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Gas Is Sky-High and the Glaciers Are Melting. But I'm Not Junking My Great American Joyride.

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By Terry Box
Sunday, August 10, 2008

My car swills gas, downing shot after shot of rich red petrol. It rumbles rudely at stoplights, scaring the Prius drivers around me. Its flinty suspension -- stiff and unyielding as a tax-department bureaucrat -- pounds my middle-aged back on rough roads. After collecting a relatively minor speeding ticket a couple of summers back, I grappled briefly with car existentialism. "Aren't you a little old to be doing this?" the Dallas cop asked after he caught me with my foot in second gear like some over-amped teenager.

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But the truth is, at 57, I still delight in turning the key in my '07 Mustang Shelby GT and feeling the thunder as its 4.6-liter V-8 engine explodes into life. I relish pointing it toward what little open road is left in this part of Texas and engaging in occasional immature outbursts of, shall we say, joyful exuberance. I revel in its sounds and its power and its mechanical sensations. And I accept its excesses.

I know that my days as an unrepentant gearhead may be numbered. Sky-high gas prices, global warming, urban sprawl, maybe even the "oil war" in Iraq, are all being piled on cars. Yet despite the growing drumbeat against them, the allegations that they're melting glaciers and maiming thousands, the claim that we're choking on them, the fear that they're our worst national addiction, I love them dearly.

They are my "carma." And I refuse to go on the national guilt trip about them.

Like lots of people with weaknesses far outside the mainstream, I believe that I was born to my particular, four-wheel fanaticism. At the tender age of 2, I could name virtually every car on the road -- an early expression, I suspect, of some sort of loosely twisted auto-gene. If I disappeared at a family function, someone could always find me in a parked car somewhere, sawing back and forth on the steering wheel of a big Olds sedan or a Ford station wagon or a Chevy business coupe and issuing car noises appropriate to the make.

Cars move me, and lots of other folks, too -- and not just from point A to point B. Just a couple of years ago, I stood smiling in a white-hot Western desert in July, watching cars race to the end of the world. I was at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, mesmerized by the sight of great homebuilt racers flying by on the desert floor in a cloud of salt, chasing nothing more than a possible entry in an obscure record book.

I love the sound of a salty engine echoing through big stainless-steel exhausts. I appreciate tight, precise steering and brakes strong enough to slow time. Throw in great handling, blazing straight-line performance and a dash of style, and you have sculpture that springs to life with the twist of a key.

And yet lots of people these days see cars as mere appliances that can be re-jiggered with an electric motor or a fuel cell and sent puttering down the road like some jazzed-up can-opener on wheels. Pardon my French, but that's a bunch of donkey dust. No appliance sounds like a '67 427 Corvette or a new Ferrari F430 or a Hemi-powered '32 Ford hot rod.

One hot July several years ago, the folks in the Southwest regional office of Ford handed me the keys to a pre-production 2005 Ford GT and told me to have it back by morning. Cloaked in glistening red with white stripes, it was about as subtle as hooker neon. The fabulous 500-horsepower two-seater, a car that looked as if it had just darted off a long straight at Le Mans, was theoretically capable of reaching 60 mph in four heartbeats, on its way to a top speed of 200 mph.

As I rumbled through North Dallas, people slid around in clumsy howling U-turns, trying to catch up to the wild red car they had only seen in magazines. When I stopped, men and women loped out of nearby buildings to bask in its ferocious heat and ask dozens of questions. "What is it?" "How fast will it go?" "How much did it cost?"

As I headed home, I passed a Toyota Corolla with a young guy hanging dangerously out of the passenger-side window, videotaping the GT with a cellphone and mouthing, "Ford GT, Ford GT, Ford GT."

Ever seen a toaster provoke that sort of passion?


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