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'Roadster' an Eccentric, Entertaining Excursion Into U.S. Car Culture

"Roadster: How (and Especially Why) a Mechanical Novice Built a Sports Car From a Kit," by Chris Goodrich (HarperCollins: $18; 206 pages, illustrated).

November 19, 1998|CHARLES SOLOMON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As the title suggests, Chris Goodrich isn't even an amateur mechanic: The only cars he'd really worked on were the Hot Wheels toys he had as a kid. His account of his efforts to assemble a Lotus Caterham Super Seven is both amusing and thought-provoking.

Goodrich chose the idiosyncratic Seven because it "is a deliberately primitive vehicle; handmade, proudly unadorned, self-consciously fundamental, the car that both embodies and repudiates its industrial ancestry."

Through the decades, the Seven has been praised by automotive writers for its acceleration and "almost telepathic" handling--and damned as noisy and uncomfortable. (In 1960, Sports Car Illustrated compared getting into the car in the winter with "climbing into a frozen sleeping bag with a wooden leg.") The Seven also had a special cachet for Goodrich: It had been featured on his favorite TV show, the surreal '60s British spy drama "The Prisoner."

The kit for the Seven ($18,500) consisted of four huge crates of parts. Once they were transferred to his brother's garage, Goodrich set to work with more enthusiasm than preparation. He soon found himself referring to instructions he didn't understand on how to assemble parts he didn't recognize, parts that were missing and parts that he'd broken: "The Seven may be a tiny car, but there's plenty of room to screw up nonetheless." But with a little help from a mechanic and two technically minded friends, he managed to assemble the car in reasonably good working order.

With a few adjustments from the pros, Goodrich was even able to try a little low-key racing. As he predicted, the Seven was fun to drive, but it had been more fun to build, despite the mistakes and mishaps: "Building a car was my sabbatical from the workaday world; and the worst thing about it--even as I threatened to quit the project every week in a fury with a recalcitrant part, in fear of decapitation by a falling chassis--was the knowledge that, one day, I'd be finished."

Like Robert M. Pirsig in "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," Goodrich uses mechanical details as springboards for thoughtful and carefully documented discussions of car culture, the effect of the car on American society and the conflict between mass production and craftsmanship.

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Reflecting on the contrast between the benevolent vision of the automobile-centered City of Tomorrow presented by General Motors at the 1939 New York World's Fair and the increasingly gritty reality of urban life in the '90s, he notes: "In this country we spend 20% of our income on cars; owe more than $400 billion in auto loans; use half our energy resources [imported and domestic] to operate road vehicles."

"Roadster" resembles a rambling chat with an eccentric but thoroughly entertaining friend. Readers might not want to ride in the car Goodrich built, but they'd gladly spend a rainy Sunday afternoon listening to him talk about it.

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Highway 1 contributor Charles Solomon can be reached via e-mail at highway1@latimes.com.

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