If I’d thought of keeping a driver’s logbook when I was younger, there would be hundreds of cars in it by now. So why do I only remember a few of them?
When I tried to list all the vehicles I’ve experienced, I realized that countless cars have been deleted from my mental hard drive. I know I’ve driven a Chevy Citation and a Hyundai Elantra, but I have no more memory of them than I do of the various motel rooms I’ve stayed in over the years.
This got me thinking about the nature of automotive soul, and why some cars stick in our minds while others are forever erased. The last time I drove a Triumph TR3 was 1975, but when I close my eyes, I can still feel the TR3’s steering wheel in my hands, the metallic click of its Smiths toggle switches, and the rush of grey pavement past my elbow.
I also have vivid memories of my first drive in a 1970 Fiat 500. In part, this is because the car failed during my brief ride, sputtering to a stop next to the Belgian AutoRoute when the distributor’s drive shaft sheared off. I walked to a pay phone and called a friend who eventually arrived with parts and tools. We got home at 3 a.m., hypothermic after repairing the 500 in the cold rain – as I’ve learned, misery is often a basis for solid memories.
Most of the cars I’ve experienced have provided no misery at all. They have been reliable and useful, and they got me where I wanted to go. Yet driving them had all the thrill of a day spent in a grey office cubicle with no family pictures on the walls.
Take our family Honda Accord. It’s an excellent car. Soulful, it is not. Like the vast majority of vehicles, it is the product of a committee-driven design process that sands the rough edges off a product, along with much of its distinctiveness and character. The Accord is the essence of the generic car. It is also completely and utterly reliable – an admirable quality that nonetheless limits the bonding process.
Unreliability adds to a car in the same way that jail time and a drug habit contributes to the character of a blues singer. But with a blues singer, you can just buy the songs. In the case of a car, you are plunged into a nightmare relationship of roadside breakdowns, aborted drives and endless repairs that go on like Lindsay Lohan’s troubles with the law.
As with human relationships, uniqueness and imperfection add a certain flavour to vehicular dealings. But how much of it is required to make a car special? The Jaguar E-Type is one of the most soulful cars of all time – and one of the most unreliable. What about the French-built Citroën 2CV, which has legions of admirers despite its laughable lack of power and a body that resembles a corrugated tin shack with headlights?
These are definitely soulful cars, yet they’re not my cup of tea. I don’t want to spend my days persuading an E-Type to start, or fearing for my life as I attempt a highway merge in a 12-horsepower 2CV.
But I crave uniqueness. I believe we all do. And when it comes to cars, I’ve found it in unexpected places.
I really enjoyed driving an early 1960s Lincoln Continental – the steering was numb, and it drank gas like a drunken sailor, but the Continental embodied the spirit of its time, and for that I was grateful. I loved the Porsche Boxster Spyder for its litheness, its quick-revving motor and its quirky manual top, which had to be assembled like a pup tent. Against all odds, I liked the Toyota Prius for its spacey shape that refused to pander to consensus tastes. The 1963 Jaguar 3.8 saloon also left a lasting impression, thanks to a red leather and wood interior that reminded me of an English men’s club.
A few years ago, I read Shakey, a biography of musician Neil Young. Until I read the book, I had no idea that Neil was a car buff. The author described Neil’s preference for old rides rebuilt from the ground up by a team of mechanics he keeps on staff (usually at a cost that exceeded that of a new Ferrari.) I was also fascinated by Neil’s choice of musical equipment – although he can afford the latest, Neil has resolutely stuck with a battered 1953 Gibson guitar he calls “Old Black.”
Neil’s amplifiers are analogue dinosaurs – Baldwin Exterminators and smoking, tube-filled Fender Deluxes that his roadies cool with strategically placed fans so they don’t explode. (Neil also employs a technical wizard known as The Amp Doctor.)
Although I’d listened to Neil’s music for years without analyzing its technical underpinnings, I realized that Neil’s equipment choices are key to his distinctive sound, which has been described as a “jet plane in a thunderstorm.” Like it or not, Neil’s sound is different. And due to the vagaries of analogue amplification, Neil himself is never the same twice. Like Bob Dylan’s, Neil’s voice is far from perfect, but it is human and unforgettable. And so are my favourite cars.
I love the Citroën DS19 for its spectacular, only-in-France shape and idiosyncratic, self-leveling suspension, for example. The Shelby Cobra is raw and brutal, but there’s nothing else like it. Then there’s the Lotus Seven, a tiny sports car that looks like a soapbox derby racer with a motor.
Which brings me to the late Colin Chapman, the visionary British engineer who founded Lotus cars back in 1952. Chapman started out in a London horse stable, and went on to win seven Formula One championships.
Like Neil Young, Chapman had a distinctive philosophy when it came to his creations. Chapman’s mantra was lightness. (It was rumoured that he engineered his cars by taking out pieces until they collapsed under their own weight, then putting the last piece back in.) Many of his race drivers fought with Chapman, arguing that the cars were too fragile (some believe that Chapman’s obsession with weight reduction played a role in the deaths of F1 stars Jim Clark and Jochen Rindt).
Although Chapman died of cancer in 1982, the cars made by his company still carry his stamp. Every Lotus I’ve driven (including the 2012 Evora S I bought this year) feels like a race car with a licence plate bolted on to it. But each and every Lotus has some quirk that the product planners at Toyota would have eliminated long before production. The iconic Seven has a foot well so narrow that your legs cramp within an hour or so. The old Elan’s too-light fibreglass body twisted and flexed, creating spidery stress-cracks that could never be eliminated, no matter how hard you tried.
My new Evora S is rock solid, and yet even it has trademark Lotus idiosyncrasies – the gears whine like a race car’s at low speed, the switch that controls the power side mirrors is placed so you can’t reach it without swapping your hands on the steering wheel, and the satellite radio is inhabited by gremlins.
I do hope to fix the radio, but the rest I can live with – celebrate, in fact. A committee did not design my car. Nor did they design Neil Young’s sound or my wife’s slightly asymmetric smile, which is imperfect, but in a perfect way.
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