Auto Erotica

The Romance poetry of Detroit

The sleek sexy models are here. They're pneumatic and aerodymanic and come in cool shades of fire-engine red and bottle-fly green. They've got shiny exteriors, plush interiors, and can not only tell you the name of a two-star Chinese restaurant in Scranton, but top it all off by giving you directions to the place. They'll even deposit you right at the door. They're...uh, what say we bag this conceit before anyone starts making unflattering comparisons to the early Tom Wolfe?

Hit reset.

Here we are at the New York International Auto Show, an annual event skewed to that segment of the American population that finds fart jokes the height of sophistication. No, that's not right, either: plenty of women and queers get amped up on auto lust, too.

Let's try something else then. Let's try personal revelation. Dad had a Cadillac. Dad's Cadillac was a black Coupe de Ville. It had a channeled leather interior and ashtrays built into every available surface. It had a V-8 engine and the vinyl half-roof that was the height of Detroit fashion that particular year. What year? Oh, probably around 1969. It was a boring model, frankly, built after GM had started shrinking the extravagant tail fins of an earlier decade, diminishing their outline yearly until the car's George Jetson retroblaster silhouette became something sadly diminished, drearily tasteful, no more distinguishable than the collar notch on a Saville Row suit. It was the scale of a small freighter and about that maneuverable. In short, it was the kind of car a pediatrician would drive.

Before Dad bought the Coupe de Ville, he'd owned a series of impractically jaunty foreign automobiles—a Hillman Minx, for example, a car so tiny it turned family trips into out takes from Clown College. Briefly, he'd also owned a Jaguar XKE, and it was during this period that he achieved what I think of as his sartorial apotheosis, fitting himself out with Rat Pack ensembles that, while vaguely inappropriate for a Long Is land railroad commuter, were undeniably cool. His suits had narrowed trousers. He bought daring black monk strap shoes. He also wore the ubiquitous nylon knee socks that abraded the hair off the calves of an entire generation of suburban fathers, but nobody's perfect. He was Tom Ford before Ford was a gleam in Gucci's eye. And then he lost it. I blame the car he called a Caddoo.

As soon as that ominous black boat turned into the driveway, it was clear that Perry Como cardigans were lurking in the future. So, as it turned out, were a series of events more catastrophic than the onset of male pat tern baldness, but that's another story for another day. The point is that automobiles have powers to arrest the passage of time. If you don't believe it, try attending an auto show.

Try following all the patrons who've paid $9 to listen to a lovely spokesmodel clad in chic Armani recite the Romance poetry of Detroit. "Seville, Deville, Eldorado, Catera," murmurs a woman perched on a giant turntable alongside a two-ton hunk of motionless steel. The car she's hyping is Cadillac's new Escalade, a sport utility vehicle that not only can drive you "door to door" (the least it could do, really) but obey remote On Star satellite instructions to open itself should you happen to mislay your keys. "Kind of creepy," says the spokesmodel. "But kind of nice, too."

There's a look that comes over Americans when they get around new cars. Their eyes take on the enameled glaze of a candy-flake finish. They stand rapt as strangers extol the miraculous powers of automobiles. It may be that you do not consider the accumulation of dirty snow on your windshield wiper one of life's more pressing problems. And why should you when there are people doing the fretting for you? "That windshield slime?" says a Mercedes demonstrator. "Won't happen." And isn't that a relief?

At the auto show the realities of car ownership are off in the distance: repo men, faulty transmissions, brake lines leaking sinister fluid, car seats that vomit their stuffing after Fido starts teething. The air is fresh with the chemical aroma of new car. And the new-smelling new cars are the most perfect of objects, since they exist to trigger illusion and—unlike illusion—can't break down (they're bolted to the floor). Standing in the fluorescent-lit bowels of the Javits Center, fantasies of windswept trips up the sunny California coastline unexpectedly take hold. Even if you don't like driving, the notion of voice-activated hands-free entertainment systems slips in to override your usual checks and balances. You find yourself embracingthe concept of years-long servitude to usurious payment plans. So what if you have to cut back a little on eating? You'll look really great in your ride.

This, of course, is the kind of deranged thinking that's meant to take hold in automotive showrooms. It's as if car salesmen know which button to push to disable your impulse control. Parked outside the Cooper Classics booth, I found myself surveying the '60s Mustang, the supersuave Ducatti, the vintage Mercedes that had "Something Puffy Combs Would Drive" stamped all over it. And then I allowed my eye to fall on the perfect automobile.

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