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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  1. tonyola Avatar

    Musical instruments are contrivances without inherent souls. However, when mastered, they can become an extension of the human soul. A Fender Stratocaster is nothing but a shaped hunk of wood with some metal, strings, and some electric bits. It is neither alive, sentient, or able to act on its own behalf. But when a musician picks one up and plays it, the lifeless thing became a means of expression for the player – it temporarily acquires a sort of vicarious soul by virtue of the soul-filled human manipulating it. I believe the same can be true of paintbrushes, sculpting tools, pens, sports gear, and even cars.

  2. Tom Ward Avatar
    Tom Ward

    Hey Blake. I see what your saying about cars being mechanical objects without "souls" but I disagree to an extent. Obviously, cars aren't alive and I agree that describing engineering flaws as "character" is a bit of a stretch. I like my vehicles as low maintenance as possible and there is a very good reason that MG and Triumph are no longer in business, and I say that as a Triumph fan. However, when people say "Nissan GTRs have no soul" I also understand what they are saying.

  3. Tom Ward Avatar
    Tom Ward

    The Nissan GTR is one step closer to cars being able to drive themselves. Someday, they might be lapping the ring in half the time it would take the best human driver in the world, but really, who cares. Enginerds maybe
    (I am an engineer and I couldn't be less interested). What I like about driving is trying to improve my shifting, even if I'll never do it as well as a Nissan GTRs paddle. I like trying to improve my corner entry and smoothness even if some sensors and computer chips could do a better job. Most of all, I like the feedback from the wheel, the sensation of power and control when I am in command of my vehicle and the sense of accomplishment when I get it close to right. And that is something you'll never get in a Nissan GTR.

  4. Tom Ward Avatar
    Tom Ward

    PS: Of course cars don't have souls. If they did, they would be motorcycles.

  5. Maymar Avatar

    Perhaps new cars have no soul, but as they age, they absolutely acquire it. You could pick two completely identical cars, same options, same factory, built the same day, and yes, they'll be identical cars as new. But ten years down the road, they'll have taken on noticeable differences. They'll age differently, organically, through differing uses and maintenance levels. Sure, much of it's quirk, but it's something.

  6. Tom Ward Avatar
    Tom Ward

    What they mean is "Nissan GTRs aren't fun to drive". No matter which seat you are sitting in, you are just a passenger, along for the ride. The computer chips are doing the driving. It has paddle shifters that shift much faster than any human possibly could, and this makes them faster around a track than a car with a conventional manual transmission, but also less enjoyable. They have computers that analyze wheel grip and make throttle adjustments to smooth out the power delivery. Again, faster but not as fun.

  7. Mechanically Inept Avatar

    Cars are obviously not living things, in the sense that we humans are living things. I agree with the author, though, in that cars are kind of an extension of the people who designed and built them, as well as the people who drive them. Cars reflect and represent the time period and place that they were designed, and symbolize the values of that time. I think a lot of the appeal of old cars is nostalgia, because they can represent simpler, better times. New cars don't have that, because they're new.
    However, cars do communicate with us, through the pedals, shifter, steering, and all the other senses that are activated when driving. Everyone has their own idea of what a car should be, and what they like in a car. I like cars with an analog feel, that don't pretend not to be machines. I want to hear all the sounds of the engine and gearbox, I want to feel the road, and I want to shift my own gears. That's why I prefer my 924 to the rental Sonata that I drove last night, despite the Hyundai being the far superior car.
    A car's soul is not the feelings that it possesses; it's the feelings that it elicits in you.

  8. Texan_Idiot25 Avatar

    If we're going to look at it that way, Humans have no souls either. We are, basically, just a bunch of cells that are cooperating as one big machine. There's no high being inside. Just, biology.

  9. Alff Avatar

    I've often said my Alfa is a soulless b*tch.

  10. raphaelinberlin Avatar

    You know, I just find it fascinating how cars are both mass-produced, designed specifically to be without a personal identity and exactly identical to another car rolling off the assembly line to the same specification, and yet, they are also completely individual, not only in the accident they get in, the repairs they receive, and the trips they take, but also in the way that their owners and the people that sit in them remember them, interact with them, or tie feelings and thoughts to them. Even passers by interact with cars in a fascinating manner, as one individual car will bear relation in the mind to another car of the same make or model. While I don't know whether this means that cars have soul, or that some cars do and some cars don't, but there is a strong relation between people and automobiles. The influence that cars have made on society and the world, the strong connection they posess to abstract themes such as modernity and freedom (for example), and the large ammount of time and money that they demand mean that they are not only strongly linked to human minds and lives, but uniquely so. And regardless of whether or not they are significantly more meaningful or influential than a toaster or any other day-to-day machine, they certainly mean a lot to me, fascinate me, and intrigue me. I won't stop thinking about them, pondering them, or studying them. As to defining them, I only know my own mind and how I perceive cars – to me, what they stir in me, why not call it soul?

  11. zoomheep Avatar

    I agree with cars having no soul, but they do have personality quirks and traits to suit different people. The guy under the bonnet of his MG on the side of the road could very well love every minute of it because he has a thirst for adventure. Miata drivers own a car designed using the same ideology, little car, drop top, little engine, and corner carver. However Miatas run…forever, take it out every weekend and flog the piss out of it, it'll be fine. From an engineering standpoint the Miata is the better design in every way, but if working on cars is therapy to you more so than driving them is, you'd likely be happier with the mg.
    Dudes in RX7's putting down 600whp with a full peripheral port and turbos love every minute of it. The cars rev fast and run smooth as silk up to 9000rpm with dead flat torque curves, but they need to be rebuilt every 10k-15k miles and they're so ear shatteringly loud a jet engine with an afterburner would likely be quieter. Guys with an LS1 will put down 800hp, for less money and it will run for 150k, but it's not as smooth or revvy. Again from an engineering/longevity/efficiency standpoint LS1 wins hands down but some people still prefer the quirky, unreliable rotary.
    Having said that I may seem open minded about cars but I must make this very clear, I hate the GTR with every once of my being. It represents everything wrong with modern automotive design and it's engineers should be tortured mercilessly until such time the realize their wrongdoings. People used to take driving seriously. Simple things like what wheels drive the car, what kind of power plant does it have, or the cars weight distribution would change how a car performed and people chose cars based on which cars suited them. Driving was a fun activity, people took it seriously and they wanted to improve. Somewhere along the line driving moved away from the fun activity you do in your car to an necessary evil to get from place to place. People wanted there cars to do EVERYTHING for them so they could sit back and watch a dvd / screw with the radio / answer phone calls / shave / read a newspaper etc. Electronic brake force distribution, traction control, ABS, please keep all that bullshit in the Camry. The GTR is supposed to be a sports car for enthusiasts, but seeing as it nearly drives itself it's a great big phony. It is more akin to a bitchin' Frigidaire kitchen appliance on wheels, than a sports car.
    The sinister side of the high performance washer/dryer Nissan created is this. Asshat douche bag 16 year olds with rich fathers will watch Vin Diesel movies and then demand this be there first car. You can't even hope the little bastard wraps it around a tree and realizes he is not a good driver and he has a lot to learn, the goddamn car won't let him. The people who drive GTR's are people who hear terms like "threshold braking" and think it's the name of an emo pop punk band. The car is not for drivers; it's for douche bags. Drivers wouldn't buy it because it's not fun to drive. However people see douche bags in it doing douche bag things, and with the car's race car/ sports car reputation people assume all automotive enthusiasts are fierce dickheads. From that standpoint the car does far more damage than good to the automotive community.
    It's a peek into the bleak future of cars. I really hoped when it came out it would get shit on and fade into obscurity, but it hasn't. People love it, others will copy it and slowly true sports cars will be long gone.
    Wow I got wildly off track with my GTR hatred. Time to get back to work. Excellent article though, thumbs up!

  12. CaptainZeroCool Avatar

    If cars have no soul, then I have no soul.

  13. dculberson Avatar

    Love. You can learn all the math in the 'verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don't love, she'll shake you off just as sure as the turning of worlds. And love keeps her in the air when she oughtta fall down, tells ya she's hurtin' 'fore she keens. Makes her a home.

    1. Maymar Avatar

      +1 for the Firefly reference, Captain Tightpants.

  14. dehumidifier Avatar

    Kudos for sharing this information, I don’t know about everyone else, but I could totally make use of it.

  15. Blexta Avatar

    After your first accusation that Porsches are unreliable, i wanted to stop reading that article.
    But i didn't, and i really should have stopped.
    You never said what a car actually needs to have "soul", other than being expensive and engineered by over 9000 overpaid guys.
    I'll show you:
    Quote: "if it ticks the boxes of function, efficiency, reliability and low cost then you know somebody lost sleep on achieving that feat"
    I say: "if it ticks the boxes of great track capability, reliability, function, power, all while being a lot cheaper than other cars with the same potential then you know somebody lost sleep on achieving that feat".
    The GT-R, for example, fulfills these points, and is therefore a car with soul.
    Don't you think somebody spend hours on testing until the computers where doing everything so perfectly?
    That whole article was rubbershit, i did better in the 6th grade.
    Of course, it fits the requirements of a random internet blog, but nobody can take such an article for serious.

  16. Charlie Avatar

    Alpha Romeo!? It's an Aston Martin you dumb fuck