Our Cars, Past and Present 

Scenes from the Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance

I’ve come to the suspicion that coincidence isn’t necessarily random simultaneity. It might also be a subsidiary state of mind.
I’ve come to the suspicion that coincidence isn’t necessarily random simultaneity. It might also be a subsidiary state of mind—an ambient receptivity of one’s perceptions, if you will—that lies mostly dormant but ever ready. Like an open Petri dish full of agar, coincidence nourishes apparently unconnected, independent realities until such a time as they propagate over the entire surface of one’s awareness. At that point, one can’t help believing that these realities are indeed, and inevitably, related. At a reception hosted by General Motors in conjunction with the fourth-annual Concours d’Elegance at Hilton Head Island, November 3-6, a prevailing theme of the cocktail banter was the distinctive national identities of the magnificent vehicles on display. The 1938 Jaguar SS 100 radiated with that combination of pant-seat-ingenuity and stiff-upper-lip self-sufficiency that will characterize end-of-Empire Great Britain for the rest of time. The paradox of an Italian’s rapacity of emotion and addiction to grace invested alike the grand-touring Iso Grifo Series II coupe from 1971 and the purpose-built, monoposto mini-racer from 1947, the Cisitalia D-46. Against Germans like dialectical Mercedes-Benz and slide-rule-perfect Porsche stood such Americans as swaggering, bull-necked Chevrolet and Ford and parvenu Packard, Buick, even Duesenberg. The last ember-glows of a Hapsburg-dominated Holy Roman Europe flickered off the polished brass and chrome of two ’20s-era Hispano-Suizas. By contrast, the matte-silver paint of a dorsal-finned 1948 Tatra from Czechoslovakia reflected nothing more than the bitter promise of an unholy Soviet empire’s collectivised machine-age. We auto writers in attendance commented upon these easy stereotypes over drinks and dinner and, later, while strolling among the more than 150 cars themselves. And we despaired of the modern tendency by globally interdependent manufacturers to commodify contemporary vehicles beyond any distinguishing, individualistic personalities whatsoever. Back in my hotel room for a break in the festivities—while these Romantic imaginings of an automotive Golden Age, in other words, fermented at a far edge of my Petri dish of coincidence—I resorted to the vade mecum I had unwittingly packed for this trip. It was the posthumous collection of short essays by Anglo-Welsh poet and painter David Jones titled The Dying Gaul. I was parsing his 1944 observations upon artists’ and writers’ roles in a mid-20th-century world when I encountered: “We have...no ‘culture’ now but a number of contrivances of a utile nature which are indeed the product of man and bear his national imprint and show to a remarkable degree his intelligence, potency, ingenuity and skill, but which have all the same ‘inward feeling’ and the same outward characterization, whether assembled at Detroit, in...Britain or in any European production area.” That specification concerning Detroit startled me. What, in a wide-ranging essay otherwise concerning poets and painters, sculptors and calligraphers—artisans, in other words, not traditionally associated with the symbolic focal point of North America’s auto-industrial complex—could Jones possibly have implied by singling out Detroit, if not automobiles? And what other ground could he have been treading with these words from beyond the grave than the very turf whereon I was standing not half-an-hour ago, amidst carriages now horseless but stubbornly clinging to horse-drawn identities: landau, cabriolet, phaeton, hack, shooting brake. Jones’ essay persisted with its curiously coinciding “observations” about a gathering of museum cars taking place a hemisphere distant from his Notting Hill home at the time and half a century into the future. “No doubt there are and will continue to be minor differences...even under machine- and mass-production; but it does not amount to anything very fundamental and does not reflect the determining feeling throughout. It is either a dubious difference, a mere propagandist difference, or something imposed by purely utilitarian motives, unintegrated and thin and, of course, peculiarly loveless, though no doubt of the highest efficiency and the product of considerable combined intelligence and most careful experiment. It is very necessary to get this clear in the mind, as it is very clear in the things which condition our daily lives.” At a time when snippish auto aficionados refer to certain contemporary brands, like Toyota, as makers of “appliance cars” because “they always work but never excite,” David Jones’ prescience is powerfully apt. Even discounting the fact that Jones was the farthest sort possible from being a “car guy,” he managed, 61 years ago, to put the finest point possible upon a collective, unspoken sentiment pervading the crowd in attendance at the Hilton Head concours. Namely, that the cars of our forebears—with their running boards, their kerosene headlamps, their “oogah” horns, their hood straps, their wood-spoke wheels, their deDion rear suspensions, their leathern dampers, even their lack of windows or radios or airbags—are both a delight to and a shame upon us. We delight in their ostentatious beauty and clever inventiveness. Their primitive innocence makes us smile, sometimes laugh—as one should laugh at a running board lined with color-coded, hand-fitted canisters labeled “fuel,” “water, “oil.” Then it occurs to us that we don’t need such canisters today—thank goodness—but we’re not smiling now. We depart these concours for home in modern vehicles of the “highest efficiency”; but we rue the commute. We lament the reflections of ourselves behind so many similar steering wheels in so many “peculiarly loveless” vehicles. We mourn a vanished individuality, not only of our cars but of ourselves in so entrenched a dependency upon them. Our cars are less quaint; we are not amused; this is no coincidence. Mea Culpa Last week, a photo in this space depicted Chevy’s Malibu Maxx trying to impersonate a Pontiac G6 sedan described in the column. This week’s photo will unmask the impostor and set the record straight.

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