Wednesday, September 19, 2012


I could make a pretty long list of cars I'd love to own. Over the next little while, I'm going to try to list the cars I could own - modern, affordable autos that I'm hoping to actually drive once I'm a licensed driver. But then there's the dream garage, the long line of gleaming holy grails that sit, gassed up and ready to go, in the heated warehouse in your mind.

Kind of like Jay Leno's collection. I don't understand why people give Leno stick - he's as rich as Croesus, and he spends his money on something he loves, and which he's happy to take out and enjoy in public, at parking lot car meets and auto shows all over California, and God bless him for that. Also, one day he'll have to get rid of all these cars, and they'll be out in the wild again, beautifully restored, and ready for new owners to ride and enjoy (or hoard and display. Whatever - it's their money.)

He's an amiable soul, so pretty much anyone with an interesting ride wants to bring them to his garage to get immortalized, and I was happy to see that Jonathan Ward from Icon brought one of his Derelicts to Leno. I love what Ward does - re-building classic 4x4s with updated components and drivetrains to make them safer and better, but it's his Derelicts that really excite me.

If I was a rich man, this is the car I'd buy in a minute, before the Shelby Mustang and the Fiat Dino and the 1940 Ford V8 coupe. The Chrysler/De Soto bastard wagon that Ward brought to Leno - his daily driver - has a modern chassis and Dodge engine inside, with updated brakes and suspension. He's even put in new climate controls and a stereo/Bluetooth.

There are some eccentric touches all over the rebuild, but the interior is restored to look like your Great-Uncle Jim took really, really good care of the car he bought new in 1954. I'd love to see what he could do with a 1940 Ford V8 coupe, but since prices on the website are by inquiry only, I can't imagine that I'll ever have the cash for this sort of thing.

Ward took the Chrysler/De Soto Derelict to Adam Carolla's Carcast, and showed it off in a bit more detail. He's adamant that it's not a "rat rod," and while I think he's drawing an unnecessary line in the car geek sand, I can see his point. This is not a car meant to scare passersby or evoke some Mad Max gas-pirate future, but a shrine to the wistful possibilities we imagine when we walk through a junkyard and see some pitiful heap slowly returning to the earth.

Monday, September 10, 2012


Spotted on the street near my house the other night. It's a fourth generation Plymouth Fury, made some time between 1965 and '68 - I'm nowhere near car-geeky enough to tell you precisely when. (UPDATE: It's a '66 - I just looked at the vanity plate.) The name of this car probably wrote cheques its ass couldn't cash, but I still think it look fabulous, especially in the silver paint under street lights. It's like the opening chord of a Bruce Springsteen song - if Springsteen songs were anywhere near as good as his fans presume them to be.

That said, it did come with a 426 V8, and as my brother reminded me the other day, even my Dad's Buick had the sort of power you don't expect from anything but a muscle car or a tuner these days. This one hasn't been chopped or visibly modded, so I assume the owner keeps it stock. (And doesn't drive it between December and April.)

It bears repeating that the '60s - not the '50s, and certainly not the '70s - were Detroit's golden age. The age of tailfins and bulbous deco car bodies was over, and designers went about the business of making the cars look as fast as their increasingly powerful engines actually made them go. The zenith of this is probably the Mustang, but its design aesthetic - less chrome, long lines, agonizing thought put into key details like the grille and the silhouette - dominated the industry, resulting in a decade of cars that look like they want to be driven, not parked (the '50s) or rolled off cliffs (the '70s.)

The Fury in particular - could you imagine anyone giving a car this name today? - was Plymouth's top of the line, a spot which in almost any other car brand would be occupied by a full-sized luxury sedan or a big-ticket sports car. The Fury looked best as a coupe, however, and seemed targeted toward the suburban dad who hadn't quite given up yet - the guy who stuffs his son's little league friends in the back, and does a few white-knuckle runs down the side streets near the industrial park before driving them home. The guy who always drives the babysitter home and lets her choose the radio station.

"You know, Donna, the name's kind of stupid, but the Electric Prunes aren't all that bad."

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Transit Dad

Last May, New York City dad Greg Wetzel jumped on the subway tracks in Manhattan's 72nd Street subway station to save a woman who had fainted and fallen onto the tracks. He was, justifiably, treated like a hero for his actions, lifting the woman back on the platform just before a train rumbled into the station. "I had to make a decision and I quickly assessed the risks,” said Wetzel, a lawyer.

Most people probably assume that Wetzel acted on his convictions, and that he was, as he told ABC News later, trying to show his children that "that human life is valuable. There are rules, of course, but they’re circumstance-specific." (I mentioned that he was a lawyer, didn't I?) That might be true, but I have a suspicion that when Wetzel asked two women standing on the platform to look after his kids before he jumped down onto the tracks, he was trying to show them and the world that he wasn't just some pervert.

I've talked before about how public transit has been given the virtuous pole position in a trumped-up urban living contest, with car use as the moustache-twirling villain. After a lifetime of transit use, I'm still unconvinced by the argument, but the persistence of this idea inferred that transit use was the choice of decent, forward-thinking people, and that a family on transit - as opposed to a big, ugly minivan or a sinister, earth-hating SUV - were the urban equivalent of white-gowned missionaries handing out healthy snacks and new fingers and noses in a leper colony.

It would be nice if it were true, but it's not. A family on transit is more likely to be regarded as either tourists or unable to aspire to the base middle-class benchmark of car ownership, and unwilling to shield their children from facts of urban life both unsanitary (the thin marinade of germs and bacillus that coat every handhold of the average bus and subway car) and unsavoury (the guy openly reading porn on the packed morning commuter bus; the teenage boys bringing their vast familiarity with bukkake videos to hyperbolic descriptions of their fictional sex lives; the visibly insane.)

More severe, however, is the way a dad alone with his kids on public transit is regarded by his fellow passengers. They might be porn reading, shit-talking, visibly insane teenagers, but as soon as a dad ushers his kids to a few empty seats on a city bus, they'll give him a look that it's hard not to read as "I wonder if I can text the police and family services in time for them to nab this creep by the time we get to the subway?"

"I've got my eye on you, weirdo."

Every dad these days has had the unique experience of hearing the moms and nannies go silent when they show up at the swing sets in the park with their toddler, like the western saloon when the Man with No Name walks through the swinging doors. A full generation of parental hysteria has cleared suburban streets of kids playing unsupervised, but it's also made lone men suspect when they enter what have now become "safe" - i.e. female-dominated - spaces.

When it's not regarded as either tragic or potentially criminal, taking children on transit is actually considered heroic. Even after two years of ferrying my kids to and from school every day, I still hear fellow parents react to our bus journey of a scant twenty minutes (in good traffic) like I've carried my kids, book bags and all, on my back over an Alpine pass to escape the Nazis.

I don't doubt that Greg Wetzel had the best of intentions when he left his three children in the care of strangers on the 72nd Street subway platform before he jumped down to save an unconscious woman, but I'm also certain that, at the back of his mind, he was thinking to himself, "at least now they'll stop looking at me like I'm heading downtown to sell these kids to Mauritian white slave traders."

Part of me hates that, after years of complaining about over-parenting and the wild-eyed scheduling of playdates and t-ball games and dance recitals that's deprived our kids of both solitary moments and the pleasure of learning to live in cities, I'm planning to cram mine into the back seat of a subcompact so I can ferry them around town free from the glaring stink eye of my fellow citizens.

But there it is, nonetheless - years of inadvertent aversion therapy have made me look for an escape, or at least the chance of an alternative, a chance of choice that'll let me be the foursquare, car-driving, school drop-off and parking-space-hunting dad that I was told I didn't have to be. Which means that the next time somebody faints onto the subway tracks, there will be once less dad there to come to the rescue.