Tuesday, February 12, 2019

What is it about cars that makes us love them?

     This is my second piece from the special Chicago Car Show magazine that was included in Sunday's Sun-Times. 

     It was the sound.
     The growl of the 650 horsepower, supercharged V8 engine of the Corvette Z06 as I mashed the gas pedal, sinking into the red leather seat. All that power. From zero to 60 in under three seconds. The roar seemed to reach into my skin, grab my bones, and shake them.
     Of course, this being the 21st century, even that howl of raw power is actually under fine-tuned control. A few taps and the “Engine Sound Management” screen pops up, offering four modes, “Stealth,” “Tour,” “Sport” and “Track.”
     “Stealth is for when you are on long highway trips, and get tired of the noise,” said George Kiebala, owner of Curvy Road, an exotic sports car time share in Palatine. If you want the joy of driving that Corvette super car, without having to actually buy one, Curvy Road allows you access for a fraction of the cost.
     And why would anybody want to do that? Why spend $1,000 to drive a car that can go three times the legal limit for a few days?
     Maybe that is best answered by what Louis Armstrong supposedly said when somebody asked him to explain jazz: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”
     That said, let’s try.

                                                              • • •

     What is it about cars that makes us love them?

     Being American, no doubt. Love of cars is in our blood, our birthright, with our wide open expanse of roads, the last remnant of the Western frontier. Our literature is filled with classic tales of setting out on the road in cars: Jack Keroac’s “On the Road” to Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Not to mention all those songs, “Little Deuce Coupe,” and “Thunder Road” and “Little Red Corvette.” Americans are born loving cars.
     Do you believe that? Don’t. Americans were taught to love cars.
     At the beginning of the 20th century, when automobiles were introduced, and were viewed with collective horror as too fast — pushing speeds of 15 miles an hour! — and too dangerous. At mid-century, as highways began to blast through neighborhoods and the public resisted. The phrase “America’s love affair with the automobile” was coined in a 1961 TV program, “Merrily We Roll Along,” on the DuPont Show of the Week (DuPont owned a quarter of General Motors) hosted by Groucho Marx, of all people. He woodenly walks out at the beginning, leading a horse in one hand, holding a cigar in the other, and starts talking about “that great American romance between a man and his car.”
     He’s got the “man” part right. Thinking over a lifetime of car commercials — all those sleek sedans smoothly gliding over glistening roads, sprays of autumnal leaves flying everywhere — and trying to pinpoint even one that stood out, the only ad that comes to mind is one from the 1970s for the Triumph Spitfire. Even then it might be more for the fighter plane than the car.
     “You not only get a car and a girl, but a piece of history,” the narrator promises.
     Which brings up the very real possibility that love of cars is a guy thing. Being a guy myself, and therefore biased, I consulted someone who wasn’t, putting the question to one of the cleverest women I know, Molly Jong-Fast, New York novelist and Twitter wit (as well as daughter of best-selling author Erica Jong).
     Love of cars, I asked, a guy thing, right?
     “Definitely,” she said. “Definitely a guy thing.”
     “I can’t speak for the whole gender, but [loving cars] seems really dumb to me, and most women think it’s really dumb” she continued. “It doesn’t even make any sense. Men get something out of cars that is completely lost on me. I like driving just fine. … it seems , it doesn’t even make any sense, why you would you care?”
     Why do men care? As teenagers, cars represented freedom — freedom to sneak off somewhere with a girl. Besides cars offering logistical support for romance, men seem to believe that fancy cars impress women. Though looking at my own life, that hasn’t been the case.
     My wife was always maddeningly unimpressed with cars. In my mid-20s, Chevrolet let me use a brand new Corvette for a week. Midnight blue. I didn’t tell my then-girlfriend, merely showed up with it. She got in the car and started talking about her day. I looked at her, jaw hanging.
     “What?” she said, picking up on my expression.
     “THE CAR!!!!” I exclaimed. “Didn’t you notice THE CAR?!?!
     “Oh this,” she said, looking around, as if noticing it for the first time. “You know I don’t care for this kind of thing.”
     I married her anyway.
     Jong-Fast said that men like expensive cars, not to impress women, but to impress other men.
     “You definitely see it in Los Angeles,” she said. “It’s a status thing. It’s one of those things men do for other men. Funny, because women are accused of dressing for other women, for being thin for other women. Cars are proof that men are concerned with what other men think of them.”
Neil Steinberg with the 2015 BMW i8 

     There has to be more to it than that. Cars have personalities, like people, and exotic cars are loved for their quirks as much, if not more, than their speed. I drove a 
2015 BMW i8 and was most taken, not with the obviously impressive stuff — its gull wing doors — but its little quirks.     
     Such as? The hood. It’s sealed. It doesn’t open. At least, it can’t be opened by civilians, who have no business poking around in the electric motor underneath. If you want the hood opened, take it to a BMW dealer, who knows what he’s doing. I love that.

                                                                            • • •

     I’ve been talking about other men’s cars. To me, car love is reflected in a man’s first car — heck, I’m sure some women love their first cars too. My first car was utterly impractical, purchased for entirely psychological reasons. I was 22, and living alone in Los Angeles, working a job I despised. I looked at exactly one car: a 1963 Volvo P1800, white. It was my dream car; I needed the boost.
     In some ways, the car was a disaster. It had a rebuilt engine from another car. Constant repairs. But it looked fantastic — it’s the car Simon Templar drives in “The Saint.” I once got a date at a four-way stop sign with a young woman in a convertible Mustang who shouted, “What is that?”
With the P1800. Barrington, 1984.
   I owned the car for about three years. Eventually, repairs started to get to me — the radiator started leaking, and with 1963 Volvo P1800 radiators hard to find outside of Sweden, the dealer built a new one, at the cost of a week’s salary. Eventually I had to sell it. When the new owner drove it away, I cried.
     Not to end on a downer note. Those who think that the advent of self-driving cars, not to forget Uber and the prospect of silently rolling cubes delivering riders from Point A to Point B will cool the passion that many have for automobiles are mistaken. It’ll just adapt, like all long-term relationships.
     “I love my Chevy Bolt and I’d almost rather drive it than any Ferrari,” said Curvy Road’s George Kiebala, insisting I take her for a spin. It was like driving a video game. “This whole amazing transition: electrification and how its working its way into he super car world.”
     So love of cars isn’t going away?
     “Oh no, oh my goodness no,” he said. “Definitely the opposite.”

Corvette Z06


  1. I can still see it, a pale orange/red Lamborghini creeping over the sanitary canal bridge at Howard and McCormick. He couldn't drive at a normal speed as it would bottom out on the rough pavement as he approached the Arco station I managed there to fill up on our low priced gasoline. Can't say if he'd bought it used or had it for some time but the paint finish showed some age. People would stop to look and talk to him about the car while I moved from car to car at our busy pumps, and would have engaged him myself had he been more open. I made the mistake of lightly leaning on the car as the pump ran one time. It was the pillar of the roof at the rear, near the fill opening, while guarding against overspill. He took quiet exception from my transgression and combined with his natural reticence, I decided not to ask him the question my logical side was dying to ask. Why would he own such a car in the city. It seemed to me that he was probably straining his situation to own the exotic vehicle; why not something more practical. I feel the same way about the street rockets you've featured, they scream for attention against our better instincts. I've driven an early 427 Vette and the power is incredible, but actually an impediment to city travel. Give me reliable transportation and high MPG any day, and permit me my seat warmers. Of all the cars I saw at the Auto Show, sports cars, muscle cars and luxury cars, I most remember the Citroen with hydraulic shocks that allowed you to replace a flat tire without pumping a jack. Too bad the car was so ugly.

  2. Great columns on the auto show. Great picture of the 63 Volvo. You look like a real cool dude standing in front of a cool car. That's why guys dig cars. You're picture says it all.

    1. No offense to Neil, whom I hold in high esteem, but to me that photo says "trying too hard." But perhaps Molly is at least in part correct, and this is signalling between men. I have certainly never heard a grown woman impressed with a man because of the car he drives.

    2. None taken, Coey, and you are absolutely right, in that it was the most milquetoast of suburban guys trying to will his way into a kind of gritty cool. Which, I am obligated to point out, worked. Big time. It wasn't the car; it was the jacket. Or so my wife tells me.

    3. I suspect it was neither; it was the man. I bet if you had been the guy you were trying to look like, she wouldn't have been interested. Or maybe she was into leather; no judgment.

  3. Well said about the practical cars, John.

  4. A few months ago, I watched a National Geographic TV show about the design and manufacture of a (I believe) Lexus, in which there was much ado about directing the engine noise into the cabin, for the ultimate driving experience. While I'm not immune to the allure of "hot cars," I tend to devalue the experience due to an innate snobbery that I'm not particularly proud of.


  5. Well, I guess I'll be the odd one out, nothing new. I am female, and I love cars! Always have, always will. I waited with eager anticipation every year for the Auto Show, so many sweet autos to check out! Dad would get preview tickets, and we went every year and drooled over the cool concept cars. I absolutely loved it.

  6. Oh no no no Neil you’re wrong about women and cars. My first car was an orange Opel GT. Cute and nimble, it represented freedom and escape. I still own a 2001 Porsche Carrera, speed yellow, and it sings its song as I push it through the gears on the mountain roads near Santa Fe. It is certainly one of the loves of my life, responsive, challenging and always a thrill. That car taught me how to drive because it allowed me to understand the limits of control. Moreover I have many girlfriends who fell the same way about their cars. They say the same things about the sensation of being in the zone, engaged but relaxed. And oh yes, our cars are objects of beauty, those curves are there for a reason. So Neil you just need to talk to more women. Fast women!


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