“You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together… and blow.” Bacall, shutting Bogart up nicely
Hey, what kind of car do you drive?
Is it your dream car?
Do you even care what it looks like, or how it performs?
As a certified Boomer (who won’t shut up talking about Boomer-oriented shit), my heart has been broken by the automotive industry.
These days, I barely care about cars at all. I drive a Ford small SUV, mostly. (It’s actually the same size as the old Dodge vans I craved in my youth, and never owned.) (You know, the vans parked backwards at the drive-in, with the bumper sticker “If this van’s a rockin’, don’t bother knockin’”.)
(Oh, you don’t remember? Well, just take my word for it… vans were a cultural icon, and the VW minibus made a VERY different statement than a Ram B-series “adult toy” van.) (You’ll have to get me drunk to hear the good stories on this topic, of course…)
I treat the Ford like crap. Wash it maybe once a year, use the passenger side floor as a trash can, keep the back seats down and the dog beds in there as permanent furniture.
I actually enjoy driving it. Sunroof, decent stereo, and all that raw Ford 6-banger power.
Of course, I’ve only put a few thousand miles on it after three years. (And most of those have come from our trips to the coast.) I work at home, walk everywhere I can, stay barefoot and happy and off the roads.
My knees still buckle at the sight of a cherry ’55 Bel Air, or a ’62 Impala, or those growling muscle cars from the late sixties/early seventies. Reno has something called “Hot August Nights” every summer, and for a week, every bitchin’ automobile in the country (and many from overseas) is cruisin’ Virginia Street and crowding into viewing lots like a nest o’ nostalgia.
Now, I know that regulation saves lives and all that.
Still, I blame Ralph Nader and his do-gooder ilk for the descent into blah-ness that car design has sunk. No more fins, no more death-grin grills, no more suicide doors.
No more fun.
I remember the crucial day, in the early seventies, when someone stopped by to show off her brand-new Mustang.
I was horrified. The interior was a misshapen hulk of cheap plastic, and the lines of the body were breathtakingly dull.
What the hell had they done to that once-bitchin’ car? It’s like they were giving the finger to the Car God.
The GMC Gremlin had more personality. Heck, the infamous Pinto was a better looking design. (And in the late 80s, when the geniuses at Ford finally attempted some kind of retro re-do of the ‘Stang, they botched it totally. There is no soul left in Detroit, I’m sorry, man…)
The closest any automaker came to putting some oomph into design, after that, was Toyota. The 1980 Celica GT Hatchback was easily the ugliest car ever to roll off an assembly line. I gasped when I saw my first one.
Ah, but inside… it was like a super-snug cockpit. You slid into the bucket seat, and the dash embraced you, promising nasty highway fun.
The night I bought one, I drove up and down the central California coast with the ocean breeze coming in tangy and warm, and the amber dash lights lulling me into long dreamy stretches in fifth gear.
I actually lived out of that car for six months. Slept on friends’ couches when I could, but curled up in the back when I had to tuck into a hidey-hole lot somewhere to catch some zzz’s.
It became the infamous rattletrap I had when I began my freelance career. I kept it alive by sheer force of will. Brought a gallon of water down each morning to fill up the radiator, and kept a quart of oil in the backseat (used and replaced weekly).
When I turned her ignition off on that last day, she never roared to life again. I had driven her literally until she dropped, an exhausted, broken-blocked disaster with a date at the wrecking yard.
I teared up as she was towed away.
Still the most beautiful machine I’ve ever had in my life. For a full ten years, she had been my partner in escape, adventure and entrepreneurship.
Toyota broke the mold on that amazing car.
No, they literally broke the mold. They only produced that paticular model, with the in-your-face ugly lines and bizarre grill, for two years, I believe. Then they went boringly into “coupe land” (trying, like everyone else, to emulate the blocky Beemer model 2002).
I learned something about salesmanship through that car, though.
See, every single time someone would see it for the first time (especially after it was a few years old, and one of the few remaining unique designs left on the road)… they would whistle, or roll their eyes, or make some disparaging remark.
Which was fine. Whatever.
But once in a while, I’d insist they get in, and I’d drive them around and tell them stories about advenuters we (the car and I) had enjoyed. I made them sit in the driver’s cockpit, and soak up the amber grin of the dashboard lights. Feel how the stick shift melted into your hand like an extension of your arm.
Then I put them back in the passenger seat, rolled out into the street, and opened ‘er up on a straightaway, nailing their skulls back into the headrest.
I never got anyone to agree with me on how gorgeous that car was. (Beauty, beholder, and all that.)
But I did get almost everyone to understand why she was so much friggin’ fun to drive.
Fast forward a bunch of years.
Michele and I both yearned for some top-down driving. Living in snow country, convertibles were contra-indicated, however.
So we went in together and bought a third car. A “just for fun” car.
A Mazda Miata.
Oh, you’re sputtering, aren’t you?
That little piece of wannabe sports car?
Almost always, people grill me on “why”. They know I could afford a nice high-end sports car. A Porshe, a Beemer, a Mercedes… anything but that cheesy little Miata!
What was I thinking?
And I proceed to shut them up.
Did you know the history of the Miata? It was designed by Japanese engineers who swooned at the sight of the most classic sports roadsters of the fifties — the MG ragtops, the Truimph Spitfires, even the Lotus Elan.
Oh, there was and still is magic in the chrome, leather and glass of those amazing cars. The flow of the lines, the obvious shared DNA of WWII fighter planes, the wind-in-your hair exhilaration every time you passed thirty mph… those roadsters were the ultimate cocky bastards of the burgeoning American highway system.
There was just one problem.
The engines sucked.
In fact, the first question anyone asked you, after discovering you owned a MG Midget, was “Who’s your mechanic?”
So, for lazy guys like me, the ragtop remained an elusive dream. (I got deep into car culture as a teenager, but was more interested in the cartooning that accompanied the scene. Rat Fink, many of the guys from Mad, the expansion of pin-striping and flames and custom paint jobs with illustrations all intrigued me more than the grease-monkey details of conquering internal combustion. While other guys made goo-goo eyes at engine parts shrewn across the garage floor, I was too busy learning cross-hatch shading to get dirty.)
Enter the visionairies at Mazda.
They used the classic sports roadsters as their Holy Grail… and to a shocking degree, nailed it.
Pick up an issue of Car & Driver, or Road And Track, and see what those hard-to-please writers have to say about the Miata.
Hint: They love it.
I read as many of those articles as I could, going back to the introduction of the Miata twenty years ago. And every writer followed the same story line: They were skeptical… and then won over easily during their first test drive.
The Miata won’t win any races out there. But neither would those ancient UK and Italian ragtops.
The convertible ride isn’t about speed.
It’s about a brisk, smooth ride with five gears and top down… and every line of sight from the cockpit guilded with pure joyful design.
I’ve wanted my own thrashed-yet-dependable MG ragtop all my adult life… and with the Miata, I have the entire experience. Minus the undependable engine.
That Miata is a stud, and it can’t wait to get out on the road.
You wanna denigrate it, cuz it ain’t got G-force speed or deep-pocket sticker-shock pedigree?
But you’re dissing the classic roadster, dude.
This puppy is FUN to drive.
Most people aren’t prepared to be assaulted with actual affection for the car, when they insult it. “Hey, you got your girlfriend’s car today, huh?” Snicker.
Nope. It’s our car, and I love it. It’s a direct linear descendent of the MG… etc.
Shuts ‘em up.
And you know what? People may fall back into their prior dismissal, after I’m gone… cuz the default opinion of the Miata (especially among men with weak confidence) is pretty strongly negative.
But when I see them later… a glimmer of a spark flashes in their eyes, even if they refuse to acknowledge the specialness of the Miata.
That glimmer… is the recognition that, through my story, they felt the raw heat of honest passion and affection coming off me. I’ve had guys who don’t even allow words like “passion” into their vocabulary admit that, around me, they understand how cool the car kinda is.
They’re not gonna rush out and buy one, of course.
But they do shut up. And consider a whole new and unexpected line of thought, contrary to their prior stance.
Hard-ass guys who wouldn’t flinch losing a finger in a lathe, will have to stifle a tear remembering going to their first baseball game with their Pop. Or the birth of their daughter. Or the last time they hung out with friends on a warm summer’s evening, half a lifetime ago when the world seemed… better.
And their first car?
Fuhget about it.
And pass the kleenex.
The memories that sustain most folks are too vague to be translated as meaningful stories. When you learn to put your feelings and thoughts and graphic detail into a tale — about anything — you possess a power to sway emotion and influence people.
As the Zen master once said… to become eloquent, you must first learn to shut up.
You actually do people a favor by crushing the thoughtless, meandering babble occupying their brains… and bringing new things into focus with a story that makes sense to their heart, as well as their head.
Something to think about, in your quest to learn the art of persuasion.
P.S. What was your first car?
P.P.S. Just a reminder: I’ll be on the road until the first week in July, so this blog may see spotty posts.
However, in normal situations, I’m posting every Monday and Thursday. Like freakin’ clockwork.
Sign up to be notified, in the box up there on the right. Yeah, I know you’re swamped with stuff to read… but really, this should be one of your first stops, twice a week.
Enjoy the summer as it starts to blossom…
P.P.S. Extra bonus story: The most classic American sports convertible — and even die-hard Corvette fans won’t argue too strongly against this — was the ’55 Thunderbird. (Astonishingly, even the design changes that car went through in the following six years were all stellar. Then, for reasons only the honchos at Ford can explain, they killed the T-Bird as a sports car, and re-birthed it as a mid-size sedan.) (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
I met one of the guys who helped with the design of that original T-Bird. They were artists. They broke rules, they took inspiration from the best of the Italian elbow-draggers, they channeled Hollywood sci-fi and art deco and Navy submarines… and they fussed over every detail of that design until it was perfect.
Not perfect in any crash-test way. Not perfect, even, in aeronautical glide.
It was perfect in the way Michealangelo’s David is perfect — the T-Bird was a design funneled through nature, physics, and art, and rolled onto the showroom floor with a thumbs-up from the gods.
What a car. The stuff of dreams…