What is a car?

It sounds like a pretty straightforward question, but is it?

I know what you're thinking, this is another one of Kyle's big philosophical posts from the darkest corners of his mind, but the reality is that this is EXACTLY that kind of post. We begin with the question "What is a car?" to which Clarkson himself has provided a brilliant explanation of what other people think a car is, in his interview with Eric Bana, Clarkson noted that a car is "a ton and half, two tons of wires, glass, metal and rubber," and also noted that "cars are living entities", but what else can a car be?

In my post about reaching "peak car", I remarked about how cars have gotten good at doing things that aren't directly related to driving down the road, like ordering coffee, but that isn't all that cars have gotten good at. Cars have pretty much always commanded attention as a status symbol, and we buy into this by categorizing them by their size, and marque, etc. So if cars can also be used as status symbols while moonlighting as a barista, what else can a car be, more importantly, what is a car?

I wrote a paper in my undergrad called, "From the Fire Roads to The Interstate: The History of Automotive Expression" which discussed tuner culture, street racing, and anything that differentiated from the norms of automotive ownership. See, the problem that Clarkson was describing is that ordinary people see cars differently than you or I. To them, it is an appliance, and automakers like Honda or Toyota are like Samsung or LG to them. I suppose by that same logic that makes Ferrari and Porsche like KitchenAid or Electrolux. Anyway, when a vehicle is engineered, tested, styled, and presented to the public, it is simply that. It is a phone, a washing machine, a toaster. It is another appliance...until it isn't.

We rally behind our ready-made works of art, and make them our own. We add giant wings, and flashy paint, and myriad other things to make our cars stand from others. It was interesting to me to study the Fluxus period from the 60s and 70s that had a lasting effect on the automotive industry, especially the aftermarket. See, the core value in the Fluxus movement was that the artistic process was more necessary than the finished product, which is the reality that every project car faces at some point in the lifecycle of a car. It's why survivor cars and patina are so popular nowadays, because it is a decision that is more "valuable" than the finished product, which would be a car with a regular paint job, and a car that looks "normal".

These concepts are very interesting to me, because by modifying a car, one is effectively telling the establishment that they are wrong. The truly liminal space in the performance car segment. Here we arrive at a ready-made caricature of the anti-establishment modifications that we as a society of automotive delinquents have come to love, brought together, and wrapped up with a nice little bow, courtesy of the same establishment that modders have worked against so actively over the life of the automobile. It's why no one is entirely satisfied with the retro remakes of older models, because the modifications that have been done are now presented to them in a mockery of their vision.

We haven't even discussed what we do with them yet! This entire time the car itself hasn't moved. It has been sitting here, waiting to be driven, used for its intended purpose. Getting from one place to another, but how should that be? Should that be the way that the establishment has determined you should? Should it be the shortest and most efficient route possible? Should it be scenic? Should be fast? Should it be slow?

Within those questions lies a certain amount of freedom, freedom that comes in the form of sitting in traffic waiting to get to the next destination because you as an individual chose to take your personalized, but widely manufactured and duplicated piece of art, and sit in line with everyone's "dream machines", trapped by the establishment. So you mash the throttle when an opening is made, whether it is for you or not, has yet to be determined. The engine revs, and the exhaust blows its hydrocarbons into the air and for a brief moment, you are defying what the manufacturer and the establishment want you to do with their masterpiece. You are rebelling, and the car has become your instrument. In the next moment, you drop your speed, and the moment is gone, vanished into the timeline as you continue on your quest.

So what is a car exactly? Is it an appliance? Is it a canvas for the wandering mind? Is it the man trying to strengthen its grip? Is it just a car? It could just be a car. It might even be a barista.

Join In

Comments (41)