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Appreciation: Warren Brown’s freewheeling commentary on cars and life

Washington Post reporter Warren Brown at his keyboard writing while awaiting a kidney transplant. (Michael Williamson/The Washington Post)

For years, Warren Brown’s insights about cars and the automotive industry were a staple for Washington Post readers.

He wove in observations about race and class and meditations on the ideals of faith and liberty. A set of wheels, he said, was freedom: to move, to explore, to live, to thrive.

“Freedom came when my parents and black neighbors bought their own cars,” he said in a C-SPAN interview in 2010. “That way they could not only sit up front but could also drive the things. And that to me was power, that to me was freedom.”

He loved road trips, of course. And, as his writing reflected, he was a devotee of poetry. He wrote with wit, style and oomph.

Brown twice received kidney transplants. First, from his wife, Mary Anne Reed Brown. And then from a friend and Post colleague, Martha Hamilton. He died July 26 at age 70.

His legacy is an oeuvre that spans decades — and was written for the ages.

As Toni Morrison, accepting the first Nobel Prize in literature awarded to an African American woman, put it: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

Dec. 6, 1996

Spare me the sermon about the meek inheriting the Earth. They can have it. I want to go to Heaven in a Bentley.

If that’s too sinful a wish, I’d like to ask the Almighty for more time to raise Hell in the tested Bentley Continental T. The way I figure it, the car could lift the value of that burned-out neighborhood — by more than $300,000. By $324,500 to be exact.

That would be a deed good enough to earn celestial consideration. That’s the upside. The downside is that a car such as the Continental T could cause another War Between the Angels. Jealousy, you know. Messes up things all the time.

Look at what happened to me during my day in the Bentley, which is manufactured by Rolls-Royce Motor Cars in Britain. I was tooling along Washington’s streets, minding my own business, when a woman pulled up next to me and shouted into my half-open window.

“How much you paid for that beautiful car?” she asked.

I told her that I didn’t pay for it. She seemed puzzled.

“Well, how much does it sell for?” she demanded.

I told her. She gasped.

“GD rich people,” she said, though she didn’t use the letters “GD.”

“Must be nice.”

She stunned me. But I’ve since thought about her mini-harangue, and concluded that she was right: Driving the Continental T was nice. Rich is nice. I like rich. I like rich very much.

Nov. 23, 1990

The 1991 Mercedes-Benz 350SD Turbo is everything demanded by auto-safety advocates and environmentalists. But only bankers can afford it.

Jan. 28, 1994

The truth is that the car was an embarrassment in the snow. Its expensive rear end skittered about, even on flat surfaces. Its humongous weight, all 4,401 pounds of it, threatened to become an uncontrollable mass on downhill ice. Its sensuous body, covered with salt spray, slush and grime, looked like a fallen thing — wealth and elegance come to naught in some macabre, motorized version of “Les Miserables.”

In short, I did not like the 1994 Jaguar XJ12 sedan.

Feb. 4, 1994

Ford named the car “Aspire.” That’s a good thing. Had the company called it “Inspire,” it would have violated truth-in-advertising laws.

June 25, 1994

It was a revival meeting, replete with prayers, tents and gospel music. There were ministers aplenty, one of whom presided over an impromptu wedding. There were children everywhere, running through fields and playing on bales of hay, while their parents huddled in groups and talked about God, family, country — and Saturn.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Richard “Skip” Lefauve, president of Saturn Corp., a small-car company that began as a laughable idea 12 years ago but has blossomed into a full-scale religion.

“Who would’ve thought? All of these people — my God! All of these people are our customers,” said Lefauve, looking at a crowd of 15,000 Saturn owners. (Reported from Spring Hill, Tenn.)

May 12, 1995

Ford’s Ecostar Electric Vehicle arrived via a flatbed truck. That told me something. All other test cars or trucks coming to my driveway get there under their own power.

But I would’ve had to wait a week or so for the Ecostar to make the 700-mile trip from Michigan to Northern Virginia running on its own juice. The vehicle’s sodium-sulfur battery pack is good for 100 miles between charges. A full battery charge takes at least eight hours, using a special, portable charging station that must be plugged into a 220-volt outlet.

Without the charging station, juicing up the Ecostar’s battery to 90 percent capacity could take 32 hours. You might as well travel by stagecoach.

Oct. 25, 1996

Volvos are goody-two-shoes cars, which is why they’re always square. They are motorized versions of that silly new book, “The Rules,” which purports to tell women how to get men.

Volvos only kiss on the first date. You give them a commitment, and they give you rejuvenating virginity. To wit: “Yes, we drove. But it didn’t count. We were en route to a meeting of the Society for the Protection of Everyone, and we were being safe.”

Nov. 29, 1996

People chortled when Ford introduced its latest version of the Taurus — a sexy, muscular sedan, immodest by the standards of Middle America.

Feb. 14, 1997

The 1997 Buick LeSabre Limited is an old folks’ car. It’s big and roomy. When it moves, it galumphs — bounding along highways in a self-satisfied, triumphant manner.

March 21, 1997

You can stop laughing at Korean car companies.

You can forget those poor-quality Hyundai cars that littered repair garages in the late 1980s. You can close the book on that awful little Kia sedan that Ford Motor Co. had the temerity to sell as the Aspire.

You can get real about competition. The Koreans are here to stay. Anyone doubting that should take a ride in the 1997 Kia Sportage, a small sport-utility vehicle designed to compete against Toyota’s RAV-4 and Honda’s CR-V.

May 23, 1997

It’s an old formula: Stick a big engine in a little car. Tweak the suspension. Attach fat brakes. Add 16-inch rim diameter, or larger tires. Install a smooth, five-speed manual gearbox. Simplify the instrument panel — analog gauges only. Put nice, body-hugging seats up front. Raise hell.

What’s surprising is how often this formula works so well, as it does in the 1998 Ford SVT Contour sedan.

Warning to parents: If your teenager’s date shows up in this car, invite him or her inside. Go over the family values rules. Get a copy of the driver’s license. Call the date’s parents, preferably while the date is still trapped in your house. Do a conference call so that everyone understands the rules. Have the date and your child sign a behavior agreement.

Hey, you can’t be too careful with someone who shows up in something that looks like a family car, but runs like the devil. That person is up to no good.

March 29, 1998

I’ve driven thousands of cars. But no one ever followed me home. No one begged me to stop for photographs, or pleaded with me to linger in a mall parking lot to placate a friend who was trapped at a checkout counter, and who would “just die if she couldn’t see this” — the 1998 Volkswagen Beetle.

And that wasn’t the half of it.

Teenage girls squealed in unison at the sight of the new Beetle.

People allowed me to get in front of them in traffic. Allowed? Heck, they invited me to go before them. At a Wendy’s in Northern Virginia, customers pulled out of the drive-through line to get a closer look.

All this for an update of a putt-putt economobile — designed for Hitler’s Third Reich — that arrived on these shores in 1949 and remained for a generation marked by hippies, free love, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the assassinations of Bobby, Martin and John, and the eventual demise of flower power.

The new Beetle is packed with comparable emotion, minus the unhappy stuff. It is a smile-mobile — and comes with a dash-mounted flower vase.

April 24, 1998

Some bullies fear the dark. I learned this as a sixth-grader at Holy Redeemer Elementary School in New Orleans. Lil’ Man, the class terrorist, used to beat me up. He’d slap my head. I’d protest. He’d punch me.

The abuse continued until my Grandma Dora told me about voodoo. “You put the gris-gris on that boy,” she said, referring to a spell. “You tell him that gris-gris gonna come and snatch him up at night. That’ll fix him,” she said.

And so I told Lil’ Man that he was in danger of disappearing in the night. He punched me, but I laughed and taunted: “Gris-gris gonna getcha, gris-gris gonna getcha, gonna snatch you up at night!”

Next day, Lil’ Man’s mom came to school to complain that he couldn’t sleep because of “some awful thing” a classmate told him about vanishing in the night. She told this to Sister Irene, our teacher, who whipped me. But Lil’ Man never punched or slapped me after that. He was a bully without portfolio, just like some sport-utility vehicles.

Sept. 11, 1998

It was a Ferrari weekend, but Frank wouldn’t stand for it. Frank is my editor, and something of a curmudgeon. He’s into political correctness. He thinks Ferrari is too rich, too excessive for this column.

Can you believe it?

This used to be one of the few columns in any newspaper that openly discusses sex.

The tested Ferrari 456M is nothing but sex. It’s motorized Viagra, a candidate for a Kenneth Starr subpoena. But Frank thought it would be more appropriate if I wrote about the 1999 Lincoln Town Car, which I also drove. So, that’s what I’m gonna do.

Oct. 23, 1998

The 1999 Oldsmobile Alero is a work of ordinary excellence — outstanding because it succeeds so well at being normal.

The Alero is, in a word, friendly. Were it a day of the week, it would be Saturday. Were it a politician, it would be vice president — always there, frequently useful but never obtrusive.

Aug. 15, 1999

The 1999 Chevrolet S-10 Xtreme was so disappointing, it reminded me of Gloria.

She went to St. Mary’s Academy, a black all-girls Catholic high school in New Orleans. I went to St. Augustine, the counterpart for boys.

I had a crush on Gloria. She was pretty, hot and tempting, and she liked me, too. We had a date — a school dance, one of those events where nuns and priests walk around keeping male and female bodies apart. Didn’t matter. Gloria winked, smiled, nodded and squeezed my hand in a way that only a teenage boy could love.

I left the dance with her thinking, “This is it. Yippee!”

But Gloria said that would be a sin. She just wanted to talk — about becoming a nun.

“Shock” doesn’t begin to describe my dismay. There was a pervasive feeling of stupidity, of being so wrong about something, it was embarrassing. That is how I felt in the Xtreme.

Such a silly truck.

Feb. 3, 2008

She’s so cheap she has an almost religious compulsion to return an item to a store if she discovers that she could have gotten the same thing from somewhere else for 10 cents less.

But when it comes to trucks in general and Jeeps in particular, the woman is insane. Fuel economy doesn’t matter. Her usual preference for small cars disappears. Bigger becomes better. Her mild demeanor is supplanted by a lust for power. Mary Anne — the sweetly smiling schoolteacher and gentle, churchgoing wife from Marshall, Tex. — becomes Texas Truck Mama. (From a review of the Jeep Liberty Limited sport-utility vehicle.)

May 4, 2008

The styling is governmental. It would fit nicely into any municipal, state or federal vehicle fleet.

That is our first impression of the 2008 Ford Taurus Limited AWD sedan, a full-size car designed to haul parents, children, police, perpetrators or politicians. Even with its bright, bold, three-bar grille, the new Taurus appears devastatingly official.

Feb. 4, 2011

When does price stop making sense? Exactly what am I getting for $93,000 that I’m not getting for $60,000 or $30,000?

Consider: The Porsche Cayenne S, redesigned for 2011, can move from 0 to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds. It supposedly can reach a cruising speed of 160 mph. So what? In our recent East Coast snowstorms, my Cayenne S moved at the same speed as every other vehicle on the road, which was barely moving at all. And where, oh, where in the heavily regulated United States of America am I going to legally, safely drive anything at 160 mph?

Dec. 24, 1995

My mother, Lillian Gadison Brown, always wanted a Cadillac, but she couldn’t find a dealership that would sell her one — not in segregated New Orleans, anyway.

She was black. And in the 1950s and 1960s, the few blacks entering Cadillac dealerships in New Orleans tended to be the people who cleaned those places.

My mother was a professional. That is, she belonged to what was known in black New Orleans as a “professional family.” Her husband was a teacher who did some occasional biological research for the National Science Foundation. But that wasn’t enough to get her respectful passage through the doors of local Cadillac dealerships, where some salespeople laughed at her outright, or directed her to a used-car lot to shop for battered Chevrolets.

So my mother did the next best thing. She bought a Cadillac from a rich white man in nearby Metairie, La., for what she deemed a “good price.” It was a 1965 Cadillac Coupe DeVille, midnight blue with a cream white top, white leather interior and whitewall tires.

My mother cleaned that car weekly — at least, she ordered her children to wash, wax and polish it (“With clean, soft cloths, please. Don’t scratch my car!”). And when she stepped into that sparkling Caddy, she would become a black Cinderella en route to a ball, even though her destination was Schwegmann’s supermarket in east New Orleans.

Jan. 10, 1997

A good car is as quiet at highway speeds as it is coasting along suburban streets. And it is as effortless — that is, it gives no sense of engine stress or strain at higher rotations per minute.

A good car is tight. Every visible piece fits together perfectly, and not one of those pieces is given to squeaks or rattles during travel.

A good car is attractive — not necessarily “Wow!” attractive, but appealing enough to be as inviting on its last payment due as it was on its first.

A good car feels good over bad roads and good roads. It mutes the bumps and grinds of the rough stuff; and it turns good roads, replete with sharp turns and twists, into a driving experience worthy of a Walter Mitty dream. And that means a good car allows you to escape — if only for the briefest of moments — the cares of your everyday world.

And though it has its moments of poetry, a good car is practical — and safe.

April 3, 2005

I recall a conversation with a terminally ill woman at Georgetown University Hospital who heard about my case. She congratulated me on my latest extension of life. She asked: “What are you going to do with the extra time you’ve been given?”

I responded quickly, almost without thinking: “I am going to love and work and write as well as I can as long as I can; I am going to see and learn as much as I can, travel wherever I can whenever I can. I am going to live.” (From a column about the two organ donations Brown received after his kidneys failed.)