly Ford Falcon but I was able to score a 4-speed manual transmission on the floor - a very rare thing back in the 60s especially in a used car that I could almost afford. I capped my episodic car crashes by getting hit head on by a GTO while driving my small 2 seat Saab Sonett strewing 200 yards of shredded fiberglass down the road and into the snowbank where it and I landed. I somehow walked away but the car had to wait several months for parts from Sweden before it returned to the road, but return it did.
Cars of course weren't just tailfins and candy apple red paint, they also were rites of passage in other ways. For a number of years I made an annual pilgrimage to the Watkins Glen Race course for the United States Formula 1 Grand Prix race. This was sort of like Woodstock with automobiles sans the music. It was large gangs of young people abusing a variety of substances fenced within the perimeter of the racetrack for three days. A good time but not a pretty sight from the outside. Surprisingly we mostly watched the races but they consumed a fairly small amount of time compared to the rest of the festivities. Of course they also provided great tutorials for safe driving practices on the way home.
Cars were dreams not mere transportation. Although we mostly drove used Chevy's and Fords we dreamed of new Cameros and Corvettes, of T-birds and Mustangs, of big V8s that rumbled and roared. Exciting cars inspire interesting car songs. From home tinkers with little deuce coups and hot rod Lincolns to muscle cars like the 409 and GTO or sports cars like a little Cobra all begot songs that were the soundtrack of our lives. Not that they were all great songs. Some like Maybellene and Hot Road Lincoln have stood the test of time but with all due respect to the Beach Boys "She's real fine my 409" is not a lyric for the ages. But it was the sound, the sound of our times, the sound of our lives.
And inevitably there were songs about those car crashes like Dead Man's Curve, the Last Kiss, Tell Laura I Love Her and of course Teen Angel. Who's going to write about my automatic emergency braking system, my blind spot detection system or the deployment of my six airbags? No one writes songs about the model S 90 long range, the Toyota Prius or the Honda CR-V. The music has become as boring as the cars.
Its summer; hit the road, put on some car tunes; Chuck Berry, Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys; put down the windows, turn up the volume but not so much you can't hear that big V-8 rumble - if only in your dreams.
One Small Voice
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