Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The MG as Metaphor for "Authenticity"

I have a handful of passions in my life; my wife and son, naturally.  Baseball, though this grows more lukewarm as time (and awareness of the more Mondrian aspects of professional sport) erodes the soft sand at the edges of youth's shore.  Mathematics.  And more recently, classic cars.

In a quick historical synopsis, the funds I earned from my first job (refinishing wood floors) I put towards purchasing my first car.  Having grown up in the US, which is to put it mildly, a car-culture, this is a big event for a lot of males in the demographic 16-25 (at the time, I was 20).  The car I *wanted* to buy was a nearly half-century old MG.  It's not a terribly practical car - two seats; no trunk.  Built before Ralph Nader helped squeeze a lot of the joy out of motoring and therefore not equipped with seat belts.  It had the rumoured reliability of a Central American junta.  And thus, unsurprisingly, common sense (in the verbum caro factum of my mother) intervened, and a much more reasonable Datsun Stanza ended up in the driveway.  Over the next 20 years, I often thought of that car, and thus as middle-age-dom settled in, and along with it the means to essentially spend money on some things that propriety and youth made impossible, I acquired the car I had wanted in my youth.

For a visual, think of the film American Beauty, where Kevin Spacey (the anti-hero) says to his wife, "It's the car I always wanted, and now I have it.  I rule."

Because I am not terribly mechanical, when this or that goes wrong, I turn to the internet for help and suggestions on fine tuning, and one of joys of classic car ownership is that there exists a quite interesting brotherhood (and it's mostly, though not exclusively male) of people who share this interest, and are very helpful and keen on helping out one of the bretheren, no matter the level of mechanical skill.

At the site I visit, there recently appeared a discussion about what will become of the objects of our passion when we are gone.  I am on the young end of the spectrum, and the fear is that the younger generations will not have the appreciation or the knowledge to maintain vehicles that will by then be in the range of 75 years of age.  And I got to thinking about these vehicles as a metaphor for the common buzzword one hears, "authentic."

Personally, I find one of the charms of these cars (and there are of course other things that fit this category equally well) is that they are at once elegant and simple.  My day to day car is a PT Cruiser; it has a lot of technical gizmos, including little lights that illuminate when something is wrong.  It even can self-diagnose a problem and display it in the digital odometer.  And yet, if something goes wrong, despite (because of?) all this wizardry, I simply have no hope of fixing the problem.  It's almost a perfect metaphor for the problems of modern medicine - we can diagnose the illness, but not really treat it.  For example, most recently, my PT Cruiser, which was running seemingly perfectly, popped up the check engine light.  A couple of quick turns of the key, and the problem (P-0441) appeared, which is apparently something that the computer detects is wrong with the emissions control.

Contrast that to my MG; it has *no* computers.  The body is attached to its frame with simply, flat-head screws.  There is no fuel injection.  It cannot tell me when something is wrong.  There is not even a fuel gauge to let me know when it is running low.  Knowing that there is a problem requires me to be aware of the idiosyncracies of the car - is the engine making strange noises?  Does it take longer to start?  How far have I driven since I put gasoline in?  I have to pay attention to how the engine looks and how the whole of the thing performs.  In short, I have a much more "real" connection to it.

And if something goes wrong, almost surely it's a problem that even I can delve in to with a simple armamentarium of a rubber hammer, a couple of spanners, and a flat-head screwdriver.

It's a throw-back to a time when machines were simple, not because of faddish, Hollywood-derived ideas of authenticity (think "Slow Food"), but because life itself was simpler.  That is not to say that they were better, necessarily - these cars tended to break down more often.  They could not go from 0 to 60 in five seconds, or cruise at 80 MPH like even the most basic econobox of today.  But they came with the explicit understanding that you, as the driver, would invest something in their day to day use, and that that time could accomplish something.

And I think in that is something charming to these cars, something "real."  To me, from time to time getting your hands dirty is what "authentic" means, and that is why I think that these cars will persevere, even when the brotherhood of current caretakers passes.
Post a Comment