The most lucid thing the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin ever wrote is the essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” written in 1936, during an apparent dry spell in Berlin’s hashish supply.
Benjamin’s famous essay, a staple of film-lit classes, puts a dope-scented finger on a central issue in aesthetics: If the art object is special -- if it has an authenticity, an “aura,” Benjamin calls it -- what is the status of the duplicate, the mechanically reproduced copy?
“That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art,” says Benjamin. Reproduction “substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.”
In other words: The first David by Michelangelo is art, the second is a lawn ornament.
Which brings us to the Chevrolet SSR. The SSR -- Super Sport Roadster, if you must know -- began life as one of those impossibly cool concept cars at the 2000 Detroit Auto Show, a pickup truck gene-spliced with a hot-rod roadster and incubated in gorgeous ‘50s heritage, with brand cues skimmed from the noses of Chevy trucks circa 1947-'53.
Roadster? Pickup? Retro? PoMo? No one knew quite what to call it -- and resorted to calling it everything at once -- and GM didn’t have a very good idea how to build it. More on that later.
The SSR’s indefinable nature is a clue to something often overlooked with radical concept cars. They are unique and original, highly crafted and nonfunctional; they are spiritual singletons created to express an idea or an ideal. They are art.
Until the car manufacturers build a second one. And a third. Then what a falling off there is. So much of what makes these concept cars desirable is leveraged on their singularity. When a one-of-a-kind becomes a one-of-a-thousand, some essential aura escapes.
Just about every carmaker I can think of has been burned by this phenomenon at one time or another. They display a show-stopping prototype -- for example, the Plymouth Prowler -- and the car-loving public begs the automaker to bring the car to market; but by the time the finished product rolls off the assembly line, the vehicle isn’t so cool anymore. Art has become commodity. Elvis has left the building.
Nobody understands the risks better than the carmakers themselves. GM’s Cadillac Sixteen was the darling of last year’s autoramas -- a huge, rakish and evocative 16-cylinder saloon car, as sumptuous a slice of autocratic hauteur as ever ran over a peasant. Build it and they will come, chorused the automotive press. Yeah, sure, right, said GM.
But manufacturers are often sorely tempted. For one thing, car consumers need change and variety. More than 300 models are on sale this year, compared to just over 200 models a decade ago, according to J.D. Power and Associates. This niche-intensive production is driven not only by restless consumers but also by advances in flexible manufacturing and platform engineering that can make small-volume, image-building vehicles profitable.
The SSR is such a vehicle, a radical concept car brought to life. Built on the cut-down chassis rails of a Chevy TrailBlazer, the SSR is a paragon of shared architecture. Under its Toontown bodywork are the TrailBlazer’s independent front- and live-axle rear suspension; four-wheel disc brakes and rack-and-pinion steering; and 5.3-liter, overhead-valve V8 -- though to look at this engine, with its stunning alloy cylinder heads and CNC-milled aluminum fixtures for the alternator and air conditioner, is to appreciate how handmade the SSR really is.
The product of GM’s Lansing Craft Centre, the SSR was largely developed by our own So-Cal Speed Shop, the famed hot-rodding-for-hire operation in Pomona. So-Cal got the unenviable task of engineering the SSR’s trick convertible hardtop, which arches gracefully toward the windshield header in motorized segments before it finally assembles itself.
The SSR is in many ways a wonderful specimen and a signpost of GM’s new craftsmanship. The jodhpur-like fenders are made of steel, stamped with a dramatic “draw” (the depth of the stamping) that must have caused a few sleepless nights for some manufacturing engineer. But the body panels’ fit and finish is excellent, and light practically cavorts over the SSR’s glossy flanks. The interior detailing is likewise lovely, especially the satin aluminum trim on the steering wheel, door handles and gearshift console.
The trouble with the SSR is easy enough to spot once the ignition key is turned. It’s too heavy. The TrailBlazer’s truck chassis needed substantial bracing for use in the convertible SSR; also, the top mechanism must weigh a couple hundred pounds. It all adds up to a curb weight of 4,760 pounds (about the same as the full-bodied TrailBlazer), an avoirdupois that smothers the Vortec V8’s 300 hp and 335 pound-feet of torque.
Because of the way it’s geared, the SSR has good, though by no means great, off-the-line acceleration (the massive 19-inch front and 20-inch rear wheels can’t help). But it’s surprisingly weak in passing acceleration. Stomp the go button and the four-speed, automatic-equipped SSR sort of shakes and howls and blusters through its double-barreled chrome-tipped exhausts, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. And, for all the chassis reinforcement, the thing shakes hard over uneven surfaces. I guess the true sign of GM progress is that while it shakes, it doesn’t rattle.
It’s also too expensive. Our test model, in crime-scene-tape yellow, was priced at $44,260, a price point that limits its appeal to -- if I may be so indelicate -- rich old guys who want yet another weekend toy.
And a toy is just what it looks like, something the Revell model company might require you to glue together over a weekend. It’s the sort of vehicle that will stop preschoolers in their tracks, but the older the observer -- if one can judge from the looks on their faces -- the more mixed the reactions. There is a lack of seriousness with the SSR -- a lack, Benjamin would say, of authenticity. And I felt kind of ridiculous behind the wheel.
Here, then, is the problem: American hot rods, like those the SSR wants so much to emulate, are one of a kind, singular pieces of folk art, torched and welded works of inspiration and personal enthusiasm. It’s instructive to note that many of So-Cal’s hot-rod projects are known by their owners’ names, like “Bruce Myer’s ’32 3-Window” and “Bill Lindig’s ’32 Roadster.”
The weaknesses of the SSR -- weight, limp acceleration, expense, a curb appeal more gimmicky than gob-smacking -- are part of a larger flaw: Corporations can’t build hot rods.
By definition, hot rods are one of a kind. And when we see them on the street we light up because we are in the presence of something special, art qua art. Also, hot rods are built from the inside out. They are old cars with their guts ripped out so they can get as much performance as possible under the hood. Pouring a racy enamel over a truck chassis just isn’t the same.
The concept-car SSR was as close to the real thing as it will ever get. When I look at an SSR on the street now I see only a copy of an original. It’s as if it were forever and futilely swimming upstream toward its spawning grounds, the auto show floor, to the time and place where it was unique.
The SSR’s greatest failing is not that it’s a novelty but that it’s not novel enough.
2004 Chevrolet SSR
Wheelbase: 116.0 inches
Length: 191 inches
Curb weight: 4,760 pounds
Powertrain: 5.3-liter OHV V8, four-speed automatic transmission, limited-slip differential, 3.73 final drive ratio rear-wheel drive
Horsepower: 300 at 5,200 rpm
Torque: 335 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm
Acceleration: 0 to 60 mph in 7 seconds
EPA rating: 15 miles per gallon city/19 mpg highway
Price, base: $41,995
Price, as tested: $44,260
Final thoughts: One too many
Automotive critic Dan Neil
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.