Elegy for the American automobile

Look around at all the cars. Then extrapolate &

let your mind wander across North America and points beyond. In every corner, every cul-de-sac, every part of the world there are cars. Ubiquitous. Deeply embedded in our culture and economy. Each with an internal combustion engine. And all are tethered to gas stations, ever dependent on that amber liquid &

pungent and toxic &

refined from crude, the price of which spikes and drops and as of this writing hovers at $4. Those countries pumping the stuff by the tanker are deliriously happy, and obscenely rich as we send them our treasure. Some have called this the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind.

Is it possible that the car as we know it &

drinking voluminous amounts of gasoline, belching CO2 into the atmosphere, subsidized by endless miles of interstate highways and city roads &

will soon become anachronistic, not unlike rotary phones, typewriters, drive-in movie theaters, phone booths, leisure suits, and $0.35 a gallon gas?

Is the American love affair with the automobile in its last throes? Are we beginning to look at the car and instead of seeing the quintessential symbol of mobility and freedom, we now see something that is making a sizable dent in our wallets? And are we beginning to wonder if just maybe driving all that steel and plastic tonnage might be approaching a tipping point as the prospect of paying $5 to $6 per gallon seems ever more likely?

If we fall out of love, the divorce will not be pretty. For a century, Americans have loved their cars, this transcendent mode of transportation so inextricably woven into adolescence &

obtaining a driver's license is one of the few remaining rites of passage. We love driving them, washing them and even vacuuming them. Getting them all shiny and spiffy-looking, windows clean, chrome gleaming. Some caress their cars in a kind of loving, creepy way. Wax on, wax off. Once seated behind the wheel, an array of dials, mirrors, levers and knobs displayed, well, we hate to get out of them, hence drive-through everything, from banks to dry cleaners, from coffee kiosks to fast food restaurants. Many tuck their rides in at night in double garages, built with more square footage than most rooms in the house. And we walk into car dealerships as if entering a place of worship, quietly bedazzled, these large showrooms redolent of cars never driven, solemnly pausing before a spanky new ride to look at the manufacturer's suggested retail price.

And from day one, when Henry Ford rolled his first Tin Lizzie off an assembly line, it's never been just about getting from point A to point B. If you had an uncle or aunt that tried to argue that all he or she wanted was a reliable car &

a practical, tapioca, geeky automobile absent all pizzazz &

well, it was an argument that fell on deaf ears.

That tricked out Chevy, Chrysler or Ford sitting in the driveway, that Lexus, Porsche or BMW, is not now, nor was it ever, simply about transportation. It was all about stylin' and power and sex appeal and pressing down on the accelerator and feeling the surge, zipping around with the windows rolled down, letting the air stream in, blowing over your shoulder, while you surfed the wind with your left hand, the CD player or radio, with surround-sound, filling the interior &

feeling the rush of it all. Keep that motor running, heading down the highway.

Okay, maybe the techies will figure out a way to keep cars looking like cars &

although the Prius looks decidedly lame &

with only the engines changed. Same chrome, same designs, with just a tiny engine and a truck-load of batteries. And no, you will not go from 0 to 60 in 6 seconds in your hybrid. Minutes perhaps, but not seconds. Clock the acceleration of a Prius with a calendar. Sigh. But, it's time to get over it.

This is no longer about heading toward the horizon, the cylinders flooded with high octane fuel, or about receiving an injection of self esteem by purchasing a very cool, sweet-smelling ride that's purely a rush. And not to forget that hemi-powered, high tonnage pickup, with stand-alone torque, high-riding shocks, extra wide cab, chrome tool box that says to all: it doesn't get any better than this.

That was then and this is now. Sure you can still love your 8 miles per gallon car, but don't count on it loving you back. Not at $7 a gallon.

Welcome to the 21st century, where you will discover that if you want to sell that trailer-pulling work horse known as an SUV, well, the depreciation will make most grown people weep. Some, feeling a bit betrayed by the confluence of it all, will contemplate burying said utility vehicle in the backyard along with the bank note while relatives gather, dressed in black, to say a few mournful words of good-bye as they drop empty cans of Valvoline into the pit.

Final comment: A sign of desperation is Chrysler grabbing you off the street and selling you three years of fill-ups at $2.99 per gallon if you will just buy (please!) one of their gas guzzling not gas sipping cars. Truth be told, they're just playing for time, trying to postpone the inevitable. The problem is that they have acres filled with yesterday's new and used cars and haven't a clue how they will move them. There is a perfect storm forming and American car owners are about to get seriously buffeted. Now about that lime green Prius ... .

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