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Exeunt, Quovis Modo

by on April 27, 2016

                                                                  Exeunt, Quovis Modo

                                                         (They leave, in whatever manner)

                                                                     by Marco M. Pardi

 All comments welcome

 “What if we fail to stop the erosion of cities by automobiles?….In that case American will hardly need to ponder a mystery that has troubled men for millennia: What is the purpose of life? For us, the answer will be clear, established and for all practical purposes indisputable: The purpose of life is to produce and consume more automobiles.” Jane Jacobs. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 18, 1961

As early as the 1950’s the United States was described as a car culture, even car crazy.  True, the austerity of the WWII years, with suspension of much private auto production and gas rationing for everyone was sure to bring a great sense of liberation once those conditions were lifted.  Add to that President Eisenhower’s push to replicate the Autobahn as the American interstate highway system and you have a growing sense of the trip often being more valued than the destination. Few people now have a deep sense of the aura long surrounding the “Sunday afternoon drive”.  The automobile was a statement of personal freedom.

I learned to drive at age 14 on a 1949 Chevrolet dump truck.  Driving a load of gravel to a new drainage system at Gilmour Academy I made only one mistake: Thinking I had the gearshift in hand I pulled the lever for the bed, neatly dumping a couple of tons of gravel for a few yards behind me.  Modern readers know the feeling from hitting “send” on that email before checking all the recipients.  At 16 I bought my first car, a small English coupe that was a sell-me-down from my older brother. It took me everywhere, including the ubiquitous drive-in movies. Ah, the teenage years and their never to be repeated flexibility. I soon learned the smaller the car the more it rocked. That car could hop like a South Los Angeles Low Rider.

The car was no speed machine, even after I fitted it with dual carbs. For speed I used a Harley-Davidson Sportster XLCH motorcycle. A few times I drove a friend’s Corvette, coming away almost shaking as that thing was stable only in a straight line.   

Before coming back from an overseas assignment I ordered an English sports car delivered to my mother’s home.  That began a long succession of English, German, French, Swedish, Italian, and Japanese vehicles, with a very occasional American model. Only comparatively recently has the American industry gotten away from monstrous, mushy riding, fuel guzzling assemblages dedicated to Function Follows Form instead of the other way around. Through a long era in which men’s clothing fashions remained drably stable the automobile emerged as the statement of one’s personhood.  And that statement developed as show versus go, supported by America’s penchant for myth and legend.  Fake air scoops and vents, racing stripes and, later, rear deck spoilers that had no effect below 55mph and little effect thereafter spread through the industry.

One of the more enduring myths is that America was first in everything. Even today many Americans firmly believe Henry Ford invented the car.  He did not.  He only applied the assembly line, in use in Classical Rome, to car assembly. Daimler is credited with inventing the car in the 1880’s. Overhead camshaft engines, used on Alfa Romeo and Bugatti in the 1920’s, appeared in everyday Jaguar engines in 1948; expanding drum brakes – Maybach 1901;  disc brakes first appeared on road cars with the Jaguars of 1958; self-leveling suspension appeared on Citroen in 1955; the straight eight engine – Isotta-Fraschini 8 of 1919; rear mounted transmission – Lancia Lambda 1923; successful front wheel drive – BMC Mini – 1959 (although the Citroen Traction Avant led the way); monocoque passenger cars – Lancia Lamda 1923; and, the list goes on.

In the years immediately following WWII the European auto industry was severely constrained by regulations, shortages, and taxes.  In Britain this was especially true unless a product had “usefulness”, especially as an export.  So, in 1948 Maurice Wilkes, Chief Designer at Rover’s Coventry factory, put a Rover P3 car engine into a surplus Willys Jeep chassis, added a power take-off feature for farm machinery, and marketed the Land Rover Series 1.  Window panels and soft of hard top were optional. Very likely he did not foresee the SUV explosion in the U.S. half a century later as pseudo-wannabbe survivalists snapped up anything suggestive of off-road, post apocalyptic, Mad Max adventure.  I can imagine his comment had he been around to learn that well over 85% of these urban guerrilla vehicles never tip toe off the paved streets.  That image goes with car is attested by the fact that over one third of Chevrolet Suburbans are registered in Texas. “Everything’s bigger in Texas”, as the saying goes.

Recent years have seen the return of the electric, and partially electric car. I say the return because the electric car first appeared in the early 1900’s.  A few decades ago GM offered an all electric. Sadly, it was not efficient and carried the unfortunate name Impact. What a name for a car.  Several all electric cars are produced in Europe, but will likely never reach America.

While the world has for decades focused on oil producing nations as the sacred cows of any developed or developing nation’s economy, attention has been quietly turning to Central Asian and African countries which have vast reserves of lithium and other rare metals used in these cars and even in the ubiquitous cell phones. That this shift, and this development will affect foreign policy in major ways simply cannot be denied. Americans may sometimes wonder what their troops are doing in these nations, and the obfuscations are already wearing thin.

The environmental costs of dependence on fossil fuels are so well documented in so many places I won’t even summarize here.  I will, however, briefly cite a few observations, including the military role in fossil fuel use and subsequent environmental damage.  Actual war consumes huge amounts of fossil fuels, either through use or through denial – the destruction of enemy production centers and supplies. But even peace has costs.  Although during my Stateside assignments I was a roving “problem solver”, I did spend time at various MinuteMan ICBM sites.  At one LCF – Launch Control Facility, I found that as soon as it was verified that the fuel tanker was on its way all the on-site vehicles were refueled and the site manager then went to the huge above ground fuel tank, locked the hose nozzle open, and set the nozzle on the ground to drain the tank. I asked him why, and was told they had to empty the tank so as to be sure they were not shorted on their next allotment.  In a sense, efficiency was punished.  As the gasoline seeped into the water table he went on to tell me this was standard procedure across the entire Missile Wing – dozens of other LCFs spread across the NorthWestern States.  During yet another war, in 1967 dollars a B-52 bomber used $5,000 in fuel on take-off and $5,000 in operating fuel every hour thereafter.  President Nixon and Henry Kissinger negotiated to end the war, a loss of billions of dollars to defense contractors including the fossil fuel industry.  Then, in 1970, Nixon committed the unpardonable error of creating the Environmental Protection Agency, strongly regulating air, land, and water pollution.  It did not take long for the cabal to understand that, given a scandal, Nixon would attempt a cover-up rather than an open investigation.  Hence we were to believe a very experienced CIA black bag team “broke into” the Watergate Democratic offices and was “caught” by a hotel rent-a-cop. And the rest is what we call “history”.   

Some years later I enjoyed watching the spotless and quiet electric trams snaking through Austrian cities. No mishaps, no aftermath; the power was hydroelectric.  Then assignments throughout Central and South America showed a different story.  Buses were almost exclusively used American diesel school buses bought at auction and repainted various colors.  50 or so people would gather at a morning bus stop and the bus would clatter to a halt.  Some would debark the bus, some would embark, leaving a large crowd awaiting the next bus. Then we realized what we were doing here.  We were participants in an Orphic Mystery rite, a ritual descent into smoky Hades as the bus accelerated and everyone waiting at the stop disappeared in a thick black cloud.  A minute or so later the people re-ascended from the darkness, coated with soot and standing placidly as everyone seemed to accept that that’s just the way things are.      

Of course, the oil industry will continue to exist as its products are used in an astounding variety of goods besides internal combustion engines.  And, those industries will continue to shape American elections.  I live in Georgia (by circumstance, not choice) where the rapidly growing popularity of Tesla electric cars was a direct threat to gasoline vehicle dealers.  They banded together and successfully had the State not only rescind the tax exemptions for environmentally clean cars but to also impose a yearly $200.00 fine on owners, payable at registration, to “compensate for gas taxes they would not be paying”.  And, like New Jersey (an oil refinery State) Georgia bans the sale of Teslas through a policy which outlaws direct sales (Tesla has no dealerships in Georgia). But Georgia is, after all, a 3G State: God, Guns & Gas. Solid Republican.

Some problems seem self solving.  The Bugatti Veyron tops out at 254 mph.  Sadly, at that speed your tires last only 15 minutes.  No worry, though; You are out of fuel at 13 minutes.

Although I’ve always seen county fair hot dog or pie eating contests as stupid and wasteful I’m certainly not above reproach in this fuel consumption contest. And so, I confess.

Bless me, GAIA, for I have sinned.  I revel in dreams of winning the Power Balls.  And, with my Balls in hand I acquire a Bentley Brooklands Coupe.  I also return to England where I acquire a sensuously gorgeous and comfortable hand made car that likely will never be allowed in the U.S.: the Trident Iceni.  0 to 60 miles per hour in 3.9 seconds, topping out around 205 miles per hour. Sure, the Italian Mob markets plenty of likewise performing cars in the U.S.  But the Iceni uses a 6.6 litre turbo-diesel, ironically sourced from General Motors, which provides a well documented and certified 69 miles per gallon at a steady 70 miles per hour on used cooking oil.  I very much doubt the oil oligarchs of this country will allow me to bring my dream here. Do I mind cruising British and European highways smelling like Fish & Chips?  No, GAIA, I do not.              

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17 Comments
  1. “Bless me, GAIA, for I have sinned. I revel in dreams of winning the Power Balls….. I also return to England where I acquire a sensuously gorgeous and comfortable hand made car that likely will never be allowed in the U.S.: the Trident Iceni. 0 to 60 miles per hour in 3.9 seconds, topping out around 205 miles per hour.”

    Marco, this is one ride on which I would like to come along. Take me! Take me!

  2. Thank you, Dana. Should the day ever come you will be up there at the top of the list.

    • Thank you. By the way, I had no idea Georgia bans the sale of Teslas. Just when I think of this state as “home,” I question my sanity.

      I have not missed a vehicle at all, and continue to marvel that I have everything I need within a four block radius. Granted, had I kept a vehicle, I would currently have nowhere to park it, but I still feel content knowing my living is far more sustainable.

      • I know people say this sort of thing all the time, but I really am happy beyond words that you are settled in where you are comfortable – and have Billie with you always.

      • Thank you. That means a lot to me. I can’t imagine sitting in traffic anymore, and really enjoy my “Midtown walkabouts.” When I feel restless or bored, I know I can walk to CVS or Publix, get whatever I need, say hello to my favorite employees, and force myself to be social. Midtown is a thriving little community of individuals who walk to most places they go (even the friendly neighborhood ACE Hardware).

        I used to take Billie on a lot of car rides, even if it was just to the park for a walk. After my accident, I realized how much I was endangering his life every time he rode with me. He has been in a vehicle just a handful of times the past year, and the majority for vet visits.

      • By the way, Dana, the guys at Trident not only know technology, they know history. They named the Iceni after the tribe led by Boudicca, the warrior queen who bloodied the Roman forces in Britain. You would be a proper fit in this car.

      • PeaceMarauder permalink

        They ban a lot of stuff. You can’t buy micro-brewery beer since they have no distributor. Damn politicians.

      • Thanks for joining in, PeaceMarauder. Looking forward to more of your input. Marco

      • PeaceMarauder permalink

        Thank you, Marco. The ban also goes for local wineries too. And on your car you’d like that gets 70mpg, it’s a difference in the epa regulations that allow that mileage. It could be done here but the epa disagrees with the method whereas the overall pollution is the same so America gets bad gas mileage.

  3. Marco, I didn’t feel very much like a warrior today, but thank you. Knowing you gives me added courage for situations in which I feel uneasy. I can’t thank you enough; there would never be adequate words.

  4. …and once again I feel as if I am intruding on a private conversation. This post has been so full of information that I don’t know where to begin. Is it being sexist to suggest that it might be appreciated by the males in your reader list? I have to admit that cars are not my thing, and that while I knew most of the auto makers you mentioned, there are a few I have never heard of before.

    I have long been aware of your penchant for speed, and for exotic and expensive vehicles. I have sometimes wondered whether anything American made had ever caught your fancy; now I know. We have owned a few cars of German and Italian make, but nothing as fast (or as costly) as those you have possessed.

    This offering has taught me a great deal about automotive history, as well as the political impact engendered by the need for and acquisition of the raw materials that we seem to think we need to maintain our current lifestyles.

    I think we all have “power ball dreams”. I would love to live in Europe again, and like Dana, I’d love to travel there with you, but perhaps at a slower speed; a body can dream!.

    • Thank you, Rose. In trying to offer a broad variety of topics, I try to avoid segmenting the readers too narrowly. I know your travels and your living abroad for extended periods have opened you to the contrasts between cultural priorities and the deeply held values defining different cultures. And I know you are truly aware of the common denominators these cultures, sometimes in strange ways, pursue.

      I’ve always seen American automotive products as something one might have to settle for, given the circumstances. But their long history is, to me, a lesson in the machinery of economics and politics at their worst.

      • Marco, I can appreciate the quality of your writing even when the subject matter is outside my wheelhouse (no pun intended). Yes, I imagine my viewpoint on the subject matter may be a little different than someone who has never been more than a thousand miles from their home. I can remember the relatively small size of the cars in Italy, and I can vividly recall how expensive fuel was there in comparison to the pittance we paid for our “fuel stamps”. Fast and sleek cars were the status symbols there, especially for American military. We sold our Porsche 914 (neither fast or sleek by European standards) before returning home; quite the mistake, I think.

        As for Watergate: This happened during my senior year of high school, and I can remember wondering what the fuss was all about, and being quite bored by it. All these people had done was get caught at what many had done before them. It never occurred to me that there could be global ramifications; to me, it was just politics, which are dirty at best.

      • Thank you, Rose. Yes, the 914 would now double or triple your investment. The more rare 916, a 6 cylinder upgrade, even more so.

        Most Americans had accepted the nickname “Tricky Dick” for Nixon by Watergate, so it was not surprising that people fell in line with the story so easily.

  5. PeaceMaurader, I usually have a REPLY link so I can respond to comments, but it isn’t there just now. Your information and analysis are very welcome and I’m certain our readership agrees. Would you mind if I abbreviate your Peacemaurader to PM? Thanks, Marco

    • Please do. I do believe I misspoke using ‘pollution’ instead of ’emissions’. I was on my first cup of coffee. The difference between European epa and the US is the same emissions emitted overall but better gas mileage is achieved in Europe due to the different setup for overall emissions testing. You can look up VW vs US and Europe gas mileages. Large difference.

      • Thank you, PM. You have valuable information. While I’ve driven in Europe and Ireland, I never gave emissions much thought, unless choking in downtown Rome or Paris. I’m looking forward to your impressions of the other entries on my blog site. I hope you will continue to feel welcome and appreciated here. Marco

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