THE TICKET indicated a violation of section 24.103, which the officer assured me (after fumbling in his codebook for 15 minutes) was the appropriate citation for people who haul 32-foot house guttering in 15-foot cars.
But I knew better, the more so as he shot at least a half roll of film of the guttering and vehicle from every convicting angle and distance and muttered something about the judge not believing this one.
I knew what he meant.
The real offense was not a moving violation in the physical sense, but rather one of esthetics: driving an ugly car.
Ugly cars. You know the ones I mean. Ugly cars, or UCs (rhymes with yuks), are the ones painted at least three colors, one of which is primer, with iron oxide dripping from the seams. Most were manufactured in a prior decade, but are not quite old enough or collectible enough to be considered for antique tags. Either the driver's or front passenger door sticks badly and must be elbowed open, usually causing the armrest to fall off. At least one window doesn't open (if it's summer) or close (if it's winter). The upholstery can usually be characterized as early cheesecloth. The bumpers have survived innumerable assaults, but the fenders have not. And they all suffer a similar fate: an owner who insists on taking heroic measures to keep them running.
Everyone has at least an acquaintance, generally considered somewhat demented, who, economic status aside, insists on thumbing his or her nose at the pretty cars coming out of Detroit, Wolfsburg and Tokyo, and driving a UC. I know. I am one.
We ugly-car drivers tend to be clannish, at least with respect to our automotive tastes. Mine, for example, is for old Volvos, the ugliest being a 1968 station wagon which I converted into a pickup truck (at least that is what the Department of Motor Vehicles says). It resembles, I am told, a partially opened sardine can with the key and lid inverted. But other viable ugly-car cliques center on VW Beetles, Karmann Ghias and Ramblers, for example, as well as a host of unaffiliated UCs.
Ugly-car drivers have a philosophy behind their wheels which has unfortunately escaped most Americans. I here take up the UC drivers' burden to educate the nation to our way of thinking before the world's supply of plastics is exhausted on the 1985 models. Herewith the gist of our credo:
Cars Are Tools. Even the most fastidious among you must have a fondness for a certain cooking pot that would not make the Julia Child show, or a teapot which is stout but has a slightly broken spout. It is the primary function of these utensils and tools, which they still ably fulfill, that saves them from the trash truck. Why are cars different? Why worry about the outer shell (assuming your feet are not dragging) if it's the engine, transmission, steering linkage, brakes and tires that count? Does it get you where you want to go?
Ugly Cars Are As Safe As Pretty Cars. I see the sneer on their lips when they steer a wide path around me. Pretty car drivers -- they're the ones to avoid, not me or my ugly- car brethren. As a class, our cars are in better mechanical condition than pretty cars, but more importantly, if they are not, we know how to repair them and what their limitations are. That wax job and $50 will get that pretty car a tow. We will still be on the road moving. We know what that rattle is and whether or not it warrants repair. Pretty-car drivers will either waste money fixing the wrong thing or, worse, let a dangerous condition go unrepaired because all they know is "fill'er up" and what aisle the K-Wax is on.
Ugly Cars Project Status. Your pretty car may get some oohs and ahs this year. But what about next, when its wax is a year older? My car gives me a constant status year in and year out. If the ultimate goal of driving pretty cars is to be recognized, to be unique, to be an outward expression of self and material well-being, why bother? If you've seen one Porsche, you've seen them all. Ugly cars, on the other foot, are generally unduplicable and modified, such as mine, providing a uniqueness and handcrafted image with which even a Rolls cannot compete.
I must admit that the pretty-car philosophy has so permeated society that even my children have retrogressed to the point that they either insist on being dropped off two blocks from school (one block if it's raining), or duck down and slink out the door with a whispered instruction to not wave and keep moving. Even my youngest, who has not been completely infected, bravely but somewhat apologetically explains to his friends that "my dad made our truck." But the children will outgrow the pretty-car syndrome. Will you?
The Therapeuconomics of Ugly Cars. I love to eavesdrop on conversations about how much money will be saved when the person buys their new Wabbitt Desmell. The one that gets 50 mpg, better when it's moving, and only costs $7,500. Not that there was anything wrong with their Fangmobile, but it was pushing four years old, had over 30,000 miles on it, the tires needed balancing, the rug in the back was stained when a jar of K-Wax spilled and the dealer was going to give $500 for it!
I paid $175 for my ugliest car, and have driven it regularly to work for the past three years. It has never broken down on the road, although once it stopped for a 10-minute recess in front of the Capitol. It delivers between 20 and 25 mpg, and though originally designed for use with high octane fuel, has lost enough compression over the years that regular is now sufficient. Needless to say, the Wabbitt owner will have had to will his car to his grandchild before his better fuel mileage will compensate for the $7,325 difference in our initial purchase prices, by which time his car will be ugly anyway.
"Sure," you say, "but it took you 3,000 hours to put it together, and I haven't the skill or time to waste. I've got more important things to do (like watch the Redskins lose again, or read the K-Wax sale ads)." Not only did it take considerably fewer than 40 hours to get my ugliest car in street running condition, it also took less than $400. And the limited skills I have absorbed repairing my own cars over the years are something that my colleges completely avoided imparting. (Teaching skills is beyond their calling). I probably average less than an hour a week keeping my cars running, and since most of us make less than garages charge per hour, it seems like time well spent to me. Furthermore, early on I realized that no one cares about your car or its proper repair as much as you do.
Just as important as the economics of running ugly cars is the ego value of being able to keep them on the road, and therapeutic value of the work involved. There is nothing more relaxing than lying on a cold garage floor with oil dripping slowly in your face as you replace a pan gasket, or having the dog lick your nose while you strain to lift a transmission into place. If you feel like escaping for a few minutes more, you can try tightening all the bolts with your left hand. I take pride in the fact that I have not had to take any of my cars in for repair (other than machine shop work) in at least three years, and I have found that knuckles do in fact have regenerative powers. Remember, it takes longer to K-Wax a car than to tune one.
If It Rolls, It's Right. Perhaps if more of us would become ugly-car drivers, manufacturers would be forced to pay attention to the important variables in automobiles. Volvo, I am told, means "it rolls" in Latin, something Goteborg lost sight of over a decade ago. Volkswagen, while moving up the animal kingdom from bug to wabbitt, has not given us anything more reliable or durable. And these are some of the car makers who attempted for years to keep the skin constant while ostensibly improving the gutss. American manufacturers obviously did not even pretend to try. (I once asked a co-worker to pick me up an "I Love Detroit" bumper sticker on his trip to that city. He returned empty-handed. All he got was blank stares.)
So smile at an ugly-car driver. We are not a voice from or for the past. Our hope is for a better transportation future, perhaps subconsciously, by boycotting the present.
Mark Littman, a statistician for the federal government, lives in Takoma Park.