“It’s just transportation.” I hear this every now and then when I’m engaged in conversations about cars. I enjoy these conversations and when someone interjects with this statement it just feels like pouring cold water on a pleasant camp fire. But I get it. Some people don’t care about what is or isn’t under the hood and they just want to get ‘from point A to point B.’
This is a little different than the American car culture we hear so much about on television and in magazines. While the automobile may have been invented elsewhere, it’s well understood that Mr. Ford turned it into a consumer item. Once our country got on wheels, people really got moving. I would argue that our incredibly dynamic economy simply would not exist as it does today without the automobile. More than this, cars are, in many cases, an expression of one’s personality and lifestyle.
I wasn’t a car kid growing up. My Dad was kind of a car guy, and my brother even more so, but what interested them was old cars, with carburetors and large displacement V8 engines. These classic muscle cars are amazing, but what I eventually found fascinating isn’t straight line acceleration and speed, but cars that handle, carving up scenic country roads and eating up the miles on the highway when you want to get somewhere. I eventually learned that I have an affection for all things mechanical and electronic and while my career eventually led me into technology work, I still have a place in my heart cars and motorcycles.
This brings me to an article I read a few years back in one of the auto magazines (sorry auto writers, I don’t remember which one!) where the author was lamenting how automakers were turning all of their offerings into homogenous ‘blobs’. It took me a bit to figure out what he was on about, but I realized he was right, at least on some level. Every US manufacturer and an increasing number of others is packing their product lines with ‘Crossover’ vehicles. Basically vehicles that range from swollen versions of compact hatchbacks (Honda HRV, Chevy Trax etc…) to larger mini-van come SUV-ish types (Ford Edge, Chevy Traverse etc…)
The lamentation in question centers around the decline of the sedan and the rise of the lowest-common-denominator of unibody chassis and transverse mounted engines and body styling borrowed from eggs. Now in fairness, automakers have long followed one another as markets have evolved. Every era of the auto industry has done this, and it’s been tough to divine vehicles from different manufacturers without nameplates and product lines from any given marque from one another, at least until you actually drive them.
I briefly followed along, empathizing with the author, and realizing that I started driving around the time when cars started to become more like transportation appliances and less expressions of personality and vehicles to take on adventure (I took drivers education in a Toyota Corolla). In a post-modern era where more interaction is virtual and a large cross-section of a generation of (not just) Americans are foregoing driving altogether, finding cars and trucks with personality is getting harder to do. The idea that there’s a market for unique vehicles is still evident in the demand for things like Jeep Wranglers, but the number of vehicle models that break the mold is shrinking quickly. Even one of my favorite marques, BMW, is succumbing to this, with a growing line of ‘X’ vehicles, which are their entries into the blob-UV market. Thankfully many of their models remain solidly in the longitudinally mounted engine, performance oriented chassis category, but I can’t deny they’re caving to market forces.
But after all that I’ll take up the other side of this. There are a lot of ‘Point A to B’ types who simply need to get there, wherever there is. Not everyone needs a vehicle that reflects their lifestyle. Not everyone has a lifestyle that involves going places. Modern engines and electric motors make the getting there more efficient. Modern safety tech means that even if you have accident on the way there, you’ll probably survive it, and maybe even walk away unscathed. And in the not-too-distant future you probably won’t have to drive at all. Your autonomous transportation pod will take you there and you can spend the whole time on the way on your mobile phone (as many drivers do today!). Or as the pandemic has proved, you might not have to go at all.
As for me, getting there is half the fun. I still like engines. I still like the process. I like to see and engage the road on the journey. My vehicles are more to me than transportation appliances. I like to talk to like-minded people who grew up wanting a car (or a few of them) and dreamed of going places. I know the days of things like this are numbered. But then so are mine. The future belongs to the blob. Long live the blob!