Cars make people do incredibly foolish things. They appeal to the gear-operated part of the libido, impairing our vision and reducing the brain to mush. At which point, logic takes off at 80 mph on some empty stretch of sanity’s interstate.
This is how motorists try rationalizing the acquisition of some gorgeous machine (often red, possibly black, never beige) when the bank account is saying, much as Mitt Romney did of another presidential quest, “Oh, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no.”
We’re Camry in our lives, but Mercedes in our hearts. Cars are lust. With monthly payments.
Off we go to the 2015 Washington Auto Show, where it is possible to witness all variety of men — and, honestly, it’s mostly men — moan, sigh and drool over torque and stuff, and the eavesdropping is superb.
She: “Again, where are you going to drive it? We don’t have open roads around here.”
He (moaning, sighing, drooling over a $99,000 Jaguar F-Type Coupe in What-Was-I-Thinking Persimmon): “You could drive it to Dulles and back.”
Washington hosts one of the nation’s big five auto shows, along with New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and, obviously, Detroit. That’s because, as well as being home to the most self-important people in the world, “Washington is a great car market. It has the income and education,” says Kevin Reilly, the show’s chairman, a second-generation car dealer (Alexandria Hyundai) and owner of two Santa Fes. “And last year was the best year in car sales since 2006,” with 16.5 million sold in the United States, even before a gallon of gasoline fell to half the price of a latte.
Kenneth Taylor of Laurel, Md., brought along his daughter, Darby, who was climbing all over a Toyota Sienna minivan enveloped in SpongeBob graphics. Darby has identified the family’s next vehicle at the tender age of 4.
“I wish they had put SpongeBob on a Ferrari,” says Taylor, a District policeman who owns a Chevy Volt and a Jeep Wrangler. “With gas prices so low, I want to replace the Volt,” despite its being only a couple of years old. (The age of the average car on the road is 11
Like many patrons, Taylor was at the auto show to check out vehicles from multiple manufacturers, displayed on two floors in 750,000 square feet of exhibit space in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Also, the Auto Show is a splendid place for kids, and adult versions of kids, to run free on a blustery January day.
With gas prices a lark, the hydrogen, electric and all nature of hybrids garner less attention (and the Subarus, the neglected, forlorn Subarus) than, say, the Corvette Z06, with its 650 horsepower and 650-lb.-feet of torque — oh, the torque — and ability to go from 0 to 60 in 2.9 seconds. Even though, as Ms. Jaguar F-Type Coupe rightly notes, we don’t have many open roads around here.
The Corvettes are on the louder upper level. That’s where all sorts of “product specialists,” the technical term for spokesbabes and spokesdudes, perform in a generous portion of square footage devoted to the happy, Mustang-rich republic of Fordonia. The lower level, except for the spirited Camp Jeep ride (patrons ride in an off-road course that may induce advanced motion sickness; a Jeep guy drives), tends to be quieter and more serious. This is the home of Luxury Lane (Audi, Mercedes, BMW, Cadillac, Lexus, Jaguar), where aspiration and its frequent twin, lust, flourish. Next door reside exhibits for Kia, Mazda, Honda, Nissan and Subaru, which might be dubbed Reality Road or Honestly, Bud, This Is What You’re Buying Street.
For all our yearning to cruise down Luxury Lane, most Americans are impossibly practical. Except when it comes to trucks. The country’s most popular models are made by Honda, Nissan and Toyota, although the best-selling vehicle for 33 years, since the Reagan presidency, remains the Ford F-Series truck, for which we can blame country music, an hour of football regularly interrupted by two hours of macho, Denis Leary-voiced advertising, and office workers who want other motorists to believe that they’re chrome cowboys.
What’s new this year?
Small cars becoming bigger, a not-so-Mini Cooper, a less than piccolo Fiat. “America. What can you say?” a Fiat spokesbabe sighs. Also, square cars getting rounder, with Land Rover smoothing out its distinct boxy corners, ideal for the African veldt, to look like everything else.
This is a terrible development, terrible but typical: Just as television tends to smooth the edges of villains over time so that they become likable, car manufactures have a propensity to play it safe, smoothing out the edges and distinctions that made their vehicles lust objects in the first place.
One day, and what a sad day that will be, all cars will resemble just one car.
Which will be a Camry.
Color, some of it seriously misguided. What-Was-I-Thinking Persimmon and You-Can’t-BeSerious Teal (really, BMW, Long Beach Blue?) have been joined by all shades of plum, sometimes a subtle aubergine but occasionally a pronounced Walk-Away-From-It Purple. We are sorry to report that Rolls-Royce has whipped up a two-tone banger model with red top and black body best worn with Nikes, while Bentley offers a model in a gray-blue, perhaps for your second, spring-coat version after you tire of the basic black.
There are cars in variations of cherry and berry, fine in a spring handbag but less fetching in a Honda Fit. There is also an insistent Jungle Green (call it what you will, Chevy, looks like Pea Soup to us) and every hue of chocolate. Fine, be that way, automakers, Americans still prefer white, black and silver.
Auto shows are dominated by the exotica of vehicle specialists, who tend to be taller, thinner, younger and better-looking than most auto-show patrons. That is, recovering actors who have renounced hunger and penury.
Once upon a time, these people were exclusively female and Vegas-y, prone to pronounced rhinestones, Spandex and cruel footwear. Today, vehicle specialists are often male and given to saucy office attire, traveling the circuit of national auto shows for a single manufacturer.
“Look at the gorgeous curves. Riding in this will get the attention of everyone else,” coos Herb Earl, as he tells us all about the “467 horses” and “vectoring differential” and so much torque and stuff of the Lexus RC F in Molten Pearl, which is car talk for What-Was-I-Thinking Persimmon. Earl has been selling Lexuses for 16 years and is, yes, a recovering actor.
“This is nice work. We don’t have to sell. We just have to help the consumers have a good experience,” says Toyota’s Troy Pryor, who has spent four years working the car circuit as a vehicle specialist and is still an actor based in Chicago, mostly in voice-over but appearing next week in “Chicago Fire” as a messenger delivering a subpoena. More of the story line he cannot divulge.
Over in the happy republic of Fordonia, narrators David and Cameron practice their EcoBoost skit with all the intensity of an off-Broadway production. The commitment, although not the audience for many of these performances, is impressive.
Some patrons also assume the role of performers. Cathleen Jackson of Hyattsville, Md., is the lone woman among nine tired, bored competitors vying in the annual “Hands On” Contest (although backs, butts and legs will do). The goal is to stay in contact with a Hyundai Sonata from 3 p.m. Tuesday until noon Sunday and win the car. (In the interest of hygiene, contestants are awarded a 15-minute break every three hours.) Cordoned off like animals at the zoo, and with a security guard standing by, the men purport to be getting along at their automotive slumber party.
Not so Jackson. “They won’t get off my car,” the retired Metro bus driver says. “You need to go home.”
These are the irrational things that cars do to people, who are as much fun to look at as they look at the cars as the vehicles themselves. Syed and Sarah Hassan of Centreville, Va., spent four hours at the show, yet were far from done, even with 5-month-old Yusef in tow. “It’s the best thing you can do in the winter with a baby,” says his father, a property manager who traded up from a bike to a Nissan 300ZX and a Chevy Impala but was yearning for the Lexus RC F, not exactly the ideal auto for an infant.
Anthropomorphism is in full flower, as when a Ford narrator looks longingly at the Mustang Shelby GT350, “this special guy next to me.” The cars induce considerable pawing, requiring a legion of cleaners with feather dusters, spray bottles and chamois cloths to denude these special guys of hand prints.
Even the most horsepower-resistant can succumb. There, in the middle of the lower level, with no fanfare or peppy spokesbabe, right next to the incredibly awesome 1940 GM Futurliner and the 1953 cream Cadillac Le Mans, roped off like the exotic beast that it is, resides what to our eyes is the Most Beautiful Car in the World. A 1954 Buick Wildcat II.
Yes, a Buick.
Steel blue, white leather interior, floating headlights, gorgeous graphics, not a fingerprint or a scratch on it, and such an exquisite thing of wonder that it’s worthy of a museum.
Naturally, Buick made only three of them.
Now this is the only Wildcat left. And yes, it resides in a Flint, Mich., museum and has only 6,200 miles on the odometer.
The Wildcat was a dream car, a concept car — and what a concept! — and then it was never made, while Buick went on to manufacture more Regals and LaCrosses than the world ever needed.
Life can be so cruel. The world’s most beautiful, most innovative cars are rarely made. If made, they’re rarely driven, residing instead in museums or rich men’s museum-like garages, only to appear in Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” videos or on the lower level of the Washington Auto Show.
We live in a Camry world — okay, a Ford F-Series one, too — while we dream of Jaguars and Wildcats.