CARS : We Are What We Drive

Dietz drives a Peugeot sedan but sometimes imagines himself an Alfa-Romeo 164 kind of guy

As automobiles are built better, driving them gets correspondingly worse, another techno-anomaly of modern life. The American, and especially Southern Californian, dream--hop into your car, fill it with cheap gas, and head out on the (uncrowded) highway, looking for adventure--has given way to the urban nightmare.

Driving is just another component in the malaise: Trudge to your car, hoping that the radio is still in it, fill it with $1.50/gallon premium (grateful you're not in Milan, where it costs over $4.11), and creep onto roads choked to capacity during most of the daylight hours.

So why do we care what we drive? Why aren't we all in Yugos? For the same reason that we care where we live, or what we look like, or wear. Cars define our personality: I'm a Maxima SE kind of a guy or gal (a shrewd sports sedan owner). A Mercedes, BMW, or Jaguar kind of a screenwriter (successful, therefore employable). A Volvo station wagon kind of parent (safety first).

Of course, the more you spend, the more your car identifies you, and you with it, which helps to explain the appeal of three sumptuous gift books available for Christmas.

Porsche owners and wanna-bes can channel their reverence for their cars into Porsche: The Fine Art of the Sports Car (Thunder Bay, 512 pages, illustrated, $100).

You can get a sense of the book's priorities from its credit lines: first, Photography by Lucinda Lewis, then Introduction by Betty Jo Turner, then, in much smaller type, a list of the seven guys who provided the "other text." Dr. Ferdinand Porsche's story is a fascinating one, told in no great detail in this book, which is, first and foremost, a gorgeous example of automotive pin-up art.

Designer of the Volkswagen, the people's car, meant to transport the herren on Hitler's new autobahns , Porsche then designed the Leopard, Maus and Tiger tanks that took the Panzer divisions within a few miles of world conquest in 1941 and 1942. As the Third Reich collapsed, Porsche turned his attention to the idea of a sports car, an odd, but certainly prescient, turn of mind in a nation collapsing in flames.

Porsche was brilliant in foreseeing a world market for sports cars that were more affordable (and less temperamental) than Italian Ferraris and Lamborghinis, but more powerful and more reliable than British MGs and Morgans. What he could not control was the world economy. His cars became more and more expensive--today's 911 Speedster, a recognizable descendant of the first 356, costs over $65,000, which in L.A. has made some Porsches as tempting for thieves as a Rolex.

Price, with a certain inevitability, brings us to the Japanese. In the mid-'60s, Nissan hired an industrial designer named Albrecht Goertz who had worked on the Porsche 911 to advise the company on a sports coupe. Goertz argued that such a car had to accommodate a six-foot-tall American, an idea championed by the then president of the company US division. The result was the 1969 Datsun 240Z, less expensive than the Porsche, and more reliable. Ben Millspaugh's Z Car: A Legend in its Own Time (TAB Books, 208 pages, illustrated, $24.95) is not as upmarket as the Porsche book. It's apparently aimed at the thousands of Z, and now ZX, owners who are members of clubs that organize "car shows, caravans through the countryside, rallies, socializing, autocrosses and parades . . ." none of which would have appealed to Groucho Marx for obvious reasons.

Millspaugh includes a too-dense thicket of information about practically every yearly change made to the model, but does include a couple of delicious historical nuggets: in 1911 the Kwaishinsha Motor Car company produced a sporty car named for the first letters of the three men financing the company: DAT. Because the car was little, it was named Son of DAT, not a selling phrase in Japan, so Son was changed to Sun, reflecting the rising sun of the national flag. After a merger and the devastation of World War II, Kwaishinsha became Nissan, but reserved the Datsun badge for export models, since Japanese cars were held in such low esteem that the company managers didn't want to dishonor the name Nissan overseas.

Edward Janicki didn't set out to explain why foreign cars have made such a dent in the American market when he wrote Cars Detroit Never Built: Fifty Years of American Experimental Cars (Sterling Publishing, 224 pps., illustrated, $30); indeed, the spare introduction doesn't directly mention competition from abroad. But it's impossible to read his book, and look at the photos of such swoopy ideas as the 1951 Buick XP-300, the Eurostyled 1954 Plymouth Explorer, or the 1978 Ford Megastar, which looks like a manic version of a present day Renault or Lancia, without a sense of melancholy.

According to Janicki, the concept cars were teasers, meant only to get a sense of whether the great American middle and working class, down to which Detroit has always produced, would accept any of the futuristic elements the designers were creating.

The verdict was usually no. Detroit thought that a car that couldn't sell 400,000 units wasn't worth building. Enter the Germans and Japanese, whose production lines could handle more than one model, and who could make money selling what Detroit sneered at as "niche" cars--like Mazda's Miata.

Because of financial pressures, things are changing--a bit. The 1989 Dodge Viper concept car is in Janicki's book, and will appear next year on showroom floors. The Viper is an exceedingly fast sports car that will give the Corvette a run, and may even bother the builders of the Z cars, though it is hard to imagine a club--or, more likely, nest--of Viper owners.

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