I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.
- Roland Barthes, The New Citroën
In 1957 the massively influential French cultural analyst, Roland Barthes, was so smitten with the new Citroën DS motor car that he wrote a philosophical critique in praise of its 'spiritualization' and 'classic form'. And cars can do this to us. We give them names. We pat them, and stroke them. We photograph them. We turn them into icons, objects of worship. In truth, we can fall hopelessly in love with cars.
This entry takes a look at what people have been saying about their favourite cars.
The Lotus Elise
It is said by many to be the best driver's car you can buy today and although I've not driven every other car in the world, I have no difficulty believing it of my fabulous Elise.
After a decade or so in the wilderness, British sports car makers Lotus returned to their roots with the much lusted-after Elise. The Elise marked a return to the ethos of a pure and simple sports car remaining true to Lotus founder Colin Chapman's principals of performance through lightness, achieved with ingenious and frugal design. He often said that there isn't any component in a Lotus which isn't doing at least two jobs. This mid-engined, two-seater convertible is unanimously acknowledged to be pure Lotus at its very best.
The Elise doesn't boast the raw power some people expect from a performance car - in fact its relatively unexciting engine (the same 1.8 litre Rover engine featured in the slower of the two MGFs) provides a mere 120bhp. But weighing significantly less than a mini, this car can out-accelerate many more cumbersome supercars at any road-legal speed. Massive great big engines might get you impressive top speeds, but at a road-legal pace, they just make you overweight. More importantly though, it has a nimbleness that leaves Ferraris for dead, and a level of driver involvement that can make the average go-kart feel a bit remote.
What enabled Lotus to leapfrog the likes of Porsche and Ferrari in handling and practical speed (even if those might beat the basic Elise on a race track through sheer brute force) was their bold decision to design the first ever commercial car to be constructed by glueing together lightweight aluminium extrusions - which is how modern aircraft are built. The result is a chassis which is exceptionally light and yet ludicrously rigid. This, along with Lotus's exquisitely balanced engineering, and their legendary attention to detail on ride, handling and driver satisfaction combine to produce a car of phenomenal capability and yet relative affordability. For the price of a Ferrari F355 you can get four or five Elises.
If you only like the idea of a sports car, but aren't so sure about owning one, then the Elise is not for you. If you think that the Mercedes SLK's motorised roof is great, then the Elise is not for you - its roof is undoubtedly light, but the fact that you need an Allen key to put it up or down (and about two minutes to spare) may well put you off. If you think that omitting carpets because they're so darn heavy is obsessive, then this car is not for you. If you want to bring a suitcase, this car is probably not for you - the boot is not much larger than a crash helmet. But if you want a car that can turn even the dullest drive into a symphony for the senses, that can inspire you in a way that so much metal and plastic has no rightful business to, then might we suggest a trip to your local Lotus dealer?
And Let's Not Forget the Lotus Esprit
The Lotus Esprit is shaped like a wedge with sharp angles everywhere and was made famous by Roger Moore starring as James Bond in the film The Spy Who Loved Me. A while back, British TV motor car journalist Jeremy Clarkson returned to the box to talk frankly about sports cars. He referred to the Esprit as a 'total sports car, which has one purpose, and one purpose only - to go fast'. Well, what's the problem with that, Jeremy?
The Esprit brings you all the minimum-weight design, exceptional handling and utterly engaging driver experience one expects from Lotus. It also gives you huge great surges of power. The Esprit can run away from a whole host of other cars, if driven well, kicking a Porsche 911's butt in when accelerating from 0 - 110 kph. And they only cost about two thirds of the price of a Porsche.
The Royale Sabre - a Quality Kit Car
In the past, 'quality' was not a word often associated with kit cars, unless it was prefixed with some other word like 'bad' or 'poor'. But things have changed. There are some very impressive kit-cars on the market today in the UK, one of the most notable being the Royale Sabre.
The Sabre was designed by John Barlow, who started the Royale Motor Company in 1991. Its styling is based on that of the 1930s - 1940s era and people have commented that it looks like it could be a classic Jaguar or BMW. But the Royale Sabre isn't a copy of any car that actually existed at that time. Safety and quality were top priorities, and the fibre-glass and aluminium body panels, reinforced by a substantial steel chassis and steel bars inside the doors, reflect this. It feels as solid as, and has all the comfort you'd expect from, a production car. The roof doesn't leak, you don't get worrying creaks and rattles as you're driving along and the doors even close with a nice, satisfying clunk.
As a kit car it has the advantage that you can have almost exactly the specifications you want. It is designed for Ford Sierra or Granada running gear (engine sizes from 1.6 to 2.9 litres), but even something like a 3.5l Rover V8 engine can be adapted. It has the option of a soft-top or hard-top (or both because they're interchangeable), you can choose which mod-cons you want, eg electric windows, power-assisted steering, stereo system, and you can use whatever interior trim you feel like. Some people even make their own modifications to the bodywork using the kind of fibre glass you can get to repair boats or rust on cars.
So basically what you get is a new car that looks like a classic, but without the poor build quality generally associated with kit-cars. The only problem for most people is that you have to build it yourself, or pay someone else lots of money to build it for you. Well, it's not for everyone... but when you can put a decent one on the road for around £10,000, it's certainly worth considering if you're even just a bit mechanically-inclined. Think of it as a big kid's 'Mecano' set or 'Airfix' kit.
The 1969 Camaro SS has been described as a machine like no other. A 350 engine, power brakes, lines that just won't quit, and an transmission that is easy to handle. Navy blue, of course, or cherry red, are the main colours. There is nothing quite like cruising Pacific Coast Highway at sunset on a Friday in June, windows open, Tom Petty playing on your stereo, feeling the rumble of that engine going 75mph. Just ask the following Researcher:
The first time I ever saw a Camaro was in a drive-in fast food place in Oklahoma City, OK, USA, about 1967. I fell in love immediately. It was metallic blue, it was quiet, and it looked like it could run like a bat out of hell. I was in a (very cool) Beetle at the time.
I left for college that year, my mother managed to get me a Camaro for graduation - it wasn't easy, my dad had died, but we (my mom and I) were both working. The Camaro was red with a black vinyl top, and it ran ... sheeeeeeez ... it was like a motorcycle as far as power to weight ratio is concerned. Mustangs? Forget it, a 327 Camaro vs the hot 289 Mustang was a winner, before the race had even started.
It's Old but It's Good
So many of today's production cars look the same - a sort of rounded homogeneity running through all of them. Booorrrinnng. Many of you hark back to the days when cars had real individual personalities, even if they were environmentally disastrous.
Ahhh, cars. I'm a huge fan of the oldsters; MG Roadster, Edsel, Packard, Tucker, Hudson, Desoto, Lincoln Presidential... they're all good. What makes me appreciate older cars is their character and design; these were cars that made some serious visual impact in shape and colour. No car today could carry off a studebaker yellow in the same way. Excessive chrome is another important aspect - the more the better.
1929 Duesenburg Phaeton Royale model 'J'
The '29 Duesy, as it was known, was the paragon of early American luxury cars. It was driven by film stars, athletes, politicians, and gangsters, most notably Al Capone. It was the upper limit of extravagance and style. It eclipsed the Rolls Royce in luxury - it was money on wheels. A hand made work of art, it was manufactured by the Duesenburg brothers. The largest collection in the world is in the Imperial Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. Jay Leno owns one as does baseball star Reggie Jackson. One Model 'J' was converted to a racing car and held the world speed record as the 'Mormon Meteor' and can be seen in the Capitol building of Utah. If you ever get the chance to see Leno's collection don't even pause to think about it - just go.
Ford Model T
Old, creaky and immensely fun to drive, the top speed is a bit slow, mine will get to a whopping 50mph, but then it was originally built in 1912 and fully restored about 40 years ago. One of the very coolest things about owning and occasionally driving an 88 year old car (heck my grandfather is younger) is that people respond to it with a smile and wave amd they all want to take pictures of their kids sitting in it. Friendly old codgers will always want to tell you about the one they owned in 1935! Parts aren't an issue as Ford built 15 million of them and there are a number of aftermarket suppliers and speciality dealers around.
Gas Guzzling SUVs
There are many Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs) in America, and they are generally favoured among moneyed suburban residents 'just in case' they are forced to drive somewhere other than on smooth, paved roads.
SUVs are generally large cars built on truck chassis. Their most well known characteristic is being able to consume mass quantities of petrol. Most SUVs have seating for at least five, and a large rear cargo area. A vast majority of the time, the seats are empty, except for the driver, and the rear cargo area is unused, making the car that much less efficient, so the argument goes.
By far, the king of the SUV world is the Ford Excursion. Weighing in at almost four tons and getting an astonishing ten miles to the gallon, the makers insist that this car is the most fuel-efficient in its class. Never mind that it is the only car in its class.
Four Wheels Good
OK, many people think - and maybe quite rightly so - that big four wheel drive (4WD) vehicles are a bit of an unnecessary pose. Who really needs such an ostentatious show of spare wheels and tyres all over the place when nearest thing most people get to 'off-road' is their garage in the heart of a suburbia? But the rugged outdoors appeal of the 4WD does hold some real practical value for many other folk:
I love my 4WD. Going off road at the beach is very convienent. Last year it was very handy as it gave my two year old daughter a safe retreat when the sun and sand and wind was too much for her. Furthermore many of the better fishing spots are reachable only with the aid of 4WD. In winter, icy roads and hills can get rough sometimes. Once you make it onto the main roadways you're in the clear, 4WD helps you get there.
With children you need both passenger and cargo room. During my daughter's first year we regularly travelled with a stroller, a play pen, a diaper bag, a bag with extra clothes, a bag with toys, a booster seat, a small cooler with bottles and food and a small collection of plates, spoons, cups and bowls. We often had a small collection of blankets of jackets of different thicknesses because the weather can change suddenly.
And as a home owner the extra cargo space comes in very handy especially when you do a lot of the work yourself. I've moved furniture, wood, kitchen cabinets, paint, wall paper, lawn and garden supplies, etc all in the 4WD.
Just Dreaming About Cars
Cars are objects of desire. Often they are things to be lusted after, coveted, fixated upon, and, of course, to be dreamed about. Here's a little snippet of one Researcher's car-fixated dream sequence...
In my dreams, I have 14 different kind of corvettes, all lined up in a nice neat row.... But the first one I'm going to buy, ya know, when I get rich and famous, is going to be silver. And it's going to be a 1972, convertible Sting Ray with a 454 engine and a standard transmission. And I'm going to cruise around Denver, and drive up in the mountains.
Talkin' Fake Wood Station Waggon Blues
In America, if you are going to get a station wagon, then you have to have one that has fake woody side panelling. This is a throwback to the 50s and 60s where wagons really were made with wood. White with fake woody side panelling is a must in a station waggon. And the benefits are; no one wants to steel them, they've got plenty of storage room, and, most importantly, you can buy them cheap and well-maintained from old folk who have owned them and never used them. The best name in fake woodies is of course Buick, but they are actually expensive and hard to find. The 1995 Oldsmobile Cutlass Sierra Waggon, complete with white fake woody sides, comes highly recommended.
Beauty and the Buick
1972 was a great year for cars. American cars. Huge, large ugly cars without those nasty fins that were so popular just a few years before. And perhaps the finest archetypal example of these 1972 dudes is the 1972 Buick Centurion:
This is the best. It is available as a convertible, but to me, the lines work best as a hard top. Black is the only real color to get this model in, because the line that goes from the front fender to the rear, just stands out best in black. It is a beautiful car. Large enough to raise a family in and most are well maintained. Problems and drawbacks. Well, this is an American gas guzzler. I sold my last one because I got tired of buying gas for it every day. Literally, every day. Other drawbacks are that you get followed a lot by police who tend to pull in behind you and run your license plates. (I think it has something to do with the fact that this looks a lot like a pimps car). Oh, and if you are driving one in some parts of Hollywood, you will get approached a lot by folk who want to buy drugs from you.
It was, of course, a V-8 and is longer and wider then every mini-vans currently on the market. This car is huge, and fits into the American aesthetic of large and ugly (just look at our football players).
Absolutely the best car ever.
The Modest Austin Allegro
The Austin Allegro is often excluded from books listing the best cars in the world. And according to many, this is a most unfair omission. The Austin Allegro is a fine car, from its Quartic steering wheel to its wibbly-wobbly boot, and indeed beyond. In beige it looks fantastic. Production of this marvellous machine began in the mid seventies, but stopped in 1982 when it was replaced by the more reliable Maestro, which, incidentally, you couldn't get in beige. The Quartic steering wheel was basically a square-ish steering wheel, so that it didn't obscure the dashboard, and to allow easier boarding. After the first revision, however, the car sported the more conventional round steering wheel. The car gained a reputation for being somewhat, well... 'crap', basically, since the public felt they rusted a lot. Also, if jacked in the wrong place, the rear windscreen would pop out. This is not a good thing. The car itself, however, was Tardis-like1 - despite modest exterior proportions the interior was amazingly spacious. This was also true of the aforementioned Maestro. Being a seventies British Leyland (BL) product, its reputation for easy rusting and poor reliability was probably well-founded, since at that time there was a whole bag of union trouble going on at BL factories. The same was true of the Rover SD1 and Austin Princess/Ambassador, among others.
Nowadays, not many exist, but those that do exist tend to be relatively rust-free, since to have survived until now means they are the few that were built to a high standard. Despite this, a stigma has remained with the Allegro, and as such the highest price you should expect to pay for one, for a Vanden Plas Allegro for example, is £2,000 (approx. $2,600). Most will go for under a grand.
An interesting point: the first Maestros had talking dashboards. According to varied sources, a road-test of one resulted in the driver rolling the car onto its roof. All the dashboard could say for itself was 'oil pressure low'.
How The Other Half Live
Rolls Royces and Bentleys are bold - some would say brash - statements of wealth and quality, and they remain much loved by all sorts of people.
When I was 18 I had a boyfriend who drove a pre-war Rolls, very dark blue. Such cars were comparatively cheap then. He used to drive it to school only on those days when he had orchestra practice (he played the double bass). He also drove to parties as you can fit a lot of teenagers into a Rolls. Because he had bright red hair and wasn't very tall and because in those days a silly hat was part of the school uniform, he was constantly being stopped by the police on the grounds that he didn't look old enough to drive it. But all they really wanted to do was to get a closer look, being accustomed in those days to plain bicycles. It was a seriously beautiful car. I wonder what Colin's driving these days...
... and the Bentley
Some people say that Rolls are the best car in the world, but the marque that they took over many years ago has I think a better pedigree. Bentleys were made to be driven as well as be driven in. They raced in many races between the wars, including five wins at Le Mans, against the likes of Maserati, Bugatti and Duesenberg. You can still find examples of vintage Bentleys racing today along with some re-engineered parts. Now that Rolls/Bentley is going to be split, perhaps VW will think about the history of Bentley and have a go at building a new sporting version.
1966 Pontiac Bonneville
We wanna tell y'all a love story...
I fell flat in love once. That was before I met my wife. This love was the love a young man feels for an automobile. A friend of mine was looking for a car for himself, and as we drove, passing used car lot after used car lot. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a thing of beauty. A classic combination of style, size, power, and class. What I saw was a 1966 Pontiac Bonneville convertible (ragtop). I just had to have it. It was white, with what seemed like acres of glistening chrome, and an aquamarine interior. Under the bonnet rested 421 cubic inches of pure Pontiac kick-your-butt power mounted with the factory Rochester quadrajet 700cfm carb. With a 26 gallon (US) fuel cell you could drive nearly 500 miles before emptying you pockets to 'fill 'er up' again.
It had a boot that was a real boot it literally measured six feet across, by four and a half feet in, and two to three feet in depth. I used to sneak friends of mine into the drive-in in the trunk. You could get three people in there and they'd only be a little cramped. There was so much room in the seats of this vehicle that you could seat four in the back seat, and three in the front, and everyone would have enough room to breathe. Mahoghany dashboard, and chrome detail work made everyone who got in begin to drool. I wish I still had that jewel. At approximately 20mpg (US) these 'SUVs' don't begin to hold a candle to what this car was. Though where they may be able to travel over slightly rougher terrain, this car got you where you were going with style akin to that of a good Rolls Royce.
The Roof Just Caved In On Your World
Sometimes it's the frills and extras that can really make a car - the flashing buttons, the little knobs, the electric cobalt blue dashboard. But for many of you, it was the moving roof of convertibles that really grabbed the imagination:
Well I can't let this chance to show off pass me by. I have just bought the perfect car, a Mercedes SLK, and just in case you didn't know it has the coolest roof in the universe. Just touch a red flashing button and its cute hard top folds itself in the most incredibly Germanic fashion into its own boot, tidying everything up behind it so you never knew it was there. It is, of course, compulsory to do this at each set of traffic lights, which prevents me from joining in the revving white vans next to me, but hey ho!
As for favourite cars in my past, nothing can ever beat the first one, I suppose, and for me that was an orange Fiat 500 - and that had a pretty cool roof too. It was a floppy bit of black plastic which was held in place by large press-studs, and you could pretty much stick you head through whilst driving along.
Drove My Chevy to the Levee...
The following is a lovely wee vignette that reads like a parable, or like an episode of The Wonder Years even, where a car owner's memories and his feelings about the passing of youth intertwine. Poignant stuff. The car in question was a $100 1963 Chevy Nova Station Wagon. The Nova sold well in the US, but never managed to take off in Europe or Mexico because no va means 'no go' in both French and Spanish.
In all the years I have owned and driven cars this was maybe my favourite. I got the car from an elderly neighbour who had the good manners to stop driving when she could no longer see beyond the end of the hood. The year was 1975 and I was young and broke and the $100 dollars was a small fortune to me. It was white, with a small six cylinder motor, and automatic transmission and aside from the flat tyres and layer of dust, in very good shape. I replace the tyres (two) with suitable used ones got a jump start from a roommate and I was off.
The wagon served me well, taking me to work, to the beach, to fishing trips in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains driving north on the lonely stretches of American highways without complaint. After a couple of years my fortunes improved and I traded the $100 car for something sportier, more in keeping with the tastes of a young man in the prime of life. I drove away from the dealer not thinking about the $100 car until much later in life after several more cars, larger, smaller, sexier, more practical for the children who have since grown and gone their own ways. Driving north on I-5, rushing to work I passed a 1963 white Chevy Nova Station Wagon. Old but still going, a young man at the wheel, driving off to work or adventure but mostly to the rest of his life that lay ahead. I wanted to pull him over and say 'hold on to that car' but I knew the message should be 'hold on to this time in your life, it may never be as easy as a $100 car'.
The All-time Classic Volkswagen Beetle
If there's one car that symbolises the love and affection that humans can generate for their four-wheeled friends, then it has to be the Volkswagon Beetle. When we think of the Beetle we think of Disney's famous personification of the car in Herbie, and we're also reminded that all over the world, Beetles owners, when passing each other on the road, will exchange waves and nods and winks and grins in acknowledgement that they know something - something very cool - that non-Beetle owners are missing out on. With an intriguing history2, the Beetle has immersed itself into the collective consciousness of drivers all around the globe. They really are objects of adoration.
The original VW bug is more than a car. It is part of history. It was a symbol in the '60s and early '70s, sometimes tied to the hippie movement, a change from the big car mentality prior to the compact car/gas mileage movement, and... it was cute. I learned to drive in my parents' VW in the early 1970s, and I can still remember the feel of the vinyl, the smell of the car, and the unique handling characteristic. And the heater only worked when you were moving because it required the air movement to get it into the car - it had no real fan system.
A Much-loved First Car
I got my blue VW beetle when I turned 16. It was manufactured the same year I was born, and cost me a mere $300. Like most Beetles, it had so much personality that it needed a name, a pep-talk, and frequent vain polishing of its perky eye-like headlights. I had to fix it up, of course. Classic bugs in good condition are relatively rare, as they are all astoundingly old. Luckily, spare parts for old Beetles are abundant in every car parts junk yard.
In a rare bit of bonding between a girl and her father, I learned that old VWs are grand for learning the basics of car mechanics. Although their engines are where the trunk should be and vice versa, their super-basic engine design makes it a joy to follow one hose to another, thus understanding the basic combustion process.
Non-essential elements like air conditioning are typically not present in the Beetle, which can simplify things and make it rather hot. This is why you will notice that classic Beetle owners often have their windows rolled down. Armchair mechanics attempting to add such features as air conditioning and modern CD players are likely to make more of a mess than anything else. In one particular case, a Beetle owner had to remove several yards of useless wiring that the previous owner stuck hazardously near, and sometimes actually through the engine, tyre mounts, and floorboards.
Though electrical additions are not recommended, it is possible to soup up a VW bug with a custom body, designer seats, and fuzzy dice. Such colourful add-ons to your purchase may be procured through the ads in magazines still dedicated to custom refurbishing of old VW bugs. As a warning, some of the fancier add-ons will cost you more than the car itself.
The classic Beetle's ability to last to the present day is a remarkable feat of engineering. Unfortunately, the remaining classic bugs are notoriously unreliable on account of being so terrifically ancient.
I recommend classic Beetles to all patient and poor non-conformists, except perhaps those who are too tall to sit up straight in the car's small compartment. They come especially recommended for first-car owners expected to be as unreliable as the car itself. I also recommend the Carmen Ghia, a small classic convertible with a Beetle-like engine also produced by Volkswagen. It looks like it's much faster than it really is, but it will amuse your friends.
Of course, today's wealthier teens and adults are lucky to have a brand new line of VW Beetles to choose from, many in rude and interesting colors. I even hear they are living up the the classic's standards of cuteness and reliability. Hurrah!
The Happy Camper
And certainly let's not forget VW Camper vans - they're the greatest. They are so cool, so incredibly liberating. Not only can you drive in them with those great panoramic views ahead and the road whizzing underneath the bonnet, you can actually live in them.
My favourite vehicle in 15 years of driving... My 1970 VW Camper. It's slow. It's old. It's noisy and it's thirsty. But... it's immense fun. The driving position is more reminiscent of sitting at someone's kitchen table. I feel I ought to have a mug of coffee in my hand. You also get a great view - being so high up. More than that, it's a vehicle which comes into its own, when its standing still too. You can sleep in it, and yet it's not too big to pop down to the shops in, like some of those big RV's. The children really enjoy travelling in it too, since they can actually see out the window easily. The whole journey is more enjoyable than travelling in most modern vehicles. In my opinion - the modern motor industry has failed us... there is no true successor to the old VW Bus. The latest front wheel drive machines are hardly ever converted to camper duties, and in any case they're pretty expensive too.