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Outlook: Still in Love With Eco-Enemy No. 1

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Terry Box
Automotive Writer, Dallas Morning News
Monday, August 11, 2008; 10:00 AM

"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. ... Cars move me, and lots of other folks, too -- and not just from point A to point B."

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Dallas Morning News automotive writer Terry Box was online Monday, Aug. 11 at 10 a.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article explaining why, despite global warming doomsday scenarios and other negative environmental news, Americans never will give up gas-guzzling muscle cars and SUVs.

The transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors

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washingtonpost.com: Terry will join the discussion in a few minutes, apologies for the delay.

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Kensington, Md.: As a Prius driver and self-identifying insufferable treehugger, I thoroughly enjoyed and sympathized with your article. You came across as quite self-aware, and far from the cartoon some of us have of the unrepentant gas guzzler. But it sounds like you acknowledge no small desire inside to be "part of the solution" -- the sentiment betrayed in your final few paragraphs.

Given that, I wonder if we might brainstorm about some "compromise" devices to help things along for folks in your conflicted position -- who hold the car mythos dear but recognize its impact. Perhaps an option on hybrids where an enhanced engine roar is synthesized from under the hood (with bass woofers under the dash to augment the experience and vibrate the driver into a nostalgic bliss)? Or some leaky engine-oil air fresheners hanging from the rearview mirror in the new miniature electric runabout cars? Help me help you here, I'm sure we can come up with something.

Terry Box: I'm not sure you can help me with hybrids. I never have accepted the notion that you need two motors to propel a 3,000-pound car. But I definitely like the notion of real car sounds. If it comes to that, it would be a help. Also, if I must be issued a hybrid, could I get one that'll catch second-gear scratch? Thanks for the help and for taking the time to read the essay.

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New York: I am sorry you no longer can drive with an open container of alcohol or have a rifle outside your car. I guess this all has been one loss of freedom at a time, right? On the plus side, you still have the Super Bowl Cowboys ... oops, sorry about that one, too.

Terry Box: Well, for now, I've still got the car. And contrary to some people's stereotypes, I may be from Texas, but I don't own a gun. Also, when modern cars started generating some serious horsepower, I had to quit driving with the beer between my knees. It was sloshing all over me.

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Brookeville, Md.: Hi Terry, enjoyed your column -- that's me to a tee. We're hot-rodders. It gets in your blood and never leaves. I got it at age 14 and now I'm 58. My Crossfire is not as fast as your GT, but it's every bit as cool in the looks department. What we have is that need to go fast (legally), drive something a little different, live a little outside the norm.

I spend two hours every Sunday morning in a shopping center parking lot in Burtonsville, Md., with probably 500-600 people I didn't know when I got there. By the time I leave I've made new friends and seen some incredible cars that are only in my dreams. I don't think our love of this ever truly will go away. Even if we go electric, you know there is a guy somewhere who will want his electric to go a little faster and look a little different, and our love of hot-rodding will evolve yet again.

Terry Box: I hope you're right. I am so addicted to the sound and thrill of a V-8, it may be an adjustment. But I share your optimism that whatever we are assigned to drive, someone will figure out a way to make it faster and slicker.

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Washington: Urban dwellers such as myself who think our auto-based society is a bad thing don't have problems with "gearheads" such as you -- you'll be willing to pay a high price for your enthusiasm the way yachters, equestrians or pilots of private planes do. What we object to is that most exurban drivers don't pay the full cost for their activities, and that most families don't have any choice on whether to adopt an auto-centered lifestyle. Your paean to fast cars doesn't really address these issues.

Terry Box: I agree -- and perhaps we'll just have to agree to disagree on this one. Having watched mass transit being implemented around here -- even imposed at times -- I have serious reservations about its cost, use and ability to serve most people's needs. But those are strictly my opinions.

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Arlington, Va.: The problem isn't really a addiction or "love" of your car(s) and the smell of gasoline. The problem, in my opinion, is an utter dependency on them -- not just psychological dependency, but actual, physical dependency, as in you literally would not be able to survive if you didn't have a car and the cheap energy source to run it. This is a problem because the cheap energy source that we found about 150 years ago that enabled all this auto-erotic-lovin' is going away.

Terry Box: Maybe, but as I said, I make no apologies for my addiction, which is perfectly legal. Some people are addicted to food, some to alcohol, others to drugs. If you are right, we will be forced to go cold-turkey in the next decade or two and that problem will be resolved, won't it?

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Alexandria, Va.: A love of cars is against the mainstream? That's rich. Perhaps if the love of cars hadn't been checked -- just a little -- during the course of maybe the past 60 years, the stress you are getting/perceiving/asking for wouldn't exist. You are the mainstream -- no rebel yell for you.

Terry Box: Well, if I am, I accept it.

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Springfield, Va.: Terry, besides your Shelby (I also own a 2007 Shelby GT), what other non-politically correct cars have you owned?

Terry Box: The Shelby is one of seven Mustangs I've owned since 1990, including three Cobras and a Mach 1. I also owned a Camaro Z28 in the midi-1990s, but I could never get my hair to do that proper mullet thing you need for a Camaro. Just kidding. The Camaro was delightful. Unfortunately, it was the one car I've owned with an automatic, and I got bored with the transmission.

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Madison, Wis.: Thanks for your Outlook article, Mr. Box. You've touched on the main reason cars never will go away: They're too much fun to drive. The problem is that the slow slog of daily commuting will take the pleasure out of any automobile. You may appreciate that I have re-discovered the joy of driving (three days a week) by taking a scooter to work. Sure, it's less muscle, but the feeling of being closer to the road and using your body to help steer does give some tactile satisfaction. Just a thought.

Terry Box: That's a great observation. Twice a week in the traffic around here, I ask myself how wise it is to be contending with stop-and-go in a car like a Shelby GT with a fairly stiff clutch. Maybe you're onto something. Thanks.

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Centreville, Va.: Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your musings on the petro-politics of muscle cars. You made some great points and struck some pleasantly familiar chords in this former gearhead. The Washington Post gave Sunday's story a very nice display in print -- check it out if you haven't.

Terry Box: Thanks very much. I didn't necessarily expect to reach many fellow gearheads, so it's a thrill to know some are still left out there.

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Arlington, Va.: Terry says: "If you are right, we will be forced to go cold-turkey in the next decade or two and that problem will be resolved, won't it?" Well, no. Or it may be resolved, but not in a good way. The problem is that people who are desperate, starving and watching their children suffer will do extreme things. Those of us who are a in situation not dependent on cheap energy are worried about the reaction of those that are.

Terry Box: I'm not desperate. I abide mostly by the majority's rules and will on this one. Just for the record, I opposed the Iraq war from the outset.

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Arlington, Va.: As far as open containers, here in Virginia it is legal to have an open alcoholic beverage in your car while you drive. I don't have a problem with that. But, it is illegal to walk down the sidewalk with an open beer. That, to me, makes no sense.

Terry Box: Your legislators must be second cousins of ours here in Texas. I didn't realize that any state will allow open containers these days. And that is one of the stranger inconsistencies in law I've heard about.

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A traffic jam somewhere in Northern Virginia: Good morning. I appreciated your piece in the spirit it (hopefully) was intended. I used to feel much as you do about driving, but through the years I have come to enjoy it less and less because of the sheer number of other vehicles now sharing the roads. My big moment of realization came when I watched an officer give a ticket to the driver who had just hit me, an accident I was powerless to prevent at the hands of someone who didn't have the slightest comprehension of basic rules of the road. So I got a bike, found a huge hill in a park and rode down as fast as I could -- and recaptured some of the feeling I used to have behind the wheel of a car. Oh well, enjoy your car while you can still find some open roads in North Texas. Thanks!

Terry Box: Another good observation. I think traffic will kill off muscle cars as quickly as high gas prices. When you live in stop-and-go traffic, 30 horsepower is as effective as 430 -- and neither is much of a thrill.

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Maryland: Terry, Thanks for the great article. I could have written most of it (well, if I wrote as well as you do), even down to my age. I've tried to explain to my family the concept of this near-genetic disposition of mine. For the most part they get it, as evidenced by my purchase three weeks ago of a Mazda MX-5 Miata. My tastes always have run more toward small sports cars than muscle, but I can see that we are brothers nonetheless. So I dutifully drive my roadster to the Metro station every workday and park it. The weekends are for wonderful country drives with my wife, who says that they make her feel half her age. What could be better than that?

Terry Box: Absolutely nothing. I reviewed a Miata a few months ago and loved it. It's a car that gives you a reason to get up in the morning -- and go find a corner. Have fun.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: Don't you feel even a little arrogant about trumpeting the fact that you can afford that in-your-face gas-guzzling lifestyle, while many Americans no longer can?

Terry Box: I worked my way through college and earn a middle-class income at a newspaper. I pay more for insurance and gas because of the car. I also paid a little more for the car than the average. But those are sacrifices I choose to make. If that somehow makes me arrogant, so be it.

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Washington: Hi. Posting early because I'm supposed to be working at 10 a.m. Anyway, I just wanted to say that I feel your pain. I live here in the District on Capitol Hill within seven blocks of two different metro stops on three different lines, so I easily can use the subway to get anywhere in the city. However, I'm a car guy at heart, and I've already ordered a shiny red 2009 Dodge Challenger R/T and eagerly am awaiting delivery. Practical car? Not at all. But everyone around here has a Mini or a BMW or Honda. I'll be the guy with the red Hemi Dodge -- with a few "modifications" right out of the box, if you know what I mean. And because I only drive a few thousand miles a year (mostly on weekends), I don't have to feel bad about killing the environment. Sympathetically yours...

Terry Box: Good for you. That sounds like a wonderful car. I drove one a few weeks ago and was extremely impressed. Have fun with it.

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Washington: Holy cow! What a rebel ... I'm working on a short piece about my love for McDonald's Big Macs -- and how no matter how much the PC police yells, I'm going to keep eating them. That's because I'm "off the reservation." Think I can get it published in Outlook? Also, I like to watch TV! Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

Terry Box: Okay, you can have your Big Mac if I can keep my Mustang. Problem resolved.

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Falls Church, Va.: Thomas Friedman has a column today about how the Danes were 99 percent dependent on foreign oil at the time of the price shock of '73, but by making changes are now completely independent. Plus they have spurred their economy through innovative energy technology, which is their top export. What will it take for America's boomers to finally grow up and think beyond immediate personal vanity?

Terry Box: I'm not sure how to answer that. Are boomers we self-indulgent? Absolutely. But I don't view this as vanity. Cars are as important to me as food is to others.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hello Terry. I attended the "All-GM Car Show" in Rockville, Md., on Saturday -- what a bunch of cool cars. I sat in an '80-something Oldsmobile Hurst Cutlass. Wow ... that brought back adrenaline I hadn't felt since I graduated high school about that time. I then went looking at new cars that afternoon. I was pleasantly surprised that the new Pontiac G8, Buick Enclave and Chevy Malibu could create the same feeling. Nice solid thunk when you close the door ... just like yesteryear, but with the new car smell. What are you thoughts on the new Camaro. Isn't it due out soon?

Terry Box: It is. I haven't driven one, but I'm sure it's going to be an exceptional car. If it interests you, my advice is don't wait too long to act. That pony-car segment might not be around in five years.

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Mobile, Ala.: Terry, are there any more manufacturers planning Active Fuel Management (displacement on demand) technology? it seems like hybrids with active fuel management -- and with aluminum or plastic body panels to save some weight -- would be one path to better fuel efficiency.

Terry Box: They already have it. GM uses it heavily in its V-8 powered vehicles, and Chrysler added it to most of its V-8 Hemi cars a few years ago. Ford, to my knowledge, has not adopted the technology, but I think you're right. Fuel management coupled with lower weight is a smart, efficient approach.

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Arlington, Va.: Cars are a lot of fun, but gas at $4 still is extremely cheap for a resource that is growing more scarce and more in demand. Every year it will ratchet up in price from now on. If you can afford it, go for it -- if you don't use it, some Chinese millionaire will. It's all going to be burned by someone or another. Then the party begins!

Terry Box: I agree. Someone accosted me at a gas station the other day and I pointed out that it's better for my legal, emissions-controlled car to be burning it than some Chinese car in Beijing. I was only half-kidding.

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Arlington, Texas: As a committed hot-rodder who goes to events all over the country, I wonder why the politicians can't seem to understand the passion that drives me and my fellow gearheads. This is a huge subculture with connections everywhere in these United States. Seems like there are lots of votes out there if either party could get a clue! What do you think, Terry?

Terry Box: I think so, too. But if memory serves, didn't Big Daddy Garlits run for Congress in Florida -- and was defeated? Still, it's amazing to attend a big car show somewhere and see the numbers of people and deep enthusiasm.

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Arlington, Va.: My guilty pleasure is driving my dump truck around. Sometimes I load up with rocks or fill dirt to make it as heavy as possible and then drive around residential streets to see if I can rattle the dishes inside people's houses -- just to let 'em know I'm there. What a joy! Downshifting is also fun where the engine roars and the smoke billows. There really is no feeing like it, except maybe driving an M-1 Abrams, but they won't let you take those on the road -- more fun-spoilers!

Terry Box: That's great! I've never heard of someone with a passion for dump trucks. Have fun.

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Arlington, Va.: Terry says "your legislators must be second cousins of ours here in Texas." Well, Sam Houston and Stephen Austin were both born in Virginia, you know...

Terry Box: Hmmm. I'm not sure what that means

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Vero Beach, Fla.: My modest green Focus wagon was pitched by a prominent consumer publication as being "fun to drive." Yes, if that means finding corners. Florida just isn't like Wyoming, where a shopping trip meant an expedition to the metropolis of Billings via Bridger.

Terry Box: Maybe you need a trip. I know that frustration in Dallas, too.

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Prescott, Ariz.: I've lived in Wyoming and rural-ish Arizona all my life. We get more of the jacked-up trucks then the muscle cars. It always seemed like the guy with the biggest truck was um, how should I say this, compensating for something. ... Does that apply to the guy with the loudest or fastest muscle car?

Terry Box: Absolutely. But I have more fun with my muscle car than those yayhoos do with their big-A trucks.

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Brookeville, Md.: Terry -- you are familiar with the Cruise In or Hook Ups that go on throughout the country? These are excellent ways to meet people who share your enthusiasm, and there are tons of them out there. Come to Maryland and I'd be more than happy to show you around. I was just at two this past weekend. The Internet is also a good way to hook up with like-minded enthusiasts. Most vehicle types have online clubs/Forums/Web sites where you can trade info on your vehicle.

Terry Box: Thanks for the invitation. I'd like to take you up on that someday.

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Annandale, Va.: Doesn't the Shelby version actually have an even larger engine than the 4.6 you mentioned? Isn't it 5-point-something?

Terry Box: The Shelby GT is based on the Mustang GT and it does indeed have a 4.6-liter V-8. The Shelby GT 500 has the bigger 5.4-liter V-8.

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New York: Um, is anybody trying to get rid of all cars? I thought we were just trying to get them to run on something other than gasoline.

Terry Box: I hope that's all we're doing, too. I can live with that. But with the new CAFE laws, I don't think we'll see too many mainstream V-8s after 2012.

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Bridgton, Maine: Have you considered engaging Tom and Ray in this discussion? They are available at the Car Talk Web site. I think they would add to the fun and help sort out some of the issues. The guys from MIT might add something to the good 'ol down-home way of thinking that Terry shared with us.

Terry Box: I'm all for it.

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McLean, Va.: Is your Mustang a convertible? Has the build quality improved? About 12 years ago my wife and I were looking for a new car. It came down to a Mustang GT convertible versus a Volvo 850 turbo -- two entirely different cars. We drove the Mustang after we drove the Volvo, which was priced $10,000 more. After driving the Mustang, we could understand why the Volvo had the higher price -- it was worth the difference in comfort AND handling. And -- don't ask me how I know -- the Volvo had a higher top end speed.

Terry Box: My car is the coupe. The build quality is pretty good. It hasn't been back for any quality-related problems. But in all honesty, there's never been a Volvo made that will hang with a Shelby GT on a road course.

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Davis, Calif.: I had to laugh when I read about your test drive of the Ford whatever-it-was. Those car companies just play you like a fiddle, don't they? Do you ever feel a twinge of longing for a slightly more meaningful life, where you're not just a cog in the corporate wheel of consumerism?

Terry Box: I kind of resent that. My relationship with my car is a commitment, not a test drive. The test drive was my last girlfriend.

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Portland, Ore.: As a published writer with a significant audience for transportation issues, how do you excuse your failure to show any sort of leadership on the issue of global climate change? How will you explain your own inaction to your grandchildren?

Terry Box: As someone who doesn't share your mass-hysteria views, I don't have any problem with it at all.

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