Death by Corolla: What is happening to car culture?

You can tell a lot about someone by the car they drive. I, for example, drive a 2003 Toyota Corolla, which tells you I have given up on life.

That was a joke. But I’m serious about this theory. The fact I drive a 2003 Corolla tells you, right off the bat, that I am not driving the car I wish I was driving. Nobody wants a Corolla, just like nobody wants to eat frozen pizza. You settle for it. It also suggests that I am at least somewhat concerned about gas mileage, (probably) don’t have a family, (probably) have some idea which makes are most reliable, (possibly) have a job that involves some commuting and (almost certainly) does not pay very much.

Here, in order, are the cars I drove prior to my Corolla:

  • 1967 Dodge Coronet
  • 1975 Dodge Dart Swinger
  • 1992 Subaru SVX
  • 1992 Ford Explorer
  • 1983 Chevrolet El Camino

The point is, a Toyota Corolla has absolutely nothing to do with my personality and it is slowly murdering my soul.

All of this is a way of saying that I am becoming wistful and afraid regarding the disintegration of American culture as we know it.

That is a photo of something called the T.25 City Car. It was designed be a fomer F1 engineer most famous for the McLaren F1, which goes 240 miles per hour. The T.25 has a top speed of 80, gets 74 miles per gallon and costs $9,000. In no way is it not good that we have this option. Anything that reduces the demand for oil is good. And I can imagine a lot of parents of 16-year-old kids liking the idea of a $9,000 car that can’t go faster than 80*. I think this car is a good thing.

*Two notes here:

1) Inside a contraption like that, a collision above, oh, 13 miles per hour will likely result in instantaneous death.

2) I have known plenty of cars in my day that could barely go 80 miles per hour, and they cost far less than $9,000.

It’s just that if that’s what cars are going to be, then something I’ve loved my entire life no longer exists.

Like millions of others, I have lived all my life fascinated by cars. I used to sit in my room for hours looking at Hot Rod Magazine, Car Craft Magazine and Car & Driver. I’ve always been a sports fan, but while most kids could quote you baseball statistics, I could give you horsepowers and cubic inches and tell you the minute differences in body style between a 1963 Impala and a 1964 Impala. I would pour through auto parts catalogs daydreaming about the upgrades we could make to our 1967 Ford pickup.

How can we go faster and look cooler? That is the essence of American car culture and, metaphorically, American culture as a whole.

"Throw some Ds on that."

And now, some cultural background. Feel free to skip ahead until after the green Barracuda if you want, although I find this stuff fascinating and perhaps you will too.

Like a great number of American cultural developments, the car culture developed because of the World Wars. After World War II, Americans had money, felt awesome about being Americans and started moving to the suburbs. These three things, combined with cheap oil, created not just a demand for cars, but a demand for cool ones.

This add for a 1957 Chevy says it all.

A few years later, as the space race captivated the country, cars started reflecting that. Their designs invoked spaceships and cockpits and speed.

Incredibly, in a span of just 24 years (1945-1969) — one generation, basically — the United States had won World War II, enjoyed enormous economic expansion and put a freaking man on the moon. We were unstoppable. It must have felt this way. I am not ignoring the numerous and enormous problems we endured in the 1960s. In fact, I think you could make a strong argument that much of the social change in the 1960s, good and bad, was at least in part a product of people feeling more emboldened and less stoppable than they had ever felt before.

Meanwhile, in southern California …

"It's like what Lenin said... you look for the person who will benefit, and, uh, uh..."

…people were using cars for self-expression. You could have called them artists, but that’s not what they called themselves. They were just craftsmen making cool cars cooler.

The '51 Mercury was a classic canvas for these guys.

These kinds of customizations became so popular that it started influencing the way auto manufacturers designed their cars. It all fed off itself.

The late 50s through early 70s was undoubtedly the golden age for American cars. They went faster and looked cooler than ever. There was genuine creativity involved. The cars had soul and spirit and like millions of others, I have always loved them. I have always loved the idea that even if you couldn’t buy a Corvette, you could take your dad’s old ’51 Mercury or ’67 Ford pickup or Honda Civic and make it faster, make it cooler, make it you. Americans aren’t the only people who do that, but there is something very American about it.

They have never made cars like that in Japan or France or Italy. These cars are a part of my personal identity, but also a part of our collective identity.

We won the war, we got to the moon first, we created jazz music and barbecue and Elvis. Our soccer team doesn’t flop. Our 26th president was shot in the arm during a campaign speech and finished the speech before having the wound dressed. Our Olympic basketball players grab their crotches after dunks. Our 35th president shagged Marilyn Monroe. Our 43rd president responded to an attack from one country by bombing the crap out of an entirely different country because it seemed like they were cool with each other. We season our salads with bacon.

Not everything we do is good, but we are who we are. Of course we made the most balls-out cars in the world.

Over time, that brought us to the Toyota Corolla and, eventually, the T.25 City Car. We loved our big, fast, gas-guzzling cars so much that we created the circumstances that made them impractical. That’s the irony.

And that reality is inescapable. This doesn’t spell the end of car culture. You can still drive whatever you want and millions of people still drive cars that get like 16 miles per gallon. This is not the car apocalypse. Millions of gallons of oil are gushing into the Gulf of Mexico every day, and the price of it is barely affected. We are not close to running out.

But a lot of what has happened in the car world over the last five years or so has been unfair. This discussion has been co-opted by political agendas. If you drive an SUV or a muscle car, you’re an a-hole Republican who doesn’t care. If you drive a Prius, you’re a compassionate liberal trying to save the planet. Some conservatives drive trucks just to prove a point, and some liberals drive hybrids to do the same. And if you cringe at the idea of the Smart Car or the T.25, it’s because you’re afraid Your Side is losing some kind of battle.

I’m afraid it’s a little more complicated than that, yet a little more simple, too.

The market will decide whether the T.25 succeeds, just as the market decided on muscle cars in the 60s. This isn’t about a political agenda for me. Everyone should root for technologies that improve fuel mileage.

Life circumstances have led me to my Corolla. It is the best thing for me right now, even though it doesn’t feel like me, even though it doesn’t express anything, even though it is neither fast nor cool.

In my parents’ garage I have a 1964 Ford Galaxie. I have mostly rebuilt the engine. The car still needs plenty of work, and for the time being, it sits and I drive my Corolla, even on weekends, even on the Fourth of July.

It is the best thing for right now. I just hope it doesn’t have to stay that way.


Bieber. There, I said it.

So tiny.

As I was deciding whether or not Justin Bieber was worth writing about, one way or another, I decided, based on the number of words I wrote about Miley Cyrus, that Bieber was worth 440 words. What follows are exactly 440 words about Justin Bieber.

As you may have noticed, there is someone named Justin Bieber out there who is to preteen girls what an errant piece of watermelon is to a colony of ants.

For comedians and Internet yucksters, Bieber is to gay jokes what Ruben Studdard once was to fat jokes.

So let me say this right out front. I don’t think Justin Bieber is transcendent in any way. I have written in this space that Miley Cyrus is, which set off a near violent reaction among some of you, namely Trim. Bieber will have no lasting contribution to American culture, I don’t think. He really isn’t much of anything right now, actually, except that he is an unusually tiny 16-year-old with a distinctly boyish (and kind of lesbian-y) haircut and luscious lips and the voice of an ang …

Anyway. In case you have not heard, Bieber was recently spotted drinking at a bar , which police raided because of the tip. The problem was that Bieber turned out to be a 27-year-old woman.

This is the garnish for a million Bieber-is-a-girl jokes, which are practically their own meme at this point, which is pretty unfair.

Justin Bieber has the misfortune of being famous.

If Bieber were just a regular 16-year-old Canadian kid, only the world’s biggest buttwipes would be making fun of his delayed-onset puberty.

But because he’s famous, everybody just gets to take their shots.

It would be (slightly) more understandable if he were some Lew Pearlman construction or something, if he had been a Mouseketeer, or whatever the modern equivalent is, and his parents had made him do a bunch of toy commercials as a 6-year-old, or if he was already famous for something else and was trying to squeeze every last dollar out of his fame by releasing crappy pop music.

But Bieber’s music career is about as organic as they come these days. He grew up in a single-parent home. He taught himself to play four instruments and eventually posted to YouTube a video of himself singing in a local singing competition (he got second). A record executive accidentally saw the video, signed him and here we are. Say what you will about his music,* but at least he’s a real kid.

*It’s terrible.

The thing is, though, now he’s not a real kid. Now he’s a cartoon. Because he got a record deal, we get to mercilessly make fun of his biological development and not feel bad about it.

Justin Bieber’s career doesn’t tell us much about music or our culture, but it says a lot about celebrity. Mainly that if you’re famous, we’re allowed to hate you for no reason.

Driving fast and getting married; the evolution of manhood (as experienced by me)

I had removed the back seat, I had left the gas tank nearly empty, pulled all my crap out of the trunk, mixed the carburetor a little rich and pulled off the air filter for good measure.

I did this because I wanted my 1975 Dodge Dart to be faster than Leon White’s 1976 Chevrolet Camaro. We would be testing  our manhood … er, vehicles on about a mile-long strip of flat, lonely blacktop that cut through a wheat field and finished with a cemetery on one side of the road and the Reno County Jail on the other side. I am not making that up. It was as if a concerned mom was on the city planning committee, knew what open stretches of road were used for, and appreciated a good metaphor.

A 1975 Dodge Dart. Mine was a lot like this, down to the hood scoop.

Leon's Camaro was just like this, only with fatter tires.

It was perfect for drag racing. Here’s how that would go:

We’d bring up the idea at about maybe 4 p.m., two hours before our workday was over at Ferguson Service, a full-service gas station and mechanic in Hutchinson, Kansas. If there wasn’t much work to do, we’d pull our cars into the double bays and tinker a little. You’d want the fuel-air mixture a little rich, and you’d want to eliminate as much weight as possible. Thus the removal of my back seat. And the second the clock struck 6, we’d take our paper time cards, punch them out, lock the doors and head for the road that led to jail.

Once there, you’d have to do a couple burnouts (to warm up the tires; warm tires get better traction).

Lacking any kind of lights or a third person, we’d toe our bumpers up to a mostly imaginary line, put them in drive and, with our feet on the brake, give the engines as much gas as the brakes could handle. This would push the car up on its haunches, like a cat preparing to pounce, and Leon and I would look at each other, side by side, and hold up three fingers … 2 … 1 … GO!

As soon as you release the brake, the car shoots off (hopefully without a burnout, though that’s probably happening most of the time). We never did mark off a quarter mile, so we’d race to a sign that made the race quite a bit longer than the quarter-mile drag standard. For 18-20 seconds, we’re driving our cars literally as fast and hard as they can be driven, foot mashed on the floor, shifting out of second gear at 65 miles per hour, you know, ruining the cars. By the end, we’d be at about 105 miles per hour. And, although these cars were beasts in the quarter mile,  with a three-speed transmission geared the way cars were geared in the 70s, when the highway speed limit was 55, 105 miles per hour is about as fast as you can go.

When I was 20, I traded that car to my uncle for a 1992 Subaru SVX. Most people are not familiar with the Subaru SVX. I suspect this is because they are pieces of crap. The SVX was Subaru’s attempt at a high-end sports car. The company’s target demographic was people who wanted a Porsche, but couldn’t quite afford one, but could still afford to spend $25,000 (in 1992 dollars) on a two-door sports car. In modern terms, they were after the Nissan 350Z market.

Anyway, although this car was the result of the Japanese trying their hand at German engineering, it was very fast, but in the opposite way of my Dart. I had read the SVX could reach a top speed of 135 miles per hour.

I checked, and it could.

Then my dad found out I had checked. With my sister in the car.

What comes next I still consider one of the most profound moments of my transformation into manhood, and one of the most perfect lessons my dad ever taught me. He did not rant and rave. He did not try to belittle me. He did not hit me with a guilt trip. He did not even mention the high probability I would have gone to jail if a cop had seen me. He just said the following in that way only dads can, that way that you instinctively understand.

“What you do by yourself is one thing,” he said. “But you can’t do that with other people in the car.”

And that was it*.

*Well, my mom was there later to remind me I could have gone to jail, but that’s what moms are for, isn’t it? To tell you that you could end up in jail.

Maybe it sounds silly that I needed to be told that, but the fact is, I did need to be told that. The profundity in the way my dad handled it was that he did not offend my considerable hubris. Maybe only men can understand this, but at 20 years old, men are unstoppable and cannot be convinced otherwise.

I knew I could safely* drive my car 135 miles per hour and my dad knew I could do that, too, and he knew he could do that and probably even thought that was kind of cool. This is a man who used to street race Camaros in his Hyundai. This is a man who used to do power slides into our driveway. This is a man who gave me my first pocket knife at six and put me behind the wheel of a 1967 Ford Pickup with no power steering at 10 and sent me out by myself with a shotgun to hunt dove at 12.

*You know, relatively.

This is a man who understood the primal value in men doing manly things.

So he did not offend my manly delusions. But in the most subtle way, he revealed to me that there is another side to being a man.

Seven years later, I got married.

See? It's true.

People keep asking me if I feel different now that I’m married. I really don’t. I mean, I feel like I have to do the dishes now, which sucks. But I don’t really feel like a different person, except for one thing.

I feel a greater responsibility to not die. This is not to say I ever felt like dying, but it is to say I was the kind of guy who drag raced to the jail and drove his car 135 miles per hour and chased storms over levees and through creeks.

And that was all fun and manly and maybe even necessary, in an odd way. But there is a different side to being a man.

And there’s somebody else in the car with me now.