Until I met a young man named Eric Henderson down in North Carolina, I had no idea that there was a Ford Pinto club (or that anyone would join one if it existed). Eric not only belonged to the club, he had the car's name tattooed onto his body – his right arm declared that he was "Pinto Man."
A Ferrari club, I could understand. But why would anyone start a club based on a Ford economy car best remembered for premature rust and bursting into flames in rear-end collisions? "It was my first car," Eric told me. "I love it."
Not long after, I learned that there are also clubs for the Mercury Topaz, Toyota Yaris, Kia Soul, and dozens of other cars that never struck me as objects of worship. Even the lamentable Chrysler K-Car has a club (which proves that there really is something for everyone).
This got me thinking about the nature of human association. It seems that we are have an ancient urge to form flocks and join movements – Scientology, communism, quilting groups, book clubs – the list goes on. We find points of commonality, and sign up to be with others like us. (If you're looking for something more exotic, there's always the Wisconsin Hearse Organization (WHO), which describes itself as "a new group in Wisconsin for hearse enthusiasts.")
A typical car club is designed to pay homage to a vehicle of great popularity or exceptional design. Mustang and Corvette clubs litter the landscape, and there are more MG and Triumph clubs than you can count. (As far as I can tell, the English classic clubs are based on a combination of historical reverence and cleaning fetishism – some owners polish their brake drums and keep their vehicles inside inflatable, hermetically sealed vinyl pods known as Carcoons.)
The problem with a car club is the perishability of its central object – unlike Christianity (which worships an eternal being) or communism (which is based on timeless economic theory), a car club is centred on a steel and rubber object that can be stolen, destroyed in a crash, or eaten away by the relentless forces of rust and decay.
A club's raison d'etre disappears when the car does. If you base a club on a collectible vehicle like the Jaguar E-Type, your club can survive for a while after the car goes out of production. (When I spoke at a Jaguar Club meeting last year, the parking lot was filled with 50-year-old cars that looked like they had just rolled out of the showroom.)
This doesn't work so well for a car like the Ford Tempo, which is not usually treated like an objet d'art and future museum piece by its owners – Tempos are typically used as disposable transportation appliances, and are shown all the love and care that a Mexican drug exporter would lavish on a rented mule.
My first car club was an Austin Healey Association in British Columbia. My membership was part of an intervention process on the part of my father, who had wisely kiboshed my plan to buy an Austin Healey 3000 roadster. "Think about it for a while," my father ordered. "Learn more about the car."
Given that I had never actually driven an Austin Healey, I had to admit that this was good advice. So I joined the Healey club, where I soon learned that I really didn't like the car I had lusted for – the Healey had heavy steering, ox-cart suspension and a genetic predisposition to terminal rust. When my Healey Club membership lapsed, I did not renew.
Even so, I understood the motivations of my former club's membership. The Healey was an historic car that represented the style and spirit of post-war England. (Plus, it looked great, had a beautiful exhaust note and attracted women in droves.) If you want to congregate around a car, there are worse choices than the Healey.
A car can achieve cult status several ways. One is volume – the Ford Model T and VW Beetle aren't great performers, but as two of the best-selling cars of all time, they were rendered important through sheer ubiquity. Cult status can also be attained through mechanical innovation (like the pneumatic-suspension Citroen DS19) or outright strangeness (like the Tatra 603, a Czech-built sedan that looks like a Sputnik capsule with four wheels.)
A car club can even be based on reverse status – like the Trabant Cub, which celebrates the shoddily built, smoke-belching people's car that came out of communist East Germany (the fall of the Berlin Wall vastly expanded the club, needless to say).
One of the most durable car-club formulas is exclusivity: there are only so many Bugatti 35s and Stanguellini Berlinettas, so a club makes sense, if only to maximize your chances of finding spare parts. Low-volume cars also encourage club membership as a form of psychological support. If you have squandered your family's nest egg on a sports car so tiny that it can't carry groceries, you will probably want to spend time with others who have done the same thing, if only to delude yourself into believing that you are not actually insane (full disclosure: I joined the Lotus Club in the 1990s).
But the Pinto club still eludes me. The Pinto is not exclusive, beautiful or ubiquitous. It was bad, but not bad enough for reverse-snob cult status (an exploding gas tank, sadly, does not guarantee automotive immortality).
So as much as I enjoyed meeting young Eric down at the Stop & Save gas bar in North Carolina, I believe the day will come when he regrets having the name of a proletarian Ford inked on his arm. Or maybe not – the Pinto is no classic, but Eric loves it, and it makes him part of something larger than himself.
We need to believe, and to we need to belong, even if our point of unification is a Ford Pinto – as John Donne said, no man is an island.
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