Motor City

Three simple yet important qualities or questions guide my taste in automobiles: function (Does it work?), utility (Can it get me there?), and size (Can I comfortably stuff ten or twelve adults and/or children loaded like sherpas into it?). Other factors essential to more fervent automotive buyers like style, make, model, year, country, cleanliness, stereo, sunroof, engine, quantity of tailfins, speed, color, brightness of headlights, mileage, cost, or thickness of racing strips are ignored, unwanted necessities like new socks on Christmas morning. I do not care if the machine I am driving happens to be a 1970 Ford GT 500 Mustang convertible or dispenses coffee milkshakes (though that feature is long past due). If I fear damaging the car to such an extent that I cannot drive it, the thing no longer becomes a car but a large metal albatross around my neck, a driveway monument to American excess or – if they include the milkshake dispenser – genius.

On the other hand, if my brother Kevin was forced to choose between, say . . . a castle in the Alps and a 1970 Mustang, I would not invest in a home-warming gift . . . unless said gift involved a pair of fuzzy pink dice. Kevin absolutely loves tractors and cars of any and all kinds, an obsession as strange to me as my bibliophilia probably is to him. Given the opportunity, he would jump on our riding mower like the Lone Ranger on Silver amid three feet of snow even just to cut down any ambitious blades of grass that look a little bit too healthy. Moreover, he adores American cars – Ford especially – becoming quite agitated if you insult his favorite models or praise any foreign makers with too much fervor. Thus any critique is seen as a personal insult. This is where Pat and I come in:

Pat: “So Kev, I hear that Toyota is the top-selling car in America. That’s like the entire nation, right?”
Kev: “GRRRRRR!” *he punches Pat’s arm and storms off*

Kev: “Ford rocks!”
Murph: “Yeah, it shudders and quakes too. Usually just before it breaks down!”
Kev: “GRRRRRRRRR! *he punches my arm and storms off*

Pat: “Hey Kev, when you get your license will you get a Forerunner?”
Kev: “Foreign piece of crap. I’m going to get a 1970 Ford Mustang GT 500.” (he says this as if it’s one word).
Pat: “You’re right. A Forerunner’s probably too powerful for you. Too much SUV for one man.”
Kev: “That stupid car doesn’t have power. It’s not American. It’s weak!”
Murph: “It’s Japanese. It can transform into a giant robot, shoot surface-to-air missiles, fly, and make coffee milkshakes. It can do anything!”
Kev: “That car cannot transform!”
Murph: “Sure it can. It’s Japanese. It’s like standard features on all their products. I’m pretty sure the blender will transform if you’re man enough to find the right button.”
Kev: “ GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR *he punches our arms and storms off*

As I said before, it is quite fun to irritate family members if you know the right . . . well, buttons to push. Nevertheless, despite his short temper Kevin possesses great inventive intelligence capable of disemboweling an engine or gadget for parts and reassembling them into something totally unique and new. I try to avoid mentioning that many of the parts were not made in the states. Such truths I fear could destroy him.

Dasad on the other hand has a distinct preference in foreign cars, namely Acura’s and Subaru’s (and one day he hopes a Ferrai or two). While Kevin can take an engine apart, examine it, and put it back together within seconds, Dasad can recognize the make, model, and year of any automobile on the road merely from glancing at their headlights. Listening to him talk is like hearing Sherlock Holmes lecture on the various kinds of soils a footprint can leave behind. However, like Holmes and heroin, the man does get a little hung up on head lights though. For example, Dasad’s current vehicle is an Acura, an Acura XM . . uh, MXD? Or is it CCR? No, . . .um, Eclipse? Well it is small, gray and has an internal navigator with voice recognition like in Knight Rider. Anyway his headlights resemble miniature moons captured within crystal globes and powered by a million tiny nuclear reactors. They figuratively burn holes in the surrounding forest and any deer foolish enough to jump at the wrong moment. Literally they blind the hell out of anyone driving from the opposite direction.

My Explorer’s headlights resemble candle flames compared with his earthbound beacons, a fact that amuses Dasad whenever we happen to be driving.

Now these three varied and distinct personalities collided at the auto show this weekend. One would of course consider me the neutral judge in this debate among foreign and domestic automobiles, between Dasad and Kevin. However, as mentioned before, I wield little authority among the car enthusiasts, possessing little in the way of engineering or mechanical intelligence. I am trained as a biochemist, a proficiency which is arguable at best. However, my perspective is not totally for naught. For example, I can easily judge the speed of any car by three distinct qualities:

1) Number of “ponies” under the hood (Ponies: a slang term here meaning horsepower for those not in the know)

2) The flatness of the body (I call this the fish test; if a car looks like a flounder it must move really fast)

3) The number and style of tailfins attached to the rear (by and large, the longer and higher the tailfin, the faster the car moves. Cars that possess two or more long tailfins never actually remain stationary. What you see in the parking lots is actually the afterimage burned into your retina of an automobile which travels so fast that it resides in several different places at the same time).

I also learned that car companies love bribing potential buyers with cheap trinkets and former Miss America contestants, who distribute them. Unfortunately I am easily bought. Several fake smiles and sheepish nods later, I am encumbered with piles of key chains, cheap plastic pen holders in the shape of SUVs, fully illustrated car brochures, and of course several logo-marked bags to tote it all. With a few carefully aimed jump-shots, we buried most of this swag in designated recycling bins. Everything but the bags. Not knowing enough to question or criticize any of the automotive specimens, I resorted to judging the cars on the basis of swag. If a company could afford to offer free high-priced goods to potential customers, they must — or so I reasoned — christen each of their products with the same love and dedication. Shopping bags were thus emblematic of the quality of the automobile.

In this war, Scion far exceeded all others in style and thickness, enveloping the logo in a sea of smooth metallic gray. It was beautiful. Meanwhile, Ford’s totes lacked any real style or interest: an uncreative white with the company logo on the front. It seemed to exude boredom; as if the geniuses at marketing said “Hey, who cares what it looks like? It’s just a bag.” Just a bag indeed. What if the engineers held their work to the same standards? “Hey, who cares? It’s just an air bag.”

I would offer a few photos comparing the two; however, they have mysteriously gone missing from my desk before I could take any photographs. Apparently my little theory was discovered earlier than intended, and somewhere up in my brother’s room lies an immaculate white bag pressed and folded like flower petals in the folds of a Tolstoy novel.

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