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Letter From The UK: The Neutering of Our Car Culture

  • From once mighty horsepower machines to the four-door people haulers of today . . . 
  • When looking at our current car culture, does it seem as if something is missing? 
  • Geoff Maxted of DriveWrite Automotive Magazine examines in this Letter From The UK.

Anyone who has ever undergone the procedure will remember their first vasectomy as if it were yesterday, because: 1. It was their first vasectomy and 2. They are reminded to never, ever do anything like that again.

At The Clinic

On the fateful day, the subject enters what appears to be a perfectly normal medical building. As this writer recalls, although it’s a bit of a blur, the patient enters via a door marked ‘Lions’. Just inside the door is a cardboard box into which the subject is obliged to place all of his bravado; the time for joking is over.

Consciously carried on the conveyor belt of fear, the subject, fully awake, eventually encounters the surgeon who appears to be using for surgery the ACME Home Boy Scout Kit, comprising of a multi-tool penknife (the one with the thing to get stones out of horses’ hooves) and a soldering iron.

Time passes in recovery, during which the subject suspects his testes have been craftily replaced by two Cantaloupe melons, and now finds that he walks very much in the manner of John Wayne. When it is time to go he exits through a door marked ‘Lambs’ and enters a quiet space with plants, a tinkling waterfall, and birdsong.

The Plymouth Superbird, inspired by the Road Runner and developed for NASCAR, emerged from the company’s Lynch Road plant near Detroit during the height of the muscle car era. With its 426, 7.0-liter Hemi engine and a pair of four barrel Carter AFB carburetors, the Superbird cranked out 425 horsepower and hit 60 in 5.5 seconds. The car would become synonymous with racing legend Richard Petty.

The Science of Disappointment

Why the reference to vasectomies? Well, in a sense, it is about neutering – and this is what has happened to our car culture. A vasectomy takes half a day; the neutering of our beloved autos has taken several decades until finally we arrive at the cars of today. They are all vanilla-flavored, fallen victims to the science of automotive disappointment.

Take the Plymouth Superbird. Now there’s an automobile, the product of the great days of Detroit. Long, sleek with a massive wing on the back and, originally, a 426 Hemi V8 under the hood. Real poster material for gearheads. At least in terms of modern aerodynamics, the wing probably offered not much more downforce than my butt, but that wasn’t the point to the casual onlooker. That it was there was enough.

Compare and contrast if you will, the image of the new Škoda Karoq. This is another car you cannot have in the USA. It is in many ways an excellent vehicle; reasonably priced, very well-built, comfortable, economic and efficient but, dang, is it boring. Frankly, many of the cars built for the mainstream market today are like this. In fact, under the skin, the Karoq is also the SEAT Ateca, the Volkswagen Tiguan, and the Audi Q3. This is what modular platforms have done to the car industry.

Further, there’s no more excitement in design. Think of the Road Runner or the Shelby Cobra; real excitement right there on the drawing board; today’s bland offerings don’t come close to raising the pulse of a car enthusiast. And do you know what is the worst thing? We’ve fallen for it. And don’t even get me started on today’s crossovers and SUVs.

Before these were $300,000 cars, some people didn’t think twice about naming their GT350s. And painting said name on the side was common, as the “Asphalt Angel” so clearly demonstrates. Photo: SAAC Archives. From the book, Shelby Mustang Fifty Years by Colin Comer, published by Motorbooks.

What We’ve Lost

Here in the UK we get to see a TV show from the USA called American Pickers. Just recently this writer watched an episode from 2017 where yet another massive vehicle barn find was located. How do you keep doing it? How many remote barns filled with automotive beauty can there be? The collector in this case was deceased. As a matter of course it seems during his life he purchased ordinary, regular cars that nobody wanted for token sums. Studebaker’s seemed to be a particular favourite.

What They Had

He would make them live again and use them. Photographs were shown of the collector as a young man, spanner in hand, under the hood with his friends, just enjoying the simple pleasure of car mechanics. Make them go and perhaps make them go more quickly and maybe race them a bit. He even built rat rods before the concept had become a thing. To a lesser extent we used to do this sort of home car fettling here in England, but those days are long gone.

Sure, we collect unique cars and treasure them but now we show and shine the very best of the best. We have lost the love of fettling an ordinary $100 car just for the heck of it. Making the inevitable allowance for the environment (I have to mention that. It’s the Law), the car industry is to blame and we are culpable for going along with it. That’s a crying shame.

Škoda Karoq. Photo: Škoda Auto.

Spoiler Alert

Next time, I will be taking the aforementioned Škoda Karoq way back, back in time to Merrie Tudor England, to visit the former home of Queen Katherine Parr, widow of King Henry VIII. We shall walk in the footsteps of kings in a fortnight from now. While I am looking forward to the drive in the Karoq, I would be more content if I were behind the wheel of a proper and powerful V8.

Geoff Maxted is a motoring writer, photographer, and author of our Letter From The UK series. Follow his work on Twitter: @DriveWrite

Letter from the UK