Read any good books lately?
I have. It is a locally-published book compiling a century's worth of automotive writing by the best of the best – or, other related pieces. In 2010, Motorbooks in Minneapolis produced Life is A Highway: A Century of Great Automobile Writing, under the editorship of Darwin Holmstrom and Melinda Keefe. It has been a pleasure to revisit some of my heroes of automotive writing through this fantastic compilation.
As a student of these great writers, I wanted to peek back through these articles to rekindle some inspiration for this art. I also wanted to see how far we've come as a profession where the written word as crafted with care and honest emotion. Ideas, technology, engineering and design were expressed with an air of quality reserved for classical novelists and poet laureates. Reading pieces from before my time could be seen as discovering Shakespeare or Faulkner for the first time.
I was struck by several pieces in this book, as it related to some of my own feelings about the automobile. Granted, I am not that old, but I know automotive culture from before my birth. Having a couple of parents who have some interest in the automobile certainly helped fueled my childhood addictions. Part of my childhood discovery was the works of Brock Yates, David E. Davis Jr., Jean Lindamood Jennings, P.J. O'Rourke and Tom McCahill. Here they were – again in plain sight of my glasses – entertaining my fantasies after years of experiencing both the art of driving and this work I enjoy doing on here.
Inside this book were moments that triggered some nods, chuckles, calls and responses as a preacher's sermon under way. For example, the way McCahill describes a driver's relationship with the sports car back in 1954. He states that a sports car is best enjoyed alone as an adventure ensues satisfying the driver. McCahill touches upon the interconnectivity between the driver and the car. We often feel connected with our special vehicle thinking it's another human being – another member of the family. McCahill espouses this in what I would consider the essence of the enthusiast.
McCahill calls this the "feel."
How does this manifest for the enthusiast today? In McCahill's piece, he paints a picture of how a person would favor a sports car over the run-of-the-mill American sedan when taking a long drive as a business trip. Certainly there was some question of whether a sports car was the right choice for the trip over a flight, but McCahill justifies the trip through the enthusiast's love for his machine. During the journey, we find ourselves talking to the car. We encourage the car to grab a few miles at a time at a clip that is both invigorating and relaxing. At the end of the journey, the driver of the sports car pats the instrument panel and one of the fenders as it did a great job scaling the miles along the way.
The connectivity with the vehicle is what makes good ownership. It is the inclusion of the vehicle as part of the family – a trusted friend. This goes back to the days before the automobile challenged the horse as personal transport. We want our vehicles to take us to places familiar and unknown. We find pleasure when driver and vehicle both discover new experiences along the way. We simply want to "feel" our vehicles.
These moments still exist today as it did in 1954. It is no longer the provenance of sports car owners, however. I see this in Jeep enthusiasts, as well as sports compact owners. Fans of high performance models, such as Chrysler's SRT brand, can be seen with a similar level of love and reverence for their steeds. High levels of engagement are not just exclusive to the driver-vehicle relationship. We can thank social media for bringing the same connectivity onto the Internet and on various mobile networks.
I've experienced the "feel" with some of the vehicles I drove over the years. One significant instance was chronicled in a piece I wrote celebrating Acura's 25th anniversary through my experience of owning a 1991 Integra RS coupe. It was those solo drives to some locale in Northern California that solidified my connection with that car. There was something holistic and affirming when I got behind the wheel of that Acura whether it was meeting the Pacific Ocean in Jenner, west of Guerneville, soaking in the vibes of Santa Cruz, or tackling San Francisco's hills en route to Castro Street.
One thing I try to do when I do reviews with these vehicle subjects is to gauge my own engagement with each one. A true measure of an automobile is whether there is a connection with the driver. If a vehicle responds on both an actual and a spiritual level, a connection was made. A driver has to be open to a vehicle's soul to engage with it. It is a completely holistic approach to understand whether a vehicle feels, for lack of a better term, right.
Looking back over the 57 years between McCahill's write-up and today’s enthusiast, nothing's really changed. We love our automobiles as they are part of our family. They are trustworthy as a horse or other pet we are fond of. Yet, consider the beautiful moments you and your vehicle had together. I'll bet you those memorable journeys together were solo ones. Where were you going? Does the destination matter? Maybe.
The most important part is whether you've experienced the "feel" McCahill expoused in his article almost six decades ago. To have the "feel" is to be a true enthusiast.
Photo by Randy Stern