Sunday, August 18, 2013

Car As Metaphor

I was driving along at a pretty good clip, maybe a mile over the 55 limit, through a rural landscape, on a beautiful summer morning, under clear skies. Around a gentle sweeping turn I had to slow down for traffic: two cars meandering along the highway. At best, on the straight stretches, we were speeding along at 45, slowing when the road curved or started up an incline. I was in no greater hurry than usual to get to an appointment, and had been content to amble along at the speed limit, and now I seemed to barely be moving forward. Still not late, and knowing that there were passing zones ahead, I let my thoughts linger over the question of why some people, including the drivers ahead of me, would buy vehicles of two- or three-hundred horsepower in order to drive (alone) at forty or forty-five miles an hour.

I have driven small cars for most of the 60+ years I’ve been licensed, with occasional forays into high-performance or otherwise over powered vehicles but never stayed with them very long. I’ve owned big 8 cylinder and more modern six cylinder cars and trucks, with enough power to move quickly the overweight carriages attached to them. I had one V-8 powered sports car (used as much for sport as for transportation), and of all of the vehicles I’ve owned, only that one was truly capable of more than 100 miles-per-hour. I know because on at least two occasions, I saw the needle sweep past that magic mark. Thrilling, exciting and (because this was in the early 1960s) dangerous. It is strange to feel the front end of a car lift off the road. I didn’t sustain the run past 112 miles per hour. Of course the accuracy of the instrument providing that number was perhaps off by five per cent, but still, I had crossed the line.

In those years you had to buy a purpose-built vehicle, a sports car, to be able to drive as fast in the mountains as I do today with almost any passenger vehicle. There has been that much technical advancement in the suspension and tire department world-wide.

My primary vehicle today is a small, 4-door that would be called a station wagon in earlier times, powered by a 4-cylinder engine of about 130 horsepower, coupled to an automatic transmission that is probably at lot smarter than I am, and I can easily run up and down the mountains with little use of the brakes and appropriate use of the accelerator. On the open road, if the law allows, I can easily cruise at 80 or even 90 miles an hour. The speedometer is electronic, and stop-watch/odometer tests indicate that it has no more error than tire-slippage can induce, so I am confidant of my numbers. But 90 wouldn’t leave me any room to go, I know that, too.

So as I rolled along, I returned to my original question: why buy a car of great horsepower if you aren’t going to need or use it? Then I looked down to check my speed and realized that here, in this economy car, my speedometer face assures me that regardless of what I do, should I be able to coax this vehicle to go faster than 90 miles per hour, I’ll still be able to know exactly how fast I am traveling because the dial has numbers up to 150 miles per hour! Now that’s optimism. And then my thoughts leave the road, as it were, for less traveled places. I wonder why we want instruments that measure things we can never achieve.

It’s sort of like politicians: we know they won’t deliver what they promise, but we keep on buying them anyway.

1 comment:

  1. The larger cars are safer in a car crash than the smaller cars - sometimes all that saves you is the frame and that is if you are going slower than 45 mph. Had a silver black hawk back in the 50's that would go over 110 mph - had to find a straight stretch in the mountains to get it up that high. the golden hawk took off around 50 mph not many places could allow that in WV. The old Dodges, Plymouths and Chryslers were some of the V-8's that could get up some speed - the larger cars are also much more comfortable to ride in, especially on a long trip.