Sunday, June 22, 2014

Top Gear, The Italian Job, and My Strange Relationship with Sports and Cars (Redux)

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking about my dad's love affair with the automobile, and I indicated that I didn't get it. That it didn't rub off on me. I just didn't "get" the whole car thing... and that was a bit of a fib. For my readers from outside the United States, that must've seemed a bit disingenuous since as everyone knows, American doctors, by law, inject petroleum and galvanized rubber into the base of your skull at the moment of your birth. Probably some grass from a baseball infield as well.

America is a curious cocktail.

This is my Mini Cooper. There are many like it, but this one is mine
The truth is, growing up where and when and how I did, it would've been a bit impossible not to come away with some slightly perplexing affection for anything with four tires and a steering wheel. It's as ingrained in our culture as questionable sausages and baseball games. So it's a lie to say that I don't have any appreciation for things automotive. But I feel much the same way about the automobile as I do about baseball: I love the mystique of the thing, the history and the pageantry, and the mythology. I even love playing the game, but for most of my life, I would've told you I'd rather be shot at dawn than watch it from the sidelines.*

Driving, like baseball, is something best experienced from the field of play. Anything else bored me silly.

So when I said I don't "get" cars, what I really don't get is the love affair with watching from the bleachers. Memorizing statistics and reading about the new players for the coming season, and following and vigorously defending a favorite team despite their shortcomings... that's what I will never quite understand. But it is nevertheless in my blood, and even if it didn't come in a syringe in the birthing room, it did get there when I was too young to understand what was happening.  If I implied that the sight of a Corvette Stingray or a '57 Chevy doesn't get my heart racing a little in much the same way as watching a baseball sail over the outfield wall, that was a fib.  I may not know much about the players or the game, but I know when something exciting is happening and I can enjoy the shared excitement of a world of people who are recognizing it with me.

So it goes.

I watched the Italian Job (the original one, mind you) with my dad back at an age when my mom would probably have rather I was watching Nickelodeon. I also watched Smokey & the Bandit and Cannonball Run at a similarly premature age and got away with it because they were "Car Movies" and that somehow made it okay. I didn't really come away from Smokey & the Bandit with an affection for the Trans Am (I was more entranced by the "Big Rigs" if I'm honest) or from Cannonball Run with any real affection for Ferrari.

Though, I did come away from them with a weird respect for Jackie Gleason and Dom Deluise... probably the outcome my mom was most worried about.

The original, official "Italian Job" Mini
(Car shown actual size.)
The same cannot be said for the Italian Job. Partly because I was too young to really understand the movie, (and I could barely understand Michael Caine anyway) what I came away from with that movie is a deep affection for the tiny cars they used to pull off the job: I was hooked on the original Austin Mini. I can't speak for my sister. I'm not sure if this played into her yen for the car, or if she just got in the driver's seat of one of the BMW-built revivals and just flat-out fell in love with it. It's an easy thing to do; God knows it happened to me a couple of weeks ago.

Which brings us back to my weird arms-length affection for automobiles.

For a long time, I've been a quiet fan of the show Top Gear, which is ostensibly about cars, except not really. It is and for a long time has been a show about the hosts being cartoonishly goofy. And it's becoming more of a cartoon with every passing season until cars are less and less the core of the show and more and more a vehicle (cough) for slapstick hijinks.

That's all fine as far as it goes, but when I was car shopping, what I wanted was honest advice about cars. I went to Netfllix and watched a few episodes of Top Gear that were tangentially related to the FIAT 500 and the MINI Cooper (we test drove both) but didn't find much there to illuminate my quest for information. Host James May raced some kids on bicycles through an Eastern European city in a FIAT and Richard Hammond tore up the track in a MINI Cooper S. Jeremy Clarkson came ashore with a Royal Marine landing party in a Ford Focus and then was chased around a shopping mall by "baddies in a black Corvette."  None of which really gave me much information pertinent for making a decision about buying one.

The guys did mount rockets on a MINI and send it over a ski jump, which is fun if not really enlightening.  Ditto their "review" of the Ford Focus, and just about everything else they've ever touched. Like I said, it's a cartoon.

Being enlightening about cars is not really what that show is for.  For that, you have to turn to the Internet, and there I found information in abundance. I was put in mind of Neil Gaiman's quip about drinking from a fire hose. Consumer Reports is dry and businesslike and will put you to sleep. I was bored to tears, to be honest, until I stumbled across a different group of British car buffs who are doing what Top Gear used to do, and quite frankly, doing it better than Clarkson's boys ever did. They talk about cars.

This is their review of the 2015 Mini.

XCAR is affiliated with the website CNET, owned by CBS Interactive, and they are simply brilliant at what they do. Their review of the 2015 MINI didn't sell me on the car (we bought a 2013 anyway) but their defense of the new MINI against the naysayers who whine that it isn't the old Mini did sell me on their show. It was rational. It was rooted in the mythos of the brand and the reality of bringing it into the litigious and safety-conscious 21st century.

I know what you're thinking and let's be honest, that picture up there of me holding the Mini Cooper HotWheel is not far from the truth. I was standing next to one yesterday at a dealership and I swear I could've smuggled it out of there in my pocket. The original minis were... well... mini. They were surprisingly roomy because of their peculiar geometry, but I'm 6' 2", a height which is complicated by the fact that an unusual percentage of it is in my torso. I'm actually a bit taller sitting down, if you'd believe it, and that makes for a frustrating time with cars. All cars, not just miniature ones. This is part of the reason I've always favored trucks and SUV's, but we live in a time when cars are getting smaller and at the same time it's becoming more and more ethically problematic for me to keep chugging along in the largest thing I can get my hands on just to get through a commute without a crick in my neck. My wife is 5' 4" and we share cars, carpooling to work every day, so that further complicates the issue. There's no "Her car/My car" dichotomy, everything is "Our Car" and that's how we like it.

After driving everything from Mini to Camry, it turned out that the best fit for my peculiar geometry was, in fact the Mini. It was also the most economical, strangely enough. You could've knocked me over with a feather.  And my sister was right, it's astonishingly fun to drive.

But back to watching cars on TV... er... Youtube (like there's that much difference these days).

As I allowed the XCAR playlist to unfurl in front of me, I felt my longstanding antipathy for appreciating cars from the sidelines eroding with each passing moment. By the time I got to this video of one of the hosts enthusiastically playing with the Morgan Three-wheeler, I was a goner.

Seriously, how can you not love that?

I was watching car videos, enjoying vicariously cars I'd never own, some cars I've never even heard of. Not a cartoon masquerading as a car show, mind you, but a proper car show. I almost wished I'd kept all my dad's car books... kept them where, I don't know, as there's no room in the library, but I had this strange yearning to read about a bunch of cars I'd never own.

And lest you think my appreciations are limited to the far side of the Atlantic, this is an excellent summary of the mystique of the Corvette that my dad always tried and failed to impart to me.

So there you have it. I went right out and changed the alternator in my Toyota. Grease under my fingernails, barked knuckles... I even received an invite to a local racing club.

Heck, I might even watch a Mariner's game...



Well, let's not get too crazy.

~ Scott

*Americans who moan about how boring soccer/futbol is should check themselves because our "national pastime" is a game with no time limits and often hours-long stretches during which NOTHING HAPPENS (follow that link, it'll make you cry). I'm going to get in trouble for saying this and I truly have a deep affection for baseball I can't honestly explain. It defies logic. Soccer is the rest of the world's baseball and frankly, they're the better for it because at least in futbol, something's always happening.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).