The new convertible, longing to be driven.
I’d like to dedicate this post to my friend Kanon Cozad, who is by far the most obsessed automobile enthusiast I know. Kanon’s recent trip to Germany to pick up his new BMW M3 was cut short, before he could truly experience the car on the autobahn. So Kanon this post is for you.
In an article that was written for the Financial Times a couple of months back, a financial writer, in the course of bashing the government bailout of American automotive manufacturers, called out automotive advertising for its unrealistic image of the modern driving experience. The author decried the romantic vision of automobiles. The image of wind in the hair, open road… The kind of vision that was made popular at the height of the American auto industry peak at the end of the late 60’s.
He then described the reality of most journeys in your car as “mandatory floggings rather than Kerouac-style Odysseys,” consisting of “commutes, school runs and business trips.”
In some ways it’s hard not to agree with him that cars, while better designed and engineered than they ever have been, are often pressed into utilitarian duty. I’ve seen a Lamborghini Murciélago (basically a racing car in street clothes) sitting in the parking lot of a grocery store. And ask yourself how many Land Rovers do you ever see roving off-road? It’s true enough that more than a few commercials for cars look like outtakes from The Fast and the Furious, with cars going at light speed through city streets miraculously free of traffic, or blasting through hair pin turns with the grace of a cheetah on the prowl. All of them baring the fine print statement, “Professional Driver, Closed Course”. But with that said, it’s not quite as grim as this article would lead you to believe.
Very few of people ever get to drive cars at much more than fifty percent of their potential, unless take your car to a racetrack for a track day (which a considerable number of car enthusiasts actually do, and with good reason). Now, if you have a car that handles well and are willing to look for the closest challenging back roads, your car that mostly serves as your personal shuttle service can become a nimble-footed runner again.
Finding those roads may be easy. If you are like me, you live in a place like the central Midwest where curvy back roads follow the contours of the landscape, hugging the outline of a river or other natural occurrence. On the other hand, if you live in grid-intensive place like Florida it might be tougher to do.
But real fun on the open road is not a completely unattainable dream. I know first hand that there’s still sport driving available on public roads. How do I know? Because I have been the proud owner of a Mini Cooper S for almost 6 years, and with the recent purchase of a Cooper S convertible, I can say that this is on of the most enjoyable cars I’ve owned since I bought an MGB in the early eighties, and with the help of a gear head friend in Lawrence built it to run. Both Cooper S’, the Supercharged and now the Turbo are fast, with tight suspension for amazingly flat cornering, this English retro revival courtesy of BMW has me thinking about the classic years of sports cars, when all you had to do was drive to a race track, tape the headlights, put a number on your doors, and make a play for the winners cup.
That those dreams can be revived by a modern car with ABS, airbags, computers, sensors, air conditioning, Etc., may be in part due to the fact that the MINI itself revives a legendary car from decades past. The original MINI was designed in the mid-fifties by Sir Alec Issigonis, a Greek whose family had English citizenship. The MINI, Like the VW Beetle, and the Fiat Cinquecento, the MINI was a gasoline-stingy answer to the post war shortages in the 50’s in Europe. With its front-wheel drive and four-corner wheel placement, the original MINI feels almost weirdly roomy considering it’s minuscule size. The new MINI that BMW has revived, is almost two feet longer than the original, and it is a design that does exactly what “retro” should do: It improves on the past while still evoking it. In other words, the MINI is at once modern, and in mood nostalgic.
Despite the tendency of the fashion industry’s ability to be successful by recycling styles every 20 years or so with slight changes, retro can be tricky for car makers. On the list of successes, besides the MINI, there is the new Fiat Cinquecento, Ford’s Mustang “Bullit” model (styled after the Mustang Steve McQueen drove in the legendary movie with the same name), and, the new Dodge Challenger which, truly grabs the original vibe of that car. Companies like Jaguar had a good run with its reissued version of its famous E Type, and the XK series, but Indian company Tata motors that bought Jaguar from Ford early this year, is going with the decidedly not-retro variation, playing to an olde more established consumer. I’m still not sure about the new Chevy Camaro I have yet to drive one yet, and the chopped roof kind of bugs me . Frankly I am a bit surprised that Chevrolet has never tried to recall to one of the most popular collector cars GM produced in its long history, the mid- to late fifties Chevy Bel Air. A pure classic with its two-tone paint and fins, designed by the legendary Harley Earl and his magical team. This would surely have been as welcome as the Thunderbird was in the late 90’s and early 2000’s from Ford.
Though successful in terms of sales, a retro car that was designed by J Mays and Freeman Thomas illustrates what problems can occur when looking forward and back at the same time. The car that brought J Mays initial fame, and eventually landed him the top design position at Ford, was the Volkswagen New Beetle. It’s been a huge success for VW, and when first sighted back in 1998 the car was hard not to like. I test drove one of the first of these new beetles to arrive in Kansas City, and if I’d walked down the street with naked and carrying sacks of money I couldn’t have attracted more attention. The car, was essentially a VW Golf with a different body, but the stand out shape was its arched roof. The new Beetle was reminiscent of the Art Deco-influenced pre-and-post-war Volkswagens, but unlike the Beetle of old this was a modern front engine car, and within the first year of introduction VW had a performance Turbo Beetle.
Then there are the faux retro cars, whose designs evoke the past without referring to, or being based directly on an actual motor vehicle from the past. The most popular of these is the Chrysler’s PT Cruiser, which was designed by Bryan Nesbitt. The PT recalls, a line of Plymouth trucks from the thirties. The styling is meant to make us think about burly men in fedoras smoking cigars and looking like gangsters. The PT has sold surprisingly well since its introduction in 2000, proving that funky design doesn’t turn everyone off. One particularly egregious version even re-introduced a woody like version with wood grained vinyl siding. We now know, however, the PT, like was not able to save Chrysler and a stake from Fiat will hopefully to do that.
The point to all of this is that, while the author of the financial time article was partially correct, there are still a number of affordable, well styled cars out there that provide a fun driving experience, provided that the driver is willing to seek it out. I am the former owner of New Beetle and a number of classic cars in the past. I am drawn to the fun design stylings of the new MINI, and the modern driving experience that comes with 21st century engineering. Like many smaller sport coupes today, The MINI is so well thought out. It falls in the same class as the Volvo C30, VW’s GTI, Subaru’s WRX and so many others. I really hope that this signals a new age of automobiles driven forward by the merging of solid industrial design, engineering, and more over the fun of driving. Yes Driving your car should be fun. The overall experience should fill you with a complete sense of satisfaction. Satisfaction that comes not only from the act, but from the design of the vehicle you are sitting in.