On Saturday, September 1, 1962, the day Typhoon Wanda struck the city of Hong Kong, I was struck by a sparkling new plum-colored 1963 Lincoln Continental sedan. Utterly unaware of the disaster on the other side of the planet, I’d been waiting alone for the start of the annual auto show on Fayetteville Street in downtown Raleigh, NC. I watched as a man in a dark suit carefully parked the Lincoln. He got out and walked back to the car’s trunk. He inserted the key into the lock and turned the key clockwise. The trunk lid popped up and opened wide. He withdrew the key, stuck it in his pocket, and walked away.
I headed for that Lincoln’s open trunk moments after the man left the car unattended. On the floor I found a cardboard box filled with the stunning promotional brochures for the car. This was treasure finer than gold. Six times I struck, walking toward the car with a sly grin as I plotted snatching another brochure from the box. I walked away from Raleigh’s 1963 new car show a very happy ten-year-old, with a half-dozen beautiful Lincoln brochures in my hands and a contented smile on my face. Abundance is so sweet.
My grandfather drove a 1963 Lincoln Continental. I loved his car almost as much as I loved him, a little Polish man of few words spoken in an accent all his own. Soon after Papa bought that car, I wrote a letter to Henry Ford II professing my love for that great Lincoln. Mr. Ford was impressed enough to write back,
and he sent me a scale model Lincoln to add to my collection, which already numbered six. That was a pivotal point in my love of automobiles.
Long before I’d made much sense of life in the world, I saw the world as a world of cars. As my family motored around Raleigh, my thoughts popped up as the names of every car I saw: Chevy, Buick, Ford, Mercury, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, every now and then a Cadillac, even more rarely a Lincoln, a Volkswagen, or a Renault. I knew the gentry from the proletariat, and I always preferred the gentry. One of my greatest loves was a very patrician navy blue 1956 Continental Mark II, likely the only one in Raleigh at the time. The driver always smiled at me from his side of the tinted windshield; we never met face-to-face.
The late French philosopher Roland Barthes nailed car lust perfectly with this colorful handful of words: “I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.”
Cars serve as displays of industrial might, design creativity, and engineering skill. They’re also potent repositories of national pride. Some nations get to be carmakers; others seemingly never will—at least not without outside help. Fiat, for one example, helped the Russians create the Lada (which must have been a real thrill in the car-deprived USSR), a transplanted Fiat 124 sedan suitably fortified to withstand Russian roads and winters. But the rigid national boundaries of automobile production are almost gone. Cars that once were unarguably German or Japanese or American are no more. Lately the Koreans have become a carmaking power, muscling their way into territory that once belonged to the Japanese. The Italians, who now control Chrysler via Fiat, talk of merger with French Peugeot-Citroen for the survival of both firms. Swedish Volvo, once owned by Ford, is now in Chinese hands. BMW of Germany holds the reins on British Rolls-Royce, VW’s Audi division is the maestro of Italian Lamborghini, and the brilliantly quirky Swedish Saab is in limbo. To the typical Saab driver, who is said to have the strongest emotional attachment to his marque, the loss of Saab is no mere sob story.
designed by the Italian sculptor Flaminio Bertoni,
countless millions of cars have been made and pressed into daily use the world over and untold amounts of wealth have changed hands over automobiles. We race them, write about them, photograph them, worship them, make movie stars of them, make love in them, and we stick them in junkyards
when they fall. Yet of all the marvelous machines hatched by man’s mind, the automobile has to rank also among the most inglorious. It is sometimes hated, infuriating, destructive, all too often unsightly as well as supremely invasive: anyone with a car can go anywhere at any time. In all of its guises, the automobile does provide a degree of effortless, comfortable mobility unmatched by any other form of land transport. With automobile ownership comes social status or the lack of it, escape, solitude, sometimes even magic. It renders many boundaries meaningless. It is a vehicle for the expansion of life. Or is it? Now that the real costs, the vast downsides of the automobile are becoming all too obvious, everybody who’s never had a car wants one.
In the Orient, people once deprived of cars now want them in the worst way, and not just for their utility. In India, Tata Motors, now the owner of British icons Jaguar and Land Rover, developed the $3000 Tata Nano
to put car ownership within reach of more Indian families. But many Indians shun it because it’s advertised as the world’s cheapest car.4 The Chinese will probably buy 20 million new cars in 2013, more than we’ll buy in the US; Volkswagen will soon build its 12th factory there.5 And the nouveau rich of both India and China now hanker for Mercedes and BMWs in a big way. The Indian market for luxury cars is growing by 40% per year, and this year the Chinese will buy more luxury cars than the Germans will, creating the second largest luxury car market behind the US.1
Though some of the glamor and allure of new car debuts may have been stolen by the rapid-fire marketing of high-tech gizmos like computers, cell phones, and tablets, the car still reigns supreme simply because it’s the only way millions of people get around town, and because the car remains such a strongly personal statement for so many. I’ll make the claim that the automobile has essentially attained citizenship status in the United States. As a possession its importance is second only to housing.2 The automobile industry’s links to the US economy are unmatched by any other industry; its tentacles extend widely and deeply into the American economic machinery.2 Most American cities have been planned and developed around the automobile, and every level of government features complex bureaucratic machinery designed to regulate and control some aspect of the automobile.
Annual world car production hovers around 70 million units, which keeps a lot of people employed and makes the car industry a sizable chunk of the world’s economy. In the US alone, where annual production numbers about 11.3 million units, at least five million people are employed in service to the automobile. Over a million are directly involved in making cars, and more than 3 million work in downstream services such as parking, repairs, accessories, finance and insurance, construction, electronics, trucking, advertising, car washes, tire dealers, recycling, oil and gas industries, highway and street construction—about 10% of total US employment, according to one study.2 That study did not include the lawyers, doctors, hospitals, physical therapists, police and others who help when things go awry. Every year worldwide 1.2 million people die from auto-related causes; more than 40 million are injured.3 And all that’s just the calculable stuff. Incalculable are items like land values: when land that could be farmed or developed for housing is more valuable as a parking lot, I think we’re in trouble.
My father, like many men, liked cars. He drove a 1951 Studebaker convertible,
a big grey Mk VII Jaguar saloon
and a dark green Mk II Jaguar 3.8S saloon
before he had to stoop to more mundane choices like the many Ford and Oldsmobile station wagons he had. They did double duty as our family cars and as service cars for his real estate business. They were nice cars, but they didn’t have the magic he craved.
Three times he treated himself to Cadillacs, a car he confessed he’d always wanted. He would have loved a Rolls-Royce or Bentley, but he couldn’t justify the cost. When the first gasoline supply crunch hit in 1973, he bought a two-door Opel station wagon in Signal Blue (it was a very bright blue).
The Opel had a manual gearbox with a floor shift, no air conditioning, and no radio. In his eyes it wasn’t sexy, but it was a very good German car, responsive, undemanding, and fun to drive. So, when we got to talking cars after he’d had a few drinks, my father fantasized that the brave little Opel was really a high-speed German touring car. That helped sustain him until he bought a stylish Mazda 626 Coupe.
He wouldn’t let me drive the Mazda right away—at least not until he’d broken it in. Because it had a manual gearbox, a sporting proposition my father took a shine to in midlife just as I have, my mother couldn’t drive the Mazda. The Mazda was his alone, and he reveled in telling people how much he enjoyed it. A couple of years later, he fell for a BMW Bavaria
that became homesick for Germany from day one. After he spent eight years nursing the BMW, he turned to Sweden’s Volvo and relied happily on their stalwart build and Viking spirit for the rest of his days. He adored rowing the manual gears of his gold, leather-upholstered, turbocharged Volvo GLT
until health problems forced him to trade for a more sedate Volvo with an automatic shift. Common cars were not for my father.
The Italian people recently raised their voices in a united, highly emotional protest at the possible sale of Alfa Romeo to a non-Italian entity. I was thrilled, deeply touched to note their reaction, because my first car, from that country I’ve come to love so much, was the very Italian Fiat 124 Sport Spider.
My father gave me the car in 1973 after I made the dean’s list at UNC Chapel Hill (I was learning to speak Italian that year and had been to Italy twice before that). I fell deeply and instantly in love with the Fiat on a warm, sunny North Carolina spring day after a mere 50 yards of driving with its top folded, the sun warming my arms and shoulders. The Fiat infected me with a permanent fondness for convertibles.
The product of a marriage between Fiat, a major carmaker, and Pininfarina, the famous Italian coachbuilder, the 124 Spider cloaked Fiat running gear with a body that strongly resembled the Ferrari 275GTS,
also a Pininfarina creation. The 124 Spider was a pocket Ferrari, with that style, that discreetly raucous, sporting voice, and that direct, very connected feel in the steering wheel and the driver’s seat that makes Italian cars so engaging. Its four-cylinder motor had one-third of the Ferrari’s twelve and far less muscle, but like the Ferrari, the Fiat had a five-speed gearbox, a disc brake at each wheel, and a style that only the Italians seem able to create. The gauges set into its wood dash were labeled in English and Italian. Its arms-out/knees bent driving position, with the steering wheel far away and pedals up close, was pure Italian. It was, as the Italians say, simpatica, a driver’s best friend, and it spoiled me forever.
The 124 Spider was born in a time when a few talented individuals designed cars with their skill and intuition—and likely without the help of computers. The Fiat, essentially a bespoke sports car for the masses, bore an unmistakable Italian character and temperament, for better and for worse, and it fared best in the hands of a sympathetic driver who could attend to its care and feeding. Only the wealthy collectors want cars like that now. The automobile has become so indispensable that it must, at the very least, start, go, and get us home every time, without fail.
The intelligence and creativity applied in the creation of an automobile is formidable—even in the case of mediocre designs. But the greatest cars bristle with intelligence and fascinating thinking: the Citroen DS, the Citroen 2CV, the Fiat 500, everything Alfa Romeo (yes, I’m biased), the 1961 Lincoln Continental, the Lotus Elite, the Porsche 911, the VW Beetle, the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. I could go on. When I see these sorts of cars, my heart jumps. It’s a visceral response. I’ve been this way since I was very young. I don’t try to understand it any longer. I simply accept it. We make connections in this life as best we can.
Today the automobile is under fire and must, I think, undergo significant transformation to meet the needs of a smaller planet. I wonder if we can continue to have this cake and eat it, too. I wonder what the designers will give us next year as technology moves forward. Above all, will they be as beautiful as Alfa Duetto spiders?
Speed and power mean little to me without classical beauty.
My father favored Chinese restaurants above all else for most of his life. But I don’t think he’d have favored Chinese ownership of his beloved Swedish icon, the Volvo. The world just keeps on changing. We roll along with it.
- Business Insider, “Lookout China, india’s Luxury Car Market is on the Move”, Travis Okulski, Jan 4, 2012, http://www.businessinsider.com/
- Economic Contribution of the Automotive Industry to the U.S. Economy – An Update
- Peden M, Scurfield R, Sleet D (eds.) (2004). World report on road traffic injury prevention. World Health Organization. ISBN 92-4-156260-9.
- Foreign Policy Magazine, “Unloved at Any Speed,” by Sandanand Dhume, Oct 7, 2011, http://www.foreignpolicy.com
- Theage.com.au, “China’s Car Market to top 20 million in 2012,” Joshua Dowling, Jan 10, 2012.