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Americans and cars: Love runs out of gas

October 13, 2002|Dave Hickey | Special to The Times / Dave Hickey is a writer of fiction and cultural criticism who lives in Las Vegas.

FOR MOST OF THE 20TH CENTURY, a generous portion of what was best about America and Americans was inextricably entangled in our special relationship with the automobile. The innocence and ebullience of that relationship made us seem more human, its ubiquity made us seem more democratic, and its purity made us seem more civilized. No more. When no less an authority than William Clay Ford Jr., chief executive of the Ford Motor Co. and great-grandson of the man himself, announces that the romance between Americans and their cars has gone stale, the bloom may be said to be officially off the rose.

The word is out. Americans used to love their cars and now they don't, or at least not the way they did. The fate of the republic, of course, can hardly be said to hang on the outcome of this souring romance, but the tone and temper of the republic almost certainly do. A seismic shift of affection has taken place, and there is no consensus on its causes and consequences.

The French cultural psychologist Dr. G. Clotaire Rapaille, who had a hand in designing Chrysler's PT Cruiser, thinks the fault lies in our cars. Like the designing French shrink he is, Rapaille believes that the possibility of romance springs eternal, that we might love again if American carmakers would just design a car or two that we might fall for. I don't think so. My own suspicion is that the fault lies not in our cars but in ourselves -- that, simply put, Americans are no longer a loving people.

Many years ago, Mary McCarthy proposed another option. In an essay called "The Humanist in the Bathtub," McCarthy argues that Americans, afflicted by their Puritan heritage and alienated from the pagan roots of European civilization, have never had any live, sensual affection for objects. We surround ourselves with objects, to be sure, but in McCarthy's view, we don't care about their object-hood. We care about what these objects mean, to ourselves and to others.

So, maybe we never loved cars at all. Maybe we only loved what cars meant, and we no longer do. Or maybe cars mean something different these days -- and love has nothing to do with it. The facts support this supposition. Car sales are burgeoning, yet we know the thrill is gone. All over America, every weekend, thousands of automotive extravaganzas open to the public: antique car shows, hot rod shows, custom car shows, grand prix races, NASCAR races, drag races, Indy races, motocross rallies, monster truck challenges, tractor pulls and demolition derbies.

Still, it's not the same. What used to be a wide-screen romance is now just a sitcom dalliance. The vehicles that once brought us together in a colloquy of enthusiasm and aspiration now set us apart from one another. They isolate us behind steel doors and tinted windows; they re-tribalize us in the pursuit of regional enthusiasms; they reassert class distinctions and wedge us into niche markets that exploit our fear and prejudice.

Museum as showroom

THE MUSEUM OF MODERN Art's inaugural exhibition in Queens provided a case in point. For that occasion, the museum presented the six automobiles in its permanent collection spotlighted on white pedestals in a kind of celestial showroom. Since MoMA's new Queens location resembles nothing so much as an idealized car dealership, the effect was uncannily appropriate, lacking only symbolic sales personnel, cruising like sharks.

In lieu of these, the walls of MoMA's showroom were adorned with period advertising graphics. One of these encouraged us to "Watch the Fords Go By," although one would have had to step outside to do this since nothing so mundane as a Ford adorned the showroom floor.

This space was elegantly populated by the usual suspects of late 20th century European automotive design: a 1946-48 Pininfarina Cisitalia "202," a 1959 Volkswagen Beetle, a 1963 Jaguar E-type roadster, a 1990 Ferrari Formula One racing car and a 2002 Smart Car manufactured by Micro Compact Car in Germany and France.

This, evidently, is the Museum of Modern Art's automotive universe: two extravagant vehicles for the European aristocracy, two modest vehicles for the international proletariat and two functional vehicles, one for racing and one for fighting wars. This last category was represented by the single American car in the exhibition, a 1954 Willys-Overland jeep, which was acquired, one presumes, to honor the jeep's role in liberating Europe during World War II, thus enabling the masters of European design to proceed at their leisure.

Missing from the Modern's showroom were any of the cars we loved as one loves works of art or any vehicle at all that might have been paid out on time by a member of the American middle class and parked in the driveway of a mortgaged home.

One can't really complain about this, however. Without its penchant for European solutions and class distinctions, without its obsessive concern with distinguishing "art" from "design," the museum just wouldn't be the Modern.

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