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A Yankee Notebook

May 17, 2014


MONTPELIER – Mother and I were headed somewhere a week or so ago – to the Upper Valley, I think – when I suddenly saw something beautiful beside the road.

“Whoa! Look at that!” I cried.” Isn’t it beautiful? For sale, too!”

“What? I didn’t see it.”

It was a Chrysler Crossfire, and Mother wasn’t kidding. She really didn’t see it. One of several imaginatively retro-styled models produced by Chrysler when the company was part of Germany’s Daimler, it was essentially a Mercedes sports coupe. The sophisticated automotive writers panned it for its old-fashioned steering linkage, undistinguished interior, and strange backside, which looked a lot like that of a retreating 1965 Rambler Marlin. But those are the same guys who, in a different setting, would carp that Sophia Loren’s legs are too short.

“Dummköpfe,” my grandfather would have pronounced them. What did they know about love? I thought it was beautiful (as is Sophia). A friend of mine has one, and his delight is palpable. It took me a couple of years to get the name right. I kept calling it a Slingshot or a Crossbow – both appropriate, given the way it looks.

Yet here was my lovely wife, whose taste and perspicacity I generally admire greatly, seeing – if she saw anything at all – only a used automobile sitting beside the road. Given our colorful automotive history, I couldn’t help wondering, “What’s up with that?”

What’s up is that for many folks a vehicle is just a vehicle: four wheels, an engine, some places to sit out of the weather, and a heater and windshield wipers. For others of us, they’re objects of affection, awe, pity, or derision. In other words, they’re works of art ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. It’s impossible for me to see a photo of Ralph Lauren’s shiny black 1938 Bugatti 57SC Atlantique without a thrill of excitement. Never mind that I wouldn’t be able to get in or out of it anymore, or drive it if I could; never mind that, like the Porsche in Germany, it was created during the salad days of European fascism; never mind that it’s valued at $40 million, beyond the imagination of the common klutz. It’s a beautiful dream translated into steel, aluminum, glass, and rubber. It’s even been exhibited in a glass case in the Louvre. I blissfully imagine it tooling through the Alps on a winding road, enhancing the beauty of its surroundings.

The realization that so many people are left cold by such magnificence is troubling to me. I used to think it was a guy thing, that the female psyche wasn’t alive to it. But that’s not true; it’s not gender-related beyond the superficial. I have men friends who actually aren’t sure what kind of car they drive. “It’s four-wheel-drive, I know that, so it must be a Subaru, right?” one said.

In 1959, the year Mother and I were married, I managed to realize a boyhood dream: I bought a retired race car, a Jaguar XK120MC roadster. The visceral excitement of driving that roaring monster is indescribable. The left rear wheel was less than a meter from my head, so I could hear the brake shoes hissing against the drums when I pushed on the brake pedal. The neighbors asked me to please, when I left for work in the morning, roll the car down the street a hundred yards, then jump in and pop the clutch. I thought Mother (which she wasn’t yet) loved it, too, but she didn’t. That could have had something to do with the facts that there was only one seat belt (mine), she usually had the dog in her lap, and her door flew open on hard left high-speed bends. When our first child arrived, the car departed. All I have are a few photographs and some lovely memories.

One of them is rocketing down old Route 8 north of Utica on a sunny morning. To my amazement, I saw a car in my rearview mirror, and 1t wasn’t a trooper. It was a Citroën ID19, one of those weird French sedans with the tail lights up on the roof and a suspension that can be raised and lowered. I sped up, but on the bumpy road the Citroën caught up, and finally passed me on the outside of a curve. I saw it at a coffee shop and stopped. The driver was a young woman with a strong British accent: Pat Moss, sister to the world-famous racing driver Stirling Moss. “I knew you couldn’t shake me,” she said. “You’ve a solid rear axle, not so good on these bumpy roads. Plus, there’s a Maserati engine under the bonnet on that girl out there.” Oh.

So it isn’t gender-related, and it’s probably not genetic, this passion. But I think I got it from my father. He was deaf, and excluded from a lot that went on around him; but in his car he felt the equal of anyone (though he never met Pat Moss). The law required he mount a large, curved rearview mirror, which I still have in a drawer somewhere. He was fond of pointing out that deaf drivers have fewer accidents per capita than hearing ones, mainly because they’re more alert. A constantly traveling Episcopal missionary to the deaf, he kept track of every gallon of gas and every mile driven. His cars were little mobile castles, stocked with emergency equipment for storms or floods. And, though he was a man of the cloth, he routinely drove above the speed limit.

I have a friend who owns some valuable collectors’ cars that he keeps in permanent storage. Why don’t you drive them? I asked. Well, because they’re gaining value with age. Speaking of age, I couldn’t help asking – when you die, what then? They’ll be passed on to his son. What a fate for works of art: to spend perhaps decades under cover in a barn, till someday – who knows when? – a true lover of art will finally let the eagles out of the cage.

Photo by Willem lange