I'm a car guy. Well, actually, I'm a machine guy. Cars just happen to be the most accessible complex machine I can get my hands on easily. There's pretty much nothing about a car I haven't tinkered with or thought about tinkering with or broke when I shouldn't have been tinkering with. I'm not alone, but I'm definitely in a minority.
To most people, cars are simply convenient lumps of metal useful for, even critical to, getting around in our daily lives. Oh there's definitely style involved, and competition. It does have to be pretty, even better when it's fancier than the neighbor's next door. Few know, or even care, what makes it tick, how it moves, why it works the way it does. If it breaks, they take it to get it fixed, and if it does so too often they get rid of it and buy a new one. What makes me so different? What makes car guys (or girls) tick?
I wasn't always this way. The first fifteen years of my life weren't dominated by cars, they were dominated by spaceships and airplanes. If it flew in the air or went into space, I was all over it like an octopus on a lobster. Cars were things that took me to places I could see airplanes.
1983 was when it all changed. Reagan was president, Michael Jackson's nose was still attached (we only thought he was weird looking back then), and Duran Duran was climbing the charts. 1983 was also the year the "4th Generation" Corvette premiered, and I was never the same again.
I lived Corvettes, I breathed Corvettes. I ate Chevy small blocks for breakfast and fiberglass bodywork for supper. I drove my parents insane with constant chatter about one feature or another of this amazing automobile. To this day I can tell the difference between a 58 Corvette and a 59 from a hundred paces. At $22,000 it was cheap for what it was (just as at $55,000 it's cheap for what it is today), but it was more than I could pull at $3.35 an hour, let alone what the insurance would've been.
But a funny thing happened on the way to fiberglass dreamland. The car magazines I poured through constantly didn't just talk about Corvettes. 1983 was the dawn of the age of emissions performance, when car companies were finally coming to terms with the odious (if necessary) tailpipe and safety regulations that nearly destroyed the car culture that came before.
Every month new and interesting cars were reviewed. They talked about what things did, and where they went, how they could be improved and what might be done if they were broken. They talked about new cars I could never afford and used cars I might have a shot at. They even talked a bit about the prettiest little Italian convertible I'd ever seen, and how anyone could own one if they just knew where to look.
Most of all they talked about how cars Worked. What made them tick, what each piece did, and how it fit in the whole. Turned out cars were every bit as interesting as airplanes, damned near as complex, and unlike airplanes all I had to do was walk into the garage to see one. Eventually people started asking me for car advice. Sometimes what I gave was even right.
I learned to appreciate that cars were in many ways rolling works of art. Some came off the factory floor that way, remarkable because of the passion and precision invested in their design from the outset. Others were transformed by their owners from cookie cutter transportation with all the character of a stale saltine to something utterly unique, literally like no other, sculpted according their will and wishes.
I learned there were posers and provocateurs, people who thought if it looked fast it must therefore be fast, or that if it got you envy or lust or power bedamned with whatever soul its designers gave it. I've seen countless innocuous Hondas transformed into booming, wheezing clown cars and innumerable BMWs treated like appliances because of these people.
Less contemptible but more numerous were the mundanes, people who would look at me and shake their heads at my lack of common sense. "What is wrong with you?", they would ask.
"Just get rid of it and get another one."
"You know, one of these days you're going to have to grow up and get something reliable."
"Do you have any idea what you just did to the resale value of that?"
"You know, with what you just spent you could probably have bought [something ugly, stupid, and boring]"
And on and on and on. In spite of their irritation, I have to pity them, because they just don't get it.
They think because they sometimes feel a little warm and fuzzy about their cars that I, we, all my fellow car nuts, simply magnify that emotion and turn our vehicles into surrogate metal children. They do not understand that we know quite well these things are machines, that, no matter how full of character they are or may become, they are still just metal and plastic. That, far more than they, we know these machines are neither warm nor fuzzy and are quite capable of inflicting pain, injury, or even death if abused, ignored, or neglected.
They do not understand that what we seek is extension, to become ourselves yet more... better. What we all reach out for, either through purchase or transformation (at times even both) is something that fits us like a second skin. Something that becomes transparent in our minds, melding and melting until, in that perfect moment, we feel the road under our tires, we sense the weight balance to get us through the next curve, we know exactly what it will take to shut down the challenger in the next lane, even when, because of, family members crying out from the back seat to stop us.
We cherish these vehicles not because we have made some infantile substitution for pets or children, but because they are Tools. Our very genes are stitched with the understanding of the power of tools, and these allow us to do things our ancestors could never dream of. With feet and hands we are able to run faster than the fastest horse, span distances in minutes that once took days, turn more quickly and with more precision than the most powerful leopard ever conceived. These are our chariots, and by controlling, maintaining, improving them we do, however briefly, become like unto gods.
If all this makes you sit back and sneer because we're arrogant or stupid or unrealistic I'm still going to feel sorry for you because you still don't get it. Just like you we know there are mortgages, and bills, and kids, and families, and responsibilities enough to crush Atlas to dust. Unlike you, we know with the turn of a key, the motion of a foot, the flick of a wrist, and the tool we picked or made for ourselves we become, however briefly, so much more.
You can still sit there, but if you do you'll never know what it's like to have the canvas thump of warm summer morning air on your face, decorated with the smell of fresh cut grass and dew, dancing with hands and feet to balance yourself and your vehicle, hearing the song of cams and chains and fire and noise all under your control as you swirl clippings in your wake, disappearing over the horizon with a roar and a shriek that echos through the empty mountains.
Go on. I dare you.
Turn the key and dance...
Dedicated to K & D, for both inspiring this essay and teaching me that just because it looks like a box and acts like a video game, doesn't mean it can't have a soul.