MAXWELL:  A car is more than just wheels

7/2/1995 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Cars are destiny. And some are more destiny than others. Cars are a reflection of the people who drive them, and people mirror the cars they drive. All of this is common sense, of course. But how often do we get off the asphalt to reflect upon our relationship with the vehicles we drive? What kind of car do you drive and why do you drive it?

My vehicle is a 1991 Chevrolet S-10 Blazer. The main reason I drive a sport-utility vehicle is that I hate almost everything about today’s cars. Also, I travel most weekends and drag along a lot of junk _ clothes, books, newspapers, magazines, cameras, a computer, a sleeping bag, a full-sized cooler stocked with food and drink, a 21-speed mountain bike.

I also collect a lot of junk on the road, mostly local newspapers and historical artifacts. My Blazer, with its 135,000 miles, is my home away from home, my mobile Walden Pond. The rear seat even turns into a comfortable bed for two.

This vehicle, with its 6-cylinder, 4.3-liter, fuel-injected engine, is powerful and has never given me a day’s trouble. And, believe me, I drive it over forbidding terrain. I simply change the oil every 3,000 miles and keep it tuned. It has character. (Before buying the Blazer, I drove a rusty, beat-up 1973 Chevy Cheyenne pickup for 15 years.)

If you are thinking that I am a Chevrolet pitchman, you are wrong. Actually, the other day, while browsing at a dealership, I realized that I will never buy another Blazer. Its electronic gadgetry and other fancy stuff notwithstanding, its shape defies my concept of beauty, and too much of its utilitarian versatility seems to have been sacrificed.

You probably have heard of the angry white male. Well, I am an Angry American Motorist. I am angry that a bunch of geeks wearing white lab coats have destroyed what was a classy machine. I resent their attempt to force their concept of beauty on me. These glorified tinkerers have decided that my burgundy, black-trimmed Blazer is passe. The 1995 version has been sissified to compete with the anemic Ford Explorer.

As with other vehicles today, the new Blazer is as ugly as sin.

I have serious difficulty trying to tell one of today’s vehicles from the next. They look pretty much alike. The Subaru Impreza, for example, looks a lot like the Saturn wagon; the Olds Aurora reminds me of the Chevy Monte Carlo; the Honda Accord sedan is as cooterized as the Mazda Millenia.

And what is so special about the new Pontiac Grand Prix? Nothing. This once-magnificent sled with a volcanic engine rumble is a dead ringer for the wimpish Hyundai Accent. Dodge Intrepid, Buick Regal _ what the hell’s the difference?

Today’s cars, with very few exceptions, look like bars of “original peach” Caress; like motorized ovals with palpable identity problems; like male gopher tortoises in heat. Modern cars have been aerodynamically honed into meaninglessness. They have no uniqueness.

Like contemporary culture, contemporary cars, although long on cleverness, sparkle and hype, are short on substance. Ersatz rules. What, pray tell, do these words, touting the wonders of the Toyota Celica, have to do with an auto: “It will show you new perspectives.” Sounds to me like a dust jacket blurb for The First Man, Albert Camus’ final existential experiment.

Tell me, how many new owners plan to keep their vehicles after the last payment? Today’s cars are not investments, or friends of the family. They are perishables. Look at Ford’s ad for its Synthesis 2010: “A car whose body is 100% recyclable. . . .” Can you imagine going to a classic car show 40 years from now to drool over a recycled Synthesis 2010?

Today’s models _ bastardizations of the gems created in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s _ could have been designed by Beavis and Butt-Head. These new vehicles have no intrinsic beauty. Appearing as if they are designed by computers, and not by people, new cars do not inspire us. They do not make us feel good. They make us jittery because they cost so much.

But the old cars are different. How do you react, for instance, when you see a shiny 1957 Chevy Bel Air convertible, a 1955 Thunderbird, a 1950 Studebaker Commander Land Cruiser, a 1954 Pontiac Star Chief, a 1954 Packard Panther, a 1957 Ford Skyliner, a 1957 Chevy Impala, a 1964 Pontiac GTO, a 1957 Corvette?

These works of art inspire us because they are unique representations of carhood. Their shapes are symmetrical but not artificial. Their colors _ Tahitian coral, Hialeah green, Pompeiian red, emerald green, torch red, sunburst yellow, Kimberly blue, Persian sand _ are radiant. Their names _ Roadmaster, Crown Victoria, Mercury Turnpike Cruiser _ have become icons from the automobile’s “chrome age.”

But many of today’s names, culled from neologisms _ Achieva, Acura, Altima _ fall flat. Some others, even those derived from real words or real names _ Mondeo, Geo, _ sound like echoes from the set of a Dionne Warwick psychic reading. And Probe? Sounds like messy exploratory surgery to me.

Where did we go wrong? When did we throw the rod that led us to the abomination called the minivan?

And, by the way, someone should tell Jeep engineers to stop tinkering with the design of its Cherokee line. These geniuses, like their General Motors counterparts who ruined the Blazer, are messing with a basic concept of beauty. The Grand Cherokee Laredo, for example, looks like a giant suppository with a grille and tires.

And another thing . . .

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.