there are CARS and there are also cars, aren't there?

My friend Glenn and I went to the New York Auto Show yesterday. I go every year, I suppose just to keep tabs on what the selection will look like should I ever decide to own a car again. Besides, I grew up in Detroit, before it self-destructed, where I was actually a sucker for imports (MG TDs, Citroens, even NSUs and Fiat 500s) by the time I was ten. Also, the guys wandering around are cute, as are the smart women, of virtually all ages, hired to talk to the cute guys about the cars.

Well, Glenn and I had fun, and he was definitely keen on the fine VW Beetle cabriolet, but I confess I couldn't find anything at any price that would look good on me. Even the one possible exception of a beautiful, and surprisingly practical, Audi cabriolet was no real temptation, since I'm actually not willing to spend that "any price" on a car just now, especially one of $38,000. Maybe I could go for a Polo or Jetta cabriolet, if they ever send one over. Well, I do live in the rapidly disappearing land of public transportation, so I can still afford to be pure about car ownership.

To be honest, Barry and I would probably spring for some new wheels if anything truly worthy, exciting, and reasonably appropriate to our world were ever to be allowed into this country. The Smart would do it, although our friends would have to stay at home. Ok, the little Mercedes A-Class (a Smart with a back seat) would be my second choice.

But what is the selection Americans actually get to choose from? We see only dummed-down versions of the largest and most expensive products of Europe, uninspired, consumer-survey-designed bores from Asia, and the sad, unmemorable, bloated losers from our own drawing boards. I'm not even talking about the abominable insult to taste and conscience represented by the trucks, whether pickup or SUV!

What's the American auto show circuit news in these, the years of the imperial oil wars? The next big thing is the big, meaning bigger, and in fact the biggest gosh darn sedans and truck-tanks Detroit, even Maybach, has ever imagined. I mean, they're talking ten and sixteen cylinders and up to 1,000 horsepower. [My first car, a prize 1962 Beetle had 40hp, and my beloved previously-owned 1960 Porsche 356B had an entirely adequate 70.*]

A NYTimes "Editorial Observer" piece on the Auto Show begins with
a description of a "dream," or "concept," car which actually does try to relate to the planet we share with others. What does it say about industry priorities that yesterday I never noticed a car answering the very "green" description found in the editorial? I only saw what looked like another SUV, if somewhat downsized, and I passed it by.

At the New York auto show, Ford has an interesting little vehicle on display. It is sort of an ultimate green machine — fueled by hydrogen, lubricated by cornflower oil, rolling on tires made of corn, built with panels of soy. I can imagine waking up one morning to find my ride being devoured by groundhogs. Ford calls it the Model U, invoking a pioneering, back-to-basics machine. Fascinating but very lonely.

All around are vehicles that, in the absence of groundhogs, look intent on eating the Model U for breakfast. . . . This is what the folks are really here to see: fantasies, toys, nostalgia, horsepower and more horsepower.

The car has always been the ultimate American dream machine. We love to hate them, to love them and to analyze why we love or hate them. Yes, we drive them, too, but that is never really been a big deal in America. We do not really go for all that gear-shifting, twisting-road European stuff. We prefer to race around oval tracks or down a straight quarter-mile. Besides, there is just not that much you can do droning on an Interstate or crawling up the Henry Hudson, except listen to the radio. Our constant has always been the car as accessory, as image, as fantasy, as identity. It is a jet plane with fins, a fighting vehicle, a machine that is "sexy and powerful," a truck yearning for the wilderness.

Actually, I think the Times writer, Serge Schmemann, is being too gentle on us. America's attitude toward the automobile is more than superficial, from top to bottom, it's fundamentally unconscionable.


* For the two people out there who care about such things, the Porsche was replaced, when it needed a major valve job, with a delicate aluminum Lancia Fulvia Zagato, and that Italian exotic was joined (finally!) by a little blue FIAT Cinquecento paisan. Both were retired for an eccentric white South African (rhd) Citroen GS, which was itself succeeded by a delightful bouncy Renault 5 (not a "Le Car!") with a fold-back sunroof as big as all outdoors. My last little gasoline friend, a black fireplug of a 1984 Volkswagen GTI, was abandoned while still very young, when I moved to New York and began my long-term relationship with the subway system.