Magazine | July 10, 2017, Issue

Drive, He Said

The city is the carless island. You can get almost everything you need on foot. Subways wait to take you farther. Where would you put a car if you had one? Garaging it is like paying for another apartment. I would have to rent the car out, on the days I wasn’t using it, as an Airb(no)b. Backseat Bed, No Kitch No Bath, Free Radio.

But this is the land of the car. The expanse that amazed all the poor sad Euros fresh from hilltop village, slum, and shtetl demands mobility. Once it came from the horse. But Pony Express and wagon trains, Paul Revere and Apaches, long ago gave way to the car.

When we bought green acres, a car became a necessity. A mile away, there is a convenience store/pizzeria. Three miles away there are two gas stations, a bar, and a funeral parlor. The road twists like an angry snake, and there is no shoulder, much less sidewalk. Fifteen miles away is the nearest supermarket. Farmer Chris’s U-pick place is closer, but if you want to eat between September and Mother’s Day there’s not a lot to pick.

So the urbanites broke down and got wheels. For a few years, we rented wrecks. Their weakness was their brakes (did I mention our roads are also hilly?). We would hear strange sounds and feel unwanted momentums. So we would make a distress call and wait for the rental agency to bring a substitute wreck.

Then we inherited my mother-in-law’s 1977 Camaro. I missed the cult of muscle cars when they were new, but, like the cult of Star Trek, it has only grown with time. When I mentioned my Camaro online, some commenter said it must go with my mullet. A mechanic told me admiringly that it was impressive both for what it had and for what it didn’t have. It had muscle. Give it a straightaway and it left trucks in the rear view. It didn’t have power windows or working AC. If you felt hot, you rolled the windows down and drove fast. Another thing it didn’t have was wet-weather capability. It wobbled in heavy rain, became ungovernable in snow. Since it snows a lot in the country, it had to spend winters in the carport, where it became the Airbnb of mice. They would greet me in the spring, popping out of the hood or the floorboard.

So the Camaro was supplemented and finally supplanted entirely by a new car — a 2004 Subaru. Subarus are the draft horses of the country, sturdy and roomy. You can put mulch bags and boxes of flooring in the back, tie Christmas trees to the roof. They love snow. If Scott had had one, he could have spent his old age giving lectures about the South Pole.

But the Subaru is not so new anymore. I have killed two deer with it; they took their vengeance on the grille and the front license plate. We had to replace a crumpled hood; the new one is nominally the same color as the body, but not quite, as if we matched it incompetently or went rogue half-heartedly. The skin has minute dents and discolorations, rather, come to think of it, like my face.

But the Subaru has nothing on Doug’s 1968 Volkswagen. He bought it in 1974 for $400, and rebuilt the engine, which kept it going for another 150,000 miles. He added many other custom touches as well. He fitted the dashboard with a wooden tray for wine and cheese, suitable for date nights. One evening, when he took a girl to the reservoir, they were joined by a mousey chaperone who sat next to the cheese, then moved on. The bodies of old Volkswagens were notorious for rusting out. He stuffed the holes with expandable insulation, which gave it a tufted appearance. The big rust-out happened on the state road when Doug suddenly found himself looking not ahead but up at the ceiling. The front seat had fallen through the floor and was dragging along the asphalt. He is tall enough to have peered over the dashboard, and continued on home, trailing a tail of sparks. To fix this, he put eye screws in the door frames — still solid — and ran a metal cable under the seat, supporting it like a sling. At last there came a day when he decided that, for all his surgery, his mount was no longer suited to roads. So he sliced off the back half and put down a flatbed, and used it to haul logs out of the woods for firewood. When it could no longer do even that, he gave it to the Kelseys, one of the old families in the valley whose surname is attached to odd little roadlets, who added it to their car graveyard, until the town told them to clean it up.

In Thomas Pynchon’s V., a woman makes love to a sports car. That is a satirical outlier. But we personalize cars, just as we personalized Traveller and Trigger, assigning will to their characteristics and adding our own to theirs. One of Locke’s odder ideas is that we acquire property in land by mixing our labor with it. How is that supposed to work? Add 50 man-hours, stir. But it is certainly true of property as ubiquitous and serviceable as cars. They take us to lessons and sports, we kiss in them, drive to honeymoons and delivery rooms and on family trips (are we there yet?). When we’re past caring, they form funeral processions. No wonder we love them.

The other night, as I was coming down the snake road past the pizzeria, I saw its modest lawn set up for a party. There were picnic tables, strings of lights, and seven or eight classic cars, glowing, metallic, uncomputerized. The half-glimpsed sign announced some little festival. We passed a few oldsters coming as we drove on. I wished I’d kept the Camaro.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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