Everybody needs cars. Without a car on a spring day, it is impossible to enjoy the latest big-city thing to do—which is to drive to a house for sale, stop outside, turn the car radio to the FM frequency advertised on the “For sale” sign and listen to a description of the house.
More than ever, people need cars. Think of house-shopping on foot, carrying a portable radio. Think of encountering someone you know—a clergyman, for example —and trying to explain what you are doing, seeming to loiter outside someone’s house.
“We’re just listening to this house here, on the radio,” you would say, and wonder if the vicar believes you.
Cars and houses are inter-related. In the spring the people with money who don’t buy houses buy cars. They now pay for cars what they used to pay for houses. The cars have better sound systems than the houses used to. The cars have better air conditioning, and the seats are adjustable in seven ways that the seats in the old houses were not.
Perhaps because cars cost what houses used to, people are more careful about buying them and don’t have fun doing it. People have a sense of their social responsibilities in buying a car. They know about pollution and gas mileage. They have read the magazines and know to what degree the bumpers recover after a collision.
Given the wealth of information at hand, you would think the choosing would be easy. It is not. Times have changed. Once, everybody knew that the biggest car was the best car. If a person drove a small car, it was only because he couldn’t afford a big one yet. Similarly, if he drove a car that lacked automatic transmission, air conditioning, power windows and power doors, it was only because he was too poor.
None of that is certain these days. The potential buyer—let’s call him the pb—has had more than a decade of concern about pollution, energy crises and other problems connected with the modern automobile. If he has come to terms with his feelings on such matters, he has also had to deal with thoughts on North American workmanship versus Japanese, free trade versus protectionism, plus the age-old problem of rust.
Even if the PB has resolved his thinking on those issues, his problems are
not over, for he still has the status politics of the next generation of children to think about.
Today’s children are different when it comes to cars. When the PB was a child, he believed, as did his parents before him, that bigger was better and foreign cars looked silly. He also believed, as he was raised to believe, that the more options, the better. Now, somehow, he has raised his own children to want some little foreign job with five forward gears. It does not matter that these children are not old enough to drive. Apparently, conventional wisdom at the school has decreed that kids whose parents drive standards are better than kids whose parents drive automatics. There is no reasoning them out of it. And because children are essentially honest, the suggestion that they could simply not discuss the matter at school falls on deaf ears.
Bombarded with consumer informa-
rá man used to be able to choose a Mustang or a Cougar, the wild beast of his dreams. Now we have Integras and Sentras
tion, mindful of the environment and other ideological considerations, and the thought of cars being more expensive than houses constantly at the back of the mind, the PB has a difficult enough time making a decision. Added to it are shifts in terminology that rob him of his traditional framework of reference. Horsepower, for example. Automobile engines don’t come in horsepower anymore. They come in litres. It is not the fact of metric that bothers the PB. It is the fact that he knows he will not be able to talk about it at parties.
“She’s got 300 horses under the hood,” he used to be able to say about his old Chrysler, and everybody knew what he meant. Not that they could really comprehend what having 300 horses entailed, in a detailed way. But they knew that having 300 horses was better than having 200. And they knew that some of those little foreign jobs only had 70 or 80.
Now engines come in litres and, perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, men don’t call them “she” anymore. No man here has been heard to say “She’s got 3.8 litres under the hood,” although
they may talk that way in Europe.
Something similar has happened with miles-per-gallon, another staple of automotive conversation. A few years ago somebody—a Liberal, it is suspected—did away with miles-per-gallon and substituted litres-per-100-km. As if by magic, men stopped talking about fuel economy. And women, often smarter than men about such things, being able to keep track of gas kilometreage and knowing how many litres a hood should have under it, were also smart enough to keep quiet about it.
If confusion reigns with regard to horsepower and kilogronks-per-thousand-grams, the image situation is just as murky. The cars have begun making it more difficult to figure out what they are supposed to represent. Failing all else, a man could once choose his car in the image of the wild beast of his dreams. Now, while Cougars and Colts and Mustangs and Cutlasses remain, they are joined by Cieras, Sentras and Integras, meaningless agglomerations of test-marketed syllables.
In the end, the PB’S head spins. The manufacturers in their wisdom know it, and they know what a desperate man will find reassuring: the display of lights on the dashboard. In the dark and with the lights on, the interior of a new car bears an uncanny resemblance to the cockpit of an airplane. There are lights all over the place, indicating all manner of things. On most cars, there will be at least 15 different lights on the radio/tape deck alone, more if the deck has a graphic equalizer, available on some 3.8-litre models.
On many cars, there are lights that serve only to indicate other lights. Other lights go on to indicate when the lights that indicate other lights are not working are not working. Any dashboard worth the price of a house has lights in at least three colors. The net effect is both stunning and soothing. The buyer sees himself soaring through the night air, above the traffic, free of care. In some really fancy European jobs, buttons and knobs have been placed above the windshield to heighten the airplane effect.
When car dealers realize what is happening in the heads of their potential customers, they will arrange for all test drives to be conducted only at night, knowing that no man will ever worry about litres-per-100-km when he’s cruising at 35,000 feet.
Charles Gordon is a columnist for The Ottawa Citizen.
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