A few years ago I was in an auto showroom, looking at an immense vehicle that could clear a snowbank three feet high. If the salesman had patted the side and said “Now what’s it going to take to get you into this car?” I’d have said “A ladder.”
I didn’t need that much car. I didn’t need any car, since I was still enjoying my vehicle — but sometimes you are drawn to a showroom like a man contemplating an affair. You’ll stay faithful, but what’s the harm in flirting?
Then one day you get out the title for your car, which is like going to the bar and slipping your wedding ring in your pocket.
In my case, my 14-year-old car gave up the ghost, so off to the dealership, where I encountered everything worrisome about modern America. Oh, the salesman was a nice kid. He knew his job. But for all the passion he displayed, I could have been buying a fridge. Or a coffin.
What I wanted was a glad-handing, back-slapping guy with a plaid tie who’s been selling cars for 30 years, drinking motor-oil coffee from the breakroom, chain-smoking cigarettes as he looks at the sales board and sees he’s three short and the month is ending in two days, but they just got in five new Furys and he’s confident he can move them. The Fury, it’s flying off the lot. The Harpy, that was a hard sell, but even then he moved six, mostly to divorcées. Ah — here comes someone who looks like he’s ready to be rolled. Grin on, eyes bright: showtime.
There weren’t any of these guys at the modern dealership. They were professional and relaxed and seemed to believe that it was my job to figure out which car I wanted.
“I woke up this morning,” I said to the salesman, “and I felt like I wanted to be flattered and lied to, but there’s no brothel around so I thought I’d go to a dealership.”
If he’d been a dog he would have cocked his head sideways; it’s possible he thought “Brothel” was a new soup place down the road.
I told him which car I wanted, and he did not praise my selection as being the obvious choice of a virile specimen such as myself with exceptional taste, nor did he point out that the XL model, which had everything I liked, also came with leather manual covers, BoostPlus™ assist for suborbital insertion, a key fob that cried like an eagle when you pushed the lock button, and so on.
This was not a one-time observation. Trips to other dealerships had the same nice kind fellow who seemed unable to show enthusiasm not just for this car but for cars in general. They’re just, you know, cars.
What happened? How did an entire generation — okay, two guys — lose their love of that quintessential American desire to get in, floor it, barrel down the freeway with the radio loud, hit a concrete post, and have the steering column spear you in the sternum like a plastic sword piercing a cocktail olive?
Perhaps it’s because cars all look the same. Regulations and mileage requirements have crimped the designers’ imagination, so everything turns out as an aerodynamically shaped wad of Jell-O, if it’s a small car. Even the massive pickups that sit there in the parking lot, looking as if they’re thinking up six ways to kill you, have a sameness to their design. The color palette is only slightly more generous than that of the Model T. Do the designers ever go to a car show and see people swooning over two-tone Bel Airs with seafoam green or pink?
“You can have the car in white, shell, gray, taupe, mauve, and black,” the salesman says. Those are the colors I would turn if I were dying.
Perhaps the Youth of Today figure that there’s no point to loving cars, since (a) they are evil instruments of planetary destruction that have deformed cities and everyone should be taking an electric unicycle to his job as a Web designer at a craft brewery and (b) self-driving cars are inevitable, so the whole idea of learning to love to drive is like trying to brush up on your social skills when sex robots will be taking over the paramour department.
This must be stopped. A nation of people indifferent to cars is ripe for socialism, I tell you. Ripe! They’ll want everyone putting around in putty-colored pods controlled by a wise computer that manages congestion and ensures that no one has more horsepower than anyone else. They’ll probably have dampening fields that stifle access to hate speech, like talk radio, and if you make two stops at the liquor store in a week it’ll tattle to the gummint health provider.
The pods can’t have tailfins, of course. Nothing can have tailfins. Someone might grip and hit it and put his eye out.
Long ago I told my daughter that if she ever came across a picture of people in a car with the top down, blasting down the highway for parts unknown, smoking cigarettes, radio loud, no belts — well, those were the freest people who’d ever lived.
Mind you, cigarettes are bad for you, the music was probably junk, the lack of seatbelts meant they’d be shredded by sharp glass, so don’t smoke, develop good taste, buckle up. But still. The car is freedom. You’ll take my keys from my cold, dead hands.
I exaggerate, of course. Response time after a crash is pretty good these days. My hands would still be warm.
This article appears as “Auto Ennui” in the June 24, 2019, print edition of National Review.