Hooniverse Editorial: Cars Have No Soul

Power, Beauty, and Soul…don't fall for it!
[This was the first piece I wrote for The Smoking Tire. It was sufficiently blasphemous enough for me to stick around there for a while.] There, I said it. Alfa Romeo drivers, prepare to have your hearts broken. That’s a rather controversial statement, don’t you think? It’s like getting a pentagram tattoo on your chest before your first communion. I expect to have my lifelong petrolhead credentials called into question here with such blasphemy—the belief goes against everything we’ve been bred to believe. This we know already, drilled through hearsay and repetition:  a stern, Teutonic Porsche will inevitably be inferior to the fiery, wild-tempered Ferrari, even if it is faster, better handling, stops quicker, and churns out faster lap times—and if a car happens to break down, catch on fire, inhales head gaskets, snap your neck off, or spray oil like a firehose at a peace protest, that’s “character” and “quirkiness” in the same sense that your ex-girlfriend waking up screaming in the middle of the night was “personality.” Well, don’t believe it for one second. The idea, as argued by vitriol-spitting fanboys around the world, that a technologically-advanced car with the latest electronic advantages is saddled with the “soulless” argument as a detriment is pure bunk; a vicious myth perpetuated by misleading ideology and half-truisms from the mouths of fanatics. And by those standards, an ox cart is the automotive equivalent of Marvin Gaye. Let’s take a look at the Nissan GT-R, frequently portrayed as motoring’s clean room when compared to the S&M dungeons coming from Italy and even Germany. From the brochure, the following: “The Nissan GT-R is quite simply the sum of everything we are. Passionate. Innovative. Driven. Real world.”
That line is in there somewhere, trust me.

Too often, mere mention of the GT-R is usually accompanied by the words “Playstation on wheels,” stemming from a land that knows its way around mass-produced, efficient products that just work. Nissan GT-Rs are supposed to be perfect; that’s why they have more computing power than Project Gemini. Efficient in their speed and single-minded in their purpose, their computers guide them like silent, precise, deadly cruise missiles. They’re not supposed to flinch. They’re merely supposed to tick off perfect track times through superior technology: variable all-wheel drive, 15” Brembo brakes, a twin-turbo engine built in a clean room by men dressed in HAZMAT suits. The in-car display reads out G-forces and yaw rates and track telemetry data that the obsessive driver can upload onto a Cheeto-stained USB drive and analyze on his computer in his parents’ basement. And it’s dead-on reliable—you won’t have to add a quart of oil and adjust the wheel bearings every 1,000 miles.

After all, computers don’t have soul, right? They’re merely machines that make beeps and boops and passionless calculations of input data, designed to serve a function without drama—just like the GT-R. Yet here is the brochure spouting off about “passion” and “drive!” What sort of malarkey is this? Moving on to another Japanese company: remember what Lexus says? “The relentless pursuit of perfection.” Perfection may be well and good, but critics will say that there’s no soul behind it. Once you stamp out all the imperfections and quirks, you end up with something eerie—something that does its job almost too well. It’s something the Japanese have been satirized for decades. On the other side of the globe, Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons was fond of saying “the car is the closest thing we will ever create to something that is alive.” And we all know living creatures certainly aren’t perfect. Yet as automotive enthusiasts we feel that we need a semblance of personality even in our efficient little commuter pods on our commute up the 405—something that we can feel connected to in a completely irrational and rose-tinted manner that we wouldn’t reserve for our rotary washer/dryer combo. Sir Lyons may have a soul himself, but his products never had. Even a 1959 Jaguar XK150 Fixed-Head Coupe has no more of a soul than a Hamilton-Beach 4 slot toaster, a pair of faded winter boots, or an Arleigh Burkeclass guided missile destroyer. With the exception of Morgan, Bristol, or the laughable remainder of Britain’s once-proud automotive industry, all cars are the byproducts of the same robots churning out the same welds from the same hunks of steel and petrochemicals. No part of a car is arguably alive, at least—mercifully—in the biological sense. Until Geiger Motors introduces the Necronomicon GSR onto a fearful and terrified populace, no car can be defined as having anamorphic traits such as “personality” or “character.” Why should it? In the most basic, unromanticized sense, the automobile was made to perform a specific function, like a pair of boots or the aforementioned toaster. Where on the assembly line is the “soul” installed? If an Alfa Romeo crashes, does its soul go to heaven?

Our Father who art in Milan, hallowed be thy intake runners.
This may sound lifeless and depressing to you, but fear not: there is still “soul” and “passion” involved in the business of building cars. Where do they come from? They stem from the legions of engineers and designers who set out to work, every single day, to build the best car with the constraints they have. They are the ones who toil over the car day and night, designing and redesigning to meet their deadlines, working fervently to craft the best machine they can that they’re proud to have worked on before the draconian marketers, lawyers, and beancounters get to it. There’s inherent passion in everything—whether it’s to build the most technologically advanced, hardest-gripping, precise supercar like the GT-R; expanding on multiple legendary racing victories like Ferrari or Porsche; defying the status quo with a lime-green, ten-cylinder middle finger as Lamborghini does, or sticking with a tried-and-true formula with the Dodge Viper’s “huge truck motor on a 1880s stagecoach chassis” principle. Drawing from years and years of training, experiences, and book learning, the professionals who develop them are part of companies with immense resources and virtually limitless funding at their disposal. Naturally they’re going to go and build the world’s greatest, most reliable cars, and if they do it via thoroughly modern supercomputers or (transverse) leaf springs then so be it. Somebody once argued to me, “Since a car is made from thousands of parts, a good portion of which differing from one model to the next, every model of car has a number of traits, and cars can have character and personality when the traits become numerous enough.” I accepted it as a rational argument, even though it merely happens to go against every single engineering and mass-production principle ever devised. The notion that a car’s imperfections, even the drastic ones, are somehow viewed as a charming trait is a long-overdue anachronism, dating back to legions of MGB and Triumph apologists who spend more time on the side of the road adjusting Lucas points than actually driving the damn things. “Ooh, it’s character,” says the stereotypical tweedy driver as he struggles to contain the steam emanating out from the hood of his Jensen-Healey. If the passion of the engineers is to devise a product that functions perfectly, then frequent carburetor adjustments and throttle linkage replacement is anathema to their original visions. Would you buy a vintage toaster that shot six-foot flames at your cat every other Monday? That’s not “character,” that’s merely defective engineering, and if it’s not sorted out by a  professional (or a service manual) then you’re just cheating yourself.
Ferrari passion, now available at Target for $34.95 a bottle.
What you are experiencing then, when you mash your pedal into the carbon fiber and the visceral roar of aluminum pounding steel hits your ear, is the collaborative efforts of the men and women who set out that day to design something that puts a smile on your face. The passion comes from their dedication and hard work, not the bits of 6111 aluminum alloy flinging about at 8700 RPM from behind your shoulder blades. We don’t need fiery Italian temperament to find soul and passion. Even the lowliest 1994 Kia Sephia—and this is the part where I stretch my own enthusiast credentials—was designed passionately, if to a far lesser extent than a sports car: if it ticks the boxes of function, efficiency, reliability and low cost then you know somebody lost sleep on achieving that feat. Even if the end result became distorted as a result of running the beancounter gauntlet, its stalwarts still bravely tried. After all, who sets out to build the 2nd best in class? Not even Chinese companies will admit to that. Think about that next time you watch a GT-R Nurburging lap video. Or climb into a rental Hyundai. [Pictures: Asian Martin, Japanese Nostalgic Car, Ferrari]

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