By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. In the midst of the ultimate car week, with the kaleidoscope of events in Monterey and here in the Motor City with the Dream Cruise building to their inevitable crescendo this weekend, it might be a good time to take a step back and say, “Why?”
How did the car “thing” evolve from desiring faster horses, to the building of transportation that transformed the world? What propelled the automobile from being an extravagant convenience, to a cultural touchstone that’s such an inexorable part of the American fabric that even the most hostile of the anti-car hordes can’t seem to dampen our collective enthusiasm for it?
Is it the fashion statement? The fundamental sense of motion and speed? Or is it the image-enhancing power that automobiles possess? Or all of the above?
If anything, I keep going back to the one thing that’s undeniable about our collective love for the automobile, the one thing that no computer simulation - no matter how powerful or creatively enhanced - can compete with. And that is the freedom of mobility.
The ability to go and do, coupled with the freedom to explore and experience is not only a powerful concept, it is fundamental to the human experience, which is why the automobile in all of its forms remains so compelling and undeniably intoxicating.
That the automobile has progressed from a device built around convenience and comfort to something more, much more, is easy to understand. That rush of freedom that we’ve all experienced in our first solo drives in an automobile is something that cannot be duplicated, or brushed aside. It is ingrained in our spirit and etched in our souls.
I have talked to the most strident anti-car people over the years, and even those who merely like to inform me that, “I’m not into cars” and inevitably, after acknowledging that it’s fine that they don’t share my passion for the automobile, something very interesting happens.
If the conversation is allowed to percolate long enough, every single anti-car person I have encountered in the sixteen years of doing Autoextremist.com comes around to saying something like, “Well, there was this one car that my uncle (or aunt, or friend, or brother, or grandfather, etc.) had that I’ll never forget…” And they then proceed to tell me about a car that is so indelibly carved in their memories that they start talking about it in detail, including where they were, how old they were, who was with them, where they were going, what happened, etc., etc., etc.
For even those most dispassionate about the automobile – at least on the surface anyway - I find there are always stories if you dig a little deeper. Stories of coming of age, of adventure, of harrowing close calls, of love, and life and lives lived. And memories. Countless, colorful memories that live on forever.
The automobile business itself can be mind-numbingly tedious at times, as I’ve well documented over the years. And it is without question one of the most complicated endeavors on earth, made up of so many nuanced ingredients that it almost defies description. But the creation of machines that are safe, reliable, beautiful to look at, fun to drive, versatile or hard working – depending on the task they’re designed for - is more than just a cold, calculated business. It is and has been an industrial art form that has come to define who we are collectively.
The automobile obviously means more to me than it does for most. I grew up immersed in this business and the passionate endeavor surrounding the creation of automotive art has never stopped being interesting for me. And it is very much art, by the way. Emotionally involving and undeniably compelling mechanical art that not only takes us where we want to go, but moves us in ways that still touches our souls deeply.
As I reminded everyone in a recent column, I for one will never forget the essence of the machine, and what makes it a living, breathing mechanical conduit of our hopes and dreams.
A few weeks ago, we re-ran an excerpt in “On The Table” from one of our favorite pieces of automotive prose, which poet, critic and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, James Agee wrote for the September 1934 issue of Fortune. You can read the entire passage here, but this is the part of it that resonates the most for us:
"Whatever we may think, we move for no better reason than for the plain unvarnished hell of it. And there is no better reason.”
No better reason, indeed.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.