Thursday, May 18, 2006

An Ode to Bugs and Cobras

When I was six my father took me to a film that changed my life. It changed my core value system and my perception of what was possible. It sparked a life-long love and obsession. I have never been the same since. The film…was Herbie the Love Bug.

That fact that a sweet little car could get you from place to place, win races for you, and seemingly love you back was almost too much for me. I couldn’t wait to turn sixteen. That was a ways off though so in the meanwhile, I fed my obsession. I turned into a car junkie. It wasn’t just VWs. Anything with wheels and an engine. I loved The Dukes of Hazzard. Sure that Bo Duke was cute, but did you see what that Charger could do? Yee haw, indeed. KITT. Oh man, are you kidding? Many a night I dreamt of KITT’s clipped British voice telling me there were bad guys just around the corner. I would walk to school, talking into my giant Casio watch and imagining my gallant Kitt racing around the corner for me. When my sister played with her dolls, I made complex tracks for my many Matchbox cars and I drove the world with them. They all had names and stories. They all loved me back, just like Herbie.

When my sister and I used to play house, we’d get to the part where we’d pick what car we wanted and she’d always say she wanted a limo. I would endlessly dispute this with her. People don’t just have limos. That’s not a car you can actually drive and feel the joy of the open road, the thrill of downshifting into a tight turn as you would in, say, a 1965 AC Shelby Cobra. Granted, I had yet to experience these things myself but I was pretty sure they were out there.

My astute mom capitalized on this car-oriented world of mine. I earned my allowance with the weekly task of washing and detailing the giant 1979 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme that had been her wedding present from my step-dad. White with red leather interior. Oh yeah. And pinstripes! I loved it. My mom couldn’t get me to weed the garden or clean the house but I was happy covered in car grime and suds. I christened him Phineus and made sure the white walls gleamed, the leather shined and the hood ornament sparkled. I took care of Phineus, or Big Phinny to friends, as though he was a prize thoroughbred. And, at 18, was duly rewarded with the car itself to take to college.

Phinny and I had good times together. I could fit everything I owned in him and I knew that was valuable in case I ever needed to bail from the dorms in the middle of the night. I was free with Phinny. If I pumped the brakes at a stop light, his giant nose bounced up and down – cheapie hydraulics. Once I reached for a CD and swerved onto a median, snapping off a 4x4 with a “Keep Right” sign with a rifle-report crack. Not a scratch on Phinny’s steel bumper. And a fitting political statement to boot. That crazy car had taste. At a certain point the muffler fell off and Phineus developed a big throaty growl which I loved. Some frat boys pulled up next to me one day and revved their new stick-shift Mustang at me. As if my old automatic would be up to the challenge. The nerve. The light changed, I stomped on the gas and big, muffler-less Phinny leapt ahead, leaving the Mustang in a black cloud. I was on top of the world. Phinny and I were together so long I used to say if I needed him to, he’d be able to drive me home on his own.

My sister didn’t yet have her license and she’d pine for it, posing in mom’s driver’s seat and sighing “I was born to drive.” Even back then, I knew she was wrong. Hers was just a teenage fascination with the freedom of the driver’s license. Mine was a deep seated passion.

Driving has become one of the most purely unadulterated joys of my adult life. I had to move back here from New York because I couldn’t stand the not driving there. My idea of a good time is a few hours driving serpentine, deserted roads until my car’s back end breaks loose in the curves. I think, overall, my driving philosophy can be summed up by the fact that my speedometer broke sometime last year. I hardly notice. How fast am I going? As fast as I can. It’s not just a means to an end for me. And it’s not reckless. The precision and hyper-alert control is part of the draw. It’s an experience I savor.

Phineus has long gone to the scrap head in the sky. But his successors have been no less loved. My current amour is a zippy little red 300ZX. Rufus. He’s of voting age which in my book makes him a classic. He’s stylish in a sharp-lined, old school way. And he can legitimately kick the asses of the frat boy’s Mustangs. Rufus and I have been through a lot together. I have an ludicrous pride in the fact that I can handle his high torque rear-wheel drive in blizzard conditions as well as on the perfect Cali summer day.

I’ve had opportunities to trade him in - get something practical. The very thought makes my skin crawl. “Beige Honda” are dirty words to me. Give me style, give me personality. And give me internal combustion. I know, I know. Not a popular sentiment. But I don’t trust those sneaky Priuses with their “quiet - too quiet” thing. They are practical and good for the world and they have completely missed the joy of curvy, kick-ass design and open road revels. You don’t have to scold me. I know my days of white-knuckled, gas-guzzling, ground flight are numbered. Someday we’ll have used up all the fossilized dinosaurs and I’ll be relegated to putting along in tight-lipped silence. But until then I think it’s no accident that, from across the parking lot, my little Rufus looks like a Matchbox toy car. My love has come full circle.

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Blogger A. M. said...

Boy, do I miss my car.

Joyrides with great music on a spring day. Sigh.

Word-verification says: Ijoys. There you have it.

3:30 PM  
Blogger writergurl said...

I bought my first convertible (a Fiat X19) when I was 22. With my own money! Man, I used to love that thing, top down, hauling ass down the highway, Journey pouring from the speakers, hair streaming behind me...

I miss those days.

9:16 PM  

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