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GloboCars: THE NEXT CENTURY : Culture : The Global Village's Ultimate Fetish : Throughout the world, cars are far more than mere transport. People are conceived, born, eat, work, even die in them.

March 01, 1994|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dan Gurney, a championship driver from Le Mans to Indianapolis who now builds winning race cars in Santa Ana, thinks every time capsule should include an ignition key.

"Then," he says, "in 2094 somebody would recover it, recall the importance of the car and say, 'This, not the dog, was man's best friend.' "

French essayist Jean-Francis Held has taken that thought deeper, writing in a 1990 UNESCO study that from its indelible position in literature, movies, art, business, social progress and national decay, the automobile exemplifies man--and vice versa.

True. Rattletrap East German Trabants were a symbol of totalitarianism, then of German reunification. It's no coincidence that the wood-and-leather interiors of Jaguars and Rolls-Royces are suggestive of the comforts of a British gentlemen's club. The gray, heavy Mercedes-Benz personifies the stereotypical mind-set of Germany, and, with their Day-Glo paintings, flags and tassels, "jeepneys" are a rolling folk art unique to the Philippines.

America's passages have always been linked to symbolic automobiles. The Roaring '20s belonged to Packard, the BMW was a yuppie car and baby boomers drive Volvos. Rebels without causes favored hot-rod coupes, and later cruisers flexed their Dodge and Mustang muscle cars. In the '90s, mini-trucks with trick hydraulics memorialize the hip-hop urban culture.

So, essayist Held suggests, if a collection of automobiles was preserved in a garage-tomb after a nuclear cataclysm, "some skillful archeologist . . . would be able to deduce from them everything that we were."

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The Americans, for instance. Americans give their cars names, religiously wash them on weekends and, say the sociologists, generally treat their Toyotas like pets. Baby shoes and St. Christopher medals dangling from rearview mirrors are talismans to keep us, and our cars, safe. Vanity license plates are a form of jewelry, psychologists say. And any man cruising his stuff--whether in a '32 Ford hot rod or a Range Rover that will never tread mud--usually is playing peacock to the opposite sex.

We all have our favorites. Our President has said his most prized possession is a blue, six-cylinder 1967 Ford Mustang convertible he bought from his brother for $3,000.

Los Angeles, with its freeways, was made for cars. As a nation, we are spending $176 billion a year buying cars, $150 billion to fuel them and $60 billion to insure them.

Some of us were conceived in cars, born in cars, eat in them, work in them and cover about 2 trillion miles a year in them. Each year, more than 40,000 Americans die in them.

The relationship is intense and not without a downside. Psychologists say cars are steel bubbles obviating contact with other humans. Freeways avoid town centers, polarize cities and erode our sense of community. Without cars, we might hear the birds again, there could be air without particles and no drive-by shootings.

Yet, as individuals and nations, the world continues to elevate the car as a fetish.

"It's a pretty complex gestalt," acknowledged Robert Cumberford, a former GM designer and columnist with Automobile magazine. "They are still, to me, inefficient, unreasonable objects far from what they could be . . . but also a powerful icon, a powerful operating force for an enormous number of people.

"It represents, to me, a freedom, an ability to go where I want to go, when I want to go. It's also a cozy little tin house you take with you. . . . Always, a car offers the possibility of endless adventures in distant places. And you're just not going to get that from public transportation."

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The passion is no weaker in Germany, where the recent recession has seen some purists moving to less expensive houses rather than selling their precious cars. For citizens born to the mechanical precision of Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Porsche and Audi, driving and not the destination is the thrill of car travel. There are no speed limits on the autobahns, and German motorists typically cruise in excess of 100 m.p.h. In town, drivers are noticeably aggressive and totally unforgiving. Said one Californian after a day behind the wheel in Berlin: "This is war in the streets."

As Americans have the powerful National Rifle Assn. protecting their rights to own, bear and fire guns, Germans have the almighty All German Automobile Club lobbying against speed limits. The auto club issues bumper stickers to its members: "Free Driving for Free People."

Throughout Eastern Europe, car ownership and traffic volumes have doubled in the four years since the fall of communism. With a severe housing shortage, the nouveaux riches have few ways of flashing their status beyond buying expensive cars. Favorites are the Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Porsche and Alfa Romeo. But taxation is excessive, and so are fees for plates and insurance--on the premise that anyone who can afford a Mercedes can afford the equivalent of a month's pay to register it.

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