Not long ago, I had a nightmare where I was trapped in a bad motel room. The paint and carpet were beige and each wall had a single, generic painting affixed to it, bolted in place to render it theft-proof (not that anyone would want it).
Or maybe it wasn't a motel room I was trapped in. It might have been a Toyota Camry, a Honda Accord or a Chevy Malibu. Colour them beige and you've got a rolling Howard Johnson's.
I mean no disrespect to these fine cars. I've owned a few. But let's face it – they are dull. To drive them is to stare down the long, colourless barrel of human existence and contemplate a meaningless eternity.
Which brings me to the subject of ennui and the state of the modern car. Never before have cars been better. And never before have they been less interesting.
Let's have a look at why.
Capitalism has produced a long list of brilliant innovations, such as computer numerically controlled (CNC) manufacturing, which allows engineers to build closer to perfect cars than before. Back in the day, the accuracy of a car part (and your chances of getting home without a tow truck) depended on the skill and attentiveness of a machinist who may or may not have been out drinking the night before.
Today's computer-monitored systems mean that perfect parts are the rule, not the exception. But a perfect car isn't necessarily an inspiring one. In fact, the reverse seems to be the case. With billions of dollars at stake, car manufacturers go with what sells – this is why the manual transmission is slowly disappearing. It is also why most modern cars fit into a series of market-driven slots – the SUV, the crossover and the endless, clone-army fleet of front-drive sedans.
It was not always so.
A few days ago, an e-mail from a reader sparked a lost memory. He sent me a video clip that showed a wooden dash, a row of metal switches and a roof open to the sky. An engine roared and wind rushed overhead. The video was accompanied by a one-line note: "Because life is too short to drive just an ordinary car."
The car in the video was a Triumph TR3. I got my first ride in one in the 1960s, before I was old enough to drive. After my dad's Mercury Comet, the TR3 felt like a Battle of Britain fighter plane – my elbow hung out over the cut-down door, and the driver flicked the stubby shift lever up through the gears. We were going 50 mph, but it felt like 200.
By contemporary standards, the TR3 wasn't a great car. First gear was non-synchromesh, the brakes were weak and today's Chevy Cruze would outrun it. So would a Toyota Corolla. But the TR3 had something that the Cruze and the Corolla don't – soul and interest.
The funky, affordable car is disappearing. Gone are the madcap days when you could buy anything from a wooden-dashed English roadster to a two-stroke Saab rally car to a Cadillac with tail fins worthy of a Saturn rocket booster. The market has sanded the edges off our machines.
If you're rich, you can still get an interesting car, such as a hand-built Morgan Aeromax or an ultra-exotic Pagani Huayra. And then there's the Chevrolet Corvette, which costs a lot less than the Morgan or the Pagani, and is definitely not dull. But it's still not cheap. Lower on the scale, the interesting-car pickings thin out. There's the Jeep Wrangler, which has soul galore, but drinks like a Toronto mayor. And then there's the Fiat 500, which looks cool, but is just another front-drive clone under the skin (the original Fiat 500 had its engine in the back).
I'm old enough to remember the golden age of the people's car. You could buy a VW Beetle, a flawed yet hugely engaging machine (thanks to the weak brakes and dodgy handling, driving a Beetle was rarely dull). Then there was the Citroen 2CV, a quirky French tin can of a machine. The 2CV was cheap and cool (and like the Beetle, it demanded your full attention, which staved off boredom).
The interesting, affordable car is not the only casualty of modern capitalism. The bookstores and model airplane shops I've always loved are disappearing, replaced by downloadable media and online stores. The classic town squares I grew up with are dead, crushed by big box malls that siphoned away all the consumers.
And then there are all those amazing, robotized car plants churning out perfect new cars. Instead of coughing, phlegm-ridden carburetors and choke knobs that you have to play like a violin to start the engine on a cold morning, they have impeccably-metered fuel injection that does it all for you automatically. Ditto for the transmission – no shifting or clutch skills required.
Handling has also been ironed out – thanks to front-wheel drive and a distinct forward weight bias, modern cars are benign if you go into a corner too fast (and the deletion of centre-mounted handbrake levers means you won't be trying any bootlegger turns, either).
The market has spoken and it has given us smooth, reliable cars that won't spin. It's hard to argue with that. But they're beige. Just like that room in my nightmare.
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