I was sitting at a traffic light the other day, and since it was a busy time on the roads (when is it ever NOT a busy time on the roads in my part of Ontario?), I had about three changes of the light at the same intersection to sit through. Plenty of time to listen to the French language radio station and repeat some of what I was hearing, for practice. Nobody thinks you’re odd to be in a car all by yourself while talking anymore, thanks to the cellular phone. Traffic being what it is these days, most people are probably talking to themselves out there.
Not much to see in the lines of traffic all around me on that day, or any other day, come to that. Cars are all ‘much of a muchness’ aren’t they? They all look alike to me. I don’t know how many times I’ve walked from a shopping mall to the parking lot and tried to get into somebody else’s car. Thankfully there’s usually no one sitting in them at the time. Except once. People really ought to keep their car doors locked when they’re sitting in a shopping-mall parking lot–so that strangers won’t walk up and try to get into the car with them.
As I was saying, on that day I sat at the intersection (and sat and sat) and finally noticed the name on the back of the car ahead of me. It was a Prius. That piqued my interest a little. Where did they come up with that name? Where do they come up with car names in general? Take Volkswagen, for example. The word volkswagen means “People’s car” in German, as I think we all know. The car company was founded in 1937 at Adolph Hitler’s instigation for the express purpose of manufacturing a car that would be affordable for the average worker. The first beetle (although not called that initially) was designed with aerodynamics in mind by Ferdinand Porsche, in case you didn’t know. Porsche’s own company made car designs for other companies at the time, so he needed Hitler’s collaboration to make the Volkswagen.
And also, as we all know, the name ‘Beetle’ evolved over time based on its appearance, and it is now officially the name of the car model—or its present incarnation. I like the Beetle for the same reason that I like the Mini Cooper…it’s distinctive, and easily recognizable.
I was shopping for a small SUV a couple of years ago, and the Volkswagen Tiguan was looking like a good bet. It was hard to get excited about it, mind you, but it looked solid enough and I expected a Volkswagen to be a good quality vehicle. So I test-drove it, and got a price quote from the sales rep. One key feature under consideration at that time was colour choice—I knew I’d have to pay extra for a non-standard colour, so I wanted to know what colours were on offer as a standard. She said to me that they had five colours: grey, black, red, and two shades of white. I said, “So you only have one colour?” She said, “No, we have five.” I said, “No, you have one…white, grey and black are not colours.”
I lost interest after that, and never bought the car. If cars all look alike, the only thing you can do to add an interesting feature is select a pleasing colour. I forget what I would have had to pay for something other than white, black, grey or red, but I was so bored with the car-shopping experience by that time I just abandoned the project.
I guess I’m spoiled by the car designs of yesteryear. Thunderbirds and Cadillacs and Corvettes and Mustangs all had something to say in terms of design back in the 50s and 60s. I drove a Camaro Berlinetta at one time–1980s, I think–in a sable-brown colour. Wish I’d kept it.
For me, performance, reliability, reputation, are all good, but why can’t we have something ‘fun’ to look at? Something with a luxury interior as well. Is that so wrong? Am I asking too much?
Nobody writes songs about cars anymore, have you noticed that? There are songs about driving, but no songs about particular car makes or models—at least none that I can find. The most recent songs that mention particular car models are Little Red Corvette, (Prince, 1983), and Freeway of Love, (Aretha Franklin, 1985)–Aretha’s music video features a 1950s pink Cadillac. [Here’s a great place to look at 1950s tail fins, incidentally: http://www.westside-59.com/50s-Cars-and-Fins.htm] .
Freeway of Love (Aretha Franklin, 1985)
We goin’ ridin’ on the freeway of love
Wind’s against our back
We goin’ ridin’ on the freeway of love
In my pink Cadillac
Then there are The Beach Boy songs…
Fun Fun Fun (The Beach Boys, 1964)
Well she got her daddy’s car
And she cruised to the hamburger stand now
Seems she forgot all about the library
Like she told her old man now
And with the radio blasting
Goes cruising just as fast as she can now
And she’ll have fun fun fun
Till her daddy takes the T-bird away.
The Little Old Lady from Pasadena (ca 1964)
The Little Old Lady from Pasadena (Go Granny, Go Granny, Go Granny, Go)
Has a pretty little flower bed of white Gardenias (Go Granny, Go Granny, Go Granny, Go)
But parked in a rickety old garage
Is a brand-new, shiny-red, super-stocked Dodge
And of course, Wilson Pickett…
Mustang Sally (1966)
I bought you a brand new Mustang
Now you come around
You don’t want to let me ride.
And this one was fun…
Hot Rod Lincoln (1972)
All of a sudden in a wink of an eye
A Cadillac sedan passed us by
I said, “Boys, that’s a mark for me.”
By then the tail-light was all you could see.
Now the fellas was ribbin’ me for bein’ behind,
So I thought I’d make the Lincoln unwind.
Took my foot off the gas and man alive,
I shoved it on down into overdrive.
A Thunderbird, Cadillac, Mustang, Corvette, and a souped-up Lincoln and Dodge…I think we’re unlikely to see the same car-centric songwriting again anytime soon.
Even the 1983 horror movie, Christine, which was based on a Stephen King novel by the same name, featured an older-model car: a 1958 Plymouth Fury that went around killing people. (Well, you’d hardly expect a 1972 Toyota Corolla to try to kill you, right? Even if a Toyota Corolla DID try to kill you, it’s not something you, or the movie-going public, would be too awfully worried about beforehand.) My friend Christine used to have the bumper sticker ad for the Christine movie stuck on her fridge door:
Watch out for me
I am Pure Evil
Let’s have a look at some of those old cars–they weren’t all T-birds and Mustangs. When I saw this model (below), I immediately thought of George F. Babbitt from Sinclair Lewis’s novel, Babbitt, although he dates from at least a couple of decades earlier. Don’t know the exact year of this one, but it’s probably ca 1955. The car is a ‘Zephyr’—which means a ‘soft, gentle breeze.’ It looks a little too ‘bowler hat’ to suit that name, I think…
Here’s a bit from ‘Babbitt’…
Babbitt’s spectacles had huge, circular, frameless lenses of the very best glass; the ear-pieces were thin bars of gold. In them he was the modern business man; one who gave orders to clerks and drove a car and played occasional golf and was scholarly in regard to Salesmanship. His head suddenly appeared not babyish but weighty, and you noted his heavy, blunt nose, his straight mouth and thick, long upper lip, his chin overfleshy but strong; with respect you beheld him put on the rest of his uniform as a Solid Citizen.
The gray suit was well cut, well made, and completely undistinguished. It was a standard suit. White piping on the V of the vest added a flavor of law and learning. His shoes were black laced boots, good boots, honest boots, standard boots, extraordinarily uninteresting boots…
He was, to the eye, the perfect office-going executive—a well-fed man in a correct brown soft hat and frameless spectacles, smoking a large cigar, driving a good motor along a semi-suburban parkway.
And there was just something about the front-end of this car that put me in mind of C-3PO from Star Wars. Something about the eyes…
Granted, this car is evidently of more recent vintage, but I thought it was interesting that they might have borrowed some features from a creature…
Some of those old vehicles looked dangerous, too…they had TEETH…
And evil eyes…
They carried missiles…
And as for distinctiveness, here are three red cars. Would you ever mistake one for the other?
Found an article on the internet (on ‘wheels.ca’) that agrees with me on the ‘generic’ character of vehicles these days.
When Jim Mattison was growing up in the early 1950s, he remembers visiting Detroit car dealerships with his family each fall to check out the new models. By the time he was in kindergarten, he could name any car’s make and model just by looking at the hubcaps. “At 60 miles an hour and 60 feet away, you could identify a Chrysler from a Ford from a DeSoto,” said Mattison, who spent his career in the auto industry and now runs a Pontiac archive.
These days, even Mattison has trouble telling one brand from another. Government regulations, increased competition and profit-squeezed carmakers have filled the streets with bland look-alikes. With the cost of developing a new car easily climbing to $1 billion, automakers are loath to take risks.
So car manufacturers don’t have the same flexibility and independence in terms of design anymore, and we end up with all these vehicles looking practically alike.
There’s only one good way through the wind. You can’t have a wide variety of shapes and have them be aerodynamically correct,” said Jack Nerad, editorial director of Kelley Blue Book.
I don’t know why anybody is worried about aerodynamics and saving fuel when you can’t get above 15 km/hr on the highway because there are so many other dratted cars out there that you can’t move.
Well, I started out talking about the names of vehicles…”Prius” as you may know, means “something that precedes or takes precedence.”
Cadillac, on the other hand, has written its own definition into the Oxford dictionary:
- a large luxury car that is the most prestigious brand of General Motors
- something that is an outstanding example of its kind, especially in terms of luxury, quality, or size
So, if you say that something is ‘the Cadillac’ of something-or-other, it means that it is among the best of its type.
I doubt that any of the car manufacturers these days will find their products written up in the Oxford dictionary—unless it’s already there, like ‘Prius.’ And not because it’s a car.
Also, I’m pretty sure we won’t be singing about them.
I suppose that cars are ultimately just a means of conveyance, unless you’ve got a squillion to spend and can afford something REALLY fun. But they’re expensive enough for us average types, and I wish there were more to be had from the car-buying and car-ownership experience.
Oh, and I forgot one. This is Janis Joplin, 1970…
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
Amen to that.