Delusion, according to Wikipedia, is "a belief held with strong conviction despite superior evidence to the contrary."
I thought of this the other day when I parked at the grocery store, only to realize that the car next to me was a doppelganger of my own – an aging Honda Accord with four doors, plain steel wheels and faded green paint. I was taken aback – was my car actually as dull and tired-looking as this one?
In my mind, I have always managed to convert my cars into something much more than they actually are. It's a survival mechanism. You may see a worn-out dad in a dented, gutless Honda, but in my mind's eye, I am piloting an overhead-cammed, independently suspended, fuel-injected engineering masterpiece.
Such is the power of automotive delusion. Trapped in a netherworld of house payments and tuition fees, our dream car never seems to materialize. A reader sent me an e-mail this week that summed up the car-buff blues: "I am relegated to two kids in private school and a 10-year-old Camry."
Brother, I know your pain. We cope by altering vehicular reality – in our warped psyches, our economy sedan becomes a BMW M3, our minivan an Aston Martin. That's the beauty of automotive delusion – an everyday car is invested with hopes and dreams, its virtues magnified, its faults ignored. And voilà – it becomes the Family Man's Ferrari.
The delusion process begins with a form of reverse snobbery, where any everyday car becomes a covet-able, desirable machine that reflects the astute, non-bourgeois tastes of its owner. Take my friend James, for example, a young man of considerable intelligence and aesthetic sensibility who happens to loves cars. He drives a Toyota Corolla. But not just any Corolla – his is an XRS model, which has a slightly retuned suspension and about 30 more horsepower than the base model. This allows James to maintain his street cred, and look down on poor wretches forced to drive garden-variety Corollas that lack the all-important XRS badge.
He reminds me of myself. In the 1970s, as a broke student, I had a 1965 Volvo 544 – a slow, humpbacked machine that looked like a 1940s Ford outfitted with fog lamps and a less-powerful engine. But mine was not just any 544. Instead, I had the rare Sport model. I can't recall exactly what made a Sport so special, but I did feel that I had achieved some form of exalted vehicular status, and that my machine had special powers, even though the changes were probably limited to slightly different hubcaps and the Sport badge. No matter – my 544 Sport allowed me to look down on the poor fools who had wasted their money on BMWs and Alfa Romeos. I had a rally-worthy Swedish machine with an engine that would last forever, and a 0-to-60 time best measured with a calendar.
I began to develop my powers of automotive self-delusion in my teens, when I convinced myself that the brilliant modifications I made to my well-worn Fiat 600 had turned it into a genuine sports car. Only later did I admit to myself that a fake hood scoop and a cut-down shift lever didn't actually make my car faster.
After that came a series of VW Beetles. Others might have seen my cars as pathetic, under-powered jokes, but in my mind, they were finely tuned German sports cars – like a Porsche, they had rear-mounted engines and German heritage. I was driving an engineering masterpiece. Or so I believed.
In my mid-twenties, I did enjoy a brief golden age of motorsport, when I built modified cars that were actually good, raced motorcycles and drove Formula 2000 cars. I was driving the real thing. My delusional days were done. Or so I thought.
By the 1980s, I was a family man, driving a four-door Honda Civic. But, as I liked to remind myself, it had double-wishbone suspension, a close-ratio manual transmission, and a dual-overhead cam motor. I was driving a sports car. It just happened to have a baby seat, stained upholstery and a collection of Barbie dolls in the back window. Who needed a tuned BMW?
Even at my lowest point, I continued to think of myself as a driver and mechanical connoisseur. I put performance tires on my minivan, and serviced it myself, savouring the sweet hum of the six-cylinder motor after I filled it with fresh synthetic oil and torqued in a new set of spark plugs. This wasn't just any minivan – it was a Honda Odyssey, a masterpiece of vehicular engineering. Or at least this was the theory that sustained me.
Two years ago, an unexpected thing happened. I got a genuine sports car. It's a Lotus, a brand I grew up dreaming about because of its racing pedigree and the engineering brilliance of founder Colin Chapman.
The Lotus is beautiful, fast, and inspirational. No delusion is required. I'm still not used to that. Old habits die hard.
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