There are times when you witness a turning point in history. On Sept. 11, 2001, I was in New York City, watching an F-16 zoom down Broadway as smoke rose from the ruins of the World Trade Center. Years later, I witnessed another key moment, far different, yet sobering in its own strange way: I watched Paris Hilton load shopping bags into her car.
The scene was Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles, and the car was a Bentley Continental GT, a machine that talented engineers had spent untold hours designing. But to Hilton, it was nothing but a fashion accessory – she dropped a bag of expensive new shoes in the trunk, spent a few seconds posing for the paparazzi, and drove off.
Did she know that her car had one of the rarest engine configurations in the world (12 cylinders, divided into banks of three)? Or that Bentley's founder designed the motor that powered the Sopwith Camel back in the First World War? Probably not.
Not to lay the blame at the feet of Ms. Hilton, but our relationship with the car has changed. Car advertising focuses on infotainment systems. Porsches no longer have dipsticks. Audi brought out a car with a hood that can't be opened. As relationships go, the one we have with the car could be defined as deeply superficial.
"The general public just wants to turn the key and drive away," says Chris Tchornicki, a lifelong automotive enthusiast and the owner of a U.S. company called Sevens and Elans. "It's like using an appliance. You don't need to know anything, and most people don't want to. They're more interested in their smartphone."
There was a time when you had to understand a bit of mechanical technology to drive a car – unless you could work a crank starter and set the spark advance, you weren't going anywhere in a Model T. In the 1970s, many cars still had manually-operated chokes, which altered the fuel mixture through a dash-mounted lever. Starting a Fiat 600 on a sub-zero morning demanded the expert touch that Jimi Hendrix once brought to the tremolo bar of his Stratocaster.
Fast forward to today. Every car on the market starts with robotic reliability, and advertising focuses on infotainment features, luxury interiors and storage space for lifestyle accessories. Gone are the days when manufacturers played up independent rear suspension or twin camshafts. Kia runs an ad where a hip couple exits a club and cues up the music in their car on Bluetooth. Mercedes features lingering shots of beautiful people revelling in their car's perfect interior. In the age of Kim Kardashian and 140-character news, people buy a car because it has WiFi and sleek leather.
Our changing relationship with the car is part of broad social and intellectual shifts that have been discussed by observers like Matthew Crawford, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, who also works as a motorcycle mechanic.
In his best-known book, Shop Class As Soulcraft, Crawford writes about the increasing disconnect between the physical and virtual worlds, and the growth of a class of consumer he describes as "more passive and more dependent."
These are the people who use their cars as Hilton does – they may drive them, but they know nothing about them. Their cars are part consumer appliance, part social prosthesis: the car takes them where they want to go, and enhances their image on the way.
As Crawford notes, car design reflects this new cultural reality: "… an engineering culture has developed in recent years in which the object is to 'hide the works,' rendering the artifacts we use unintelligible to direct inspection. Lift the hood on some cars now (especially German ones), and the engine appears a bit like the shimmering, featureless obelisk that so enthralled the cavemen in the opening scene of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Essentially, there is another hood under the hood."
For those who have experienced true connection with a machine, seeing a closed-off engine compartment is a sign of the times. As I read Crawford's book, I thought of all the cars I've driven. The list has included some of the costliest, most exotic machines in the world, and yet my favourite driving experiences were in simple cars that I fixed myself, such as the well-worn Fiat 600 my parents gave me while I attended high school.
The Fiat was no dream car, and yet it took me on a special journey. I stayed up late reading repair manuals, then headed down to the garage. Armed with my father's wrenches and screwdrivers, I tuned the Fiat's carburetor until its cough was gone, and brightened the headlights by tracing down a faulty electrical ground.
My most rewarding drive was in a 1967 VW Beetle. After several years working as a mechanic in Vancouver, I decided to go back to university. I bought the VW for next to nothing, because it was in rough shape. I rebuilt every major component in the car over the next few months, then set out for Halifax, home of Kings College.
As I headed east through the Rockies, the Beetle's little engine purred away behind me. Everything I had learned through my apprenticeship had been condensed into this piece of machinery: I had balanced the pistons, line-bored the engine cases, and honed the intake manifolds. The cylinder heads were perfectly torqued. The engine was a microcosm, its energies harnessed and balanced. After years of practice, I had built a good motor. I knew it would carry me to university, and through the years to come.