YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Jack Smith

Are the Wheels in Motion for a Smithmobile?

February 03, 1988|Jack Smith

I have received a letter from Data-Facts Inc., of Maumee, Ohio, asking me to fill out a questionnaire about what I want in a new car. They say they are asking on behalf of a major manufacturer.

They promise that if, on the basis of my questionnaire, I am "confirmed as a study participant," I will be invited to take part in a study to be conducted in downtown Los Angeles, for which I will receive $50, and free parking.

I can't hope to be selected, since my questionnaire will reveal me as too old and too conventional to be of much use to an automobile manufacturer that is probably trying to please today's yuppies; but I can't help wanting to be heard.

I have been buying cars for 50 years, and never before has anyone who makes cars asked me what kind of a car I wanted. I have always taken what I got. I suppose manufacturers have always used market research, and that the kind of cars they gave us were the kind of cars they imagined we wanted; but they never asked me.

It isn't that I lack attention. Hardly a day goes by that I am not telephoned by someone wanting to sell me something. They always start out by saying, "Is this Mr. Jack Smith?" and I say "Yes, this is Jack," and they say, "How are you today?" Right then I know it's somebody who doesn't know me but wants to sell me something. I have always wanted to answer, "Well, I'm not too good today. I'm a manic-depressive, you know, and today I'm depressed."

But I always say, "Oh, I'm OK," and they go on to ask me how long it's been since I've had the outside of my house "exteriorized." Often I get calls from a publisher in Washington, asking if I want to subscribe to a new series of beautifully illustrated books on the sex life of the snail, or whatever. The subjects get more and more bizarre because over the years they have already sold us books on the obvious subjects, such as the universe, the Earth and all its countries, the mammals, the birds, the reptiles, the insects, the arachnids, and so on.

So it's a relief to be asked what kind of car I want without any obligation to have my house exteriorized or to order a book on the monocephalic nerd. In my life I've had many kinds of cars--a Model T, a Packard coupe, an English Anglia with cylinders the size of teacups, a Dodge convertible, a Toyota pickup--but none was completely satisfactory.

I remember that after World War II, when we were full of hope, I read a newspaper interview with an automotive engineer who said cars would become smaller, because smaller cars would be cheaper, save fuel, reduce pollution, lighten traffic congestion and cause fewer deaths; in a collision their lower mass would produce less damage.

I believed that. It sounded reasonable. But cars got bigger and bigger. Eventually they began to resemble whales, and grew the fins of sharks. It didn't make any sense. And pretty soon we began buying Volkswagens, until the small, efficient Japanese cars took over the market, and Japanese financiers began buying up our hotels and office buildings.

So finally they've asked me what I want in a car. The letter from Data-Facts doesn't divulge whether the manufacturer they represent is American or foreign, but I suspect it is American, since American manufacturers seem to be more in need of an answer.

Granted that in this century American car makers have given us some wonderful machines, I ask only that in the future cars don't have seat belts that retreat into the upholstery like moray eels retreating into their holes; that they do not fail to start in parking lots after the theater; that they do not overheat in freeway traffic jams, and that they are equipped with a homing device that makes it possible to find them in a parking structure.

I have read that we will soon have cars equipped with an electronic system that will apply the brakes automatically when an accident threatens. I am hopeful that before we perfect that device, we'll have invented a more practical form of locomotion altogether.

All I really want is a Rolls-Royce for the cost of a Yugo.

Los Angeles Times Articles