The American Dream vs. The American Nightmare…in Cars

This should have been a slam-dunk, easy article to write…and it wasn’t, even though I’ve spent decades coveting, comparing, owning and occasionally racing some very special automobiles.  This article, however, will not be what you’re expecting.  It is, instead, a reality check.  It could easily save you a large amount of money.  It might even save a son’s, brother’s or husband’s life.  Notice the gender bias.  It’s because we have testosterone and are, in some ways, dumb.

Hit Point: There’s a HUGE Disconnect between the dream that’s waved in front of your nose in car commercials, You Tube test drives (by professionals), and gals draped across shiny hoods at car shows…versus the reality of what’s going to happen twenty minutes after you write the check for your very own “super car”.  Very quickly you are going to experience an unanticipated emotion: Frustration.  Why?  Because after paying dearly you’re going to want to take it out and race around a track.  Instead, you’ll be pulling out into traffic and creeping along, gritting your teeth at traffic lights, waiting for your moment of glory that rarely comes.  More about that later.

Porsche-918-SpyderThe Snooker:  In the videos and TV shows, when a professional driver takes the new Corvette, Tesla, BMW, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Jag, Viper, Porsche out on the test track, he whispers conspiratorially in your ear as if you’re a professional driver, too, that when you’re drifting through a corner doing 75, tires smoking, the Corvette gets a little bit dicey  compared to the Porsche.  And…when you’re up around 175, the Porsche is definitely more calm, less squirrelly.  As guys with huge egos and large doses of testosterone to match, we make a mental note:  “Okay, remember to watch out over 175”.

Truth is, you’re probably never going to drive your car 175 or even 120…ever.  We’d just like to think that we might.  Oh, but I…(you) need to be able to hammer it, should some emergency situation arrive.  Yeah, okay…to a point.  But do you need 500, 600, 700, 800+ horses under your hood to do it?  No, you do not.  Not ever…not never.  It’s much more about bragging rights.  S’cuse my French but it’s very much like whose dick is bigger, where in reality, it just might be: who’s a bigger dick?  Sorry ’bout that, but after half a century love affair with cars, the automakers have either lost perspective…or maybe they just don’t care about your welfare.

2014_chevrolet_corvette_f34_13-de-as_113137_600I went into a Corvette dealer about two weeks ago and…wonder of wonders, ran into a semi-honest salesman.  We started swapping stories and I asked,” The difference between your stock Corvette and loaded one that pegs the meter is about $40,000…extra.  How many of your customers will be able to actually use that $40,000 worth?”

His reply was instantaneous:  “ZERO”, but then he went on to say, “But you asked the wrong question, Henry.  The correct question is: How many of my customers will be capable of fully using the power of the stock Corvette?”  The answer to that is also ZERO…or as close to it as is mathematically possible.  Look at the Corvette above.  How much more do you need?  BTW, It really is pretty, though in a Japaneszie sort of way.  Did Nissan help with the design???

A little question from the psychiatrist’s couch:  What do you want to get from this new (fill in the blank) super-duper car you’re contemplating?  There’s a Zen Irony here.  If the honest answer is, “I really do love driving and I want to put my car through its paces every day, the last thing you want to buy is a Lambo, Viper,  or some tricked Vette, etc. because…..the main emotion you will be be experiencing is FRUSTRATION.

Seriously.  These cars, now equipped with 8+ speeds, micro-second paddle shifting and 600+ horsepower are just loafing along at 65 mph.  Goose it for more than a second in any gear and you’re up over a hundred and closing fast on the car in front of you. Oops. Another hidden truth?  Your 8-speed racing transmission will be quietly skipping gears like crazy because you aren’t really using it.  95% of the time you’re going to be in some kind of traffic, a school bus on one side, a Prius in front of you and a red light looming before you.  And it’ll always be that way.  If your answer is:  I just love the look of the car, there are many other cars available that do other things well, look gorgeous and won’t kill you.

miataIf you’re one of the rare ones and really just enjoy driving, cornering, gauging the apexes, mastering the art…(and it is an art), I have some GREAT news for you.  It’s that Zen thing again.  The most challenging driving machines don’t have to cost an arm and a leg.  A Mazda Miata (a good used one is fine because they all look alike).  Its steering is exemplary, shifting too and it’s perfectly balanced.  You actually shift it…with a clutch and best of all?  Because it’s not mega-powered you can floor it through all the gears, downshift and power through the hairpins.  It’s fun just driving to the post office…zero frustration.  The first little BMW Z-3s (1996) were great, too, gorgeous, and now you can get one for a song.  Mine was Atlanta Blue, 135 hp and you could floor it in every gear just going to WaWas, and drift it through a corner like there’s no tomorrow.  Mmmmm….

A new Porsche Carrera will do the same thing much faster, but you’re not driving it, it’s just loafing along…bored because it isn’t on a track.  Mini Coopers are in the same category as the Miata  and there are heaping handfuls of “pocket rockets” for people who want hone their skills. Or… if you want to seriously get into parking lot gymkhanas, look at a Caterham Super 7. caterham It’s very funky but you grow to love the looks.  It’s not expensive and more fun than, well….  And at the end of the day, once you begin to learn, you realize that there’s true driving and then there’s posing.  Consider enrolling your favorite guy in an expert driving school, ie. The Bondurant School of Driving.  Just posing?  You fool no one.

Women and Souped-up Cars: Oh, another little secret no matter what your age or maturity?  Loud, noisy, rumbling, tire-smoking cars aren’t what turn girls/women on.  They just aren’t.  A long black Jag quietly pulling up in front of the house?  Well, that’s better.  However, a guy in any kind of clean moderately new car, well-groomed, with a cute Boston terrier puppy in the shotgun seat and a great sense of humor?  That’ll trump the Lambo every time.  Why?  The guy in the Lambo probably has a love affair…with himself, not you.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAHere’s a little simile you might consider:  Airplanes:  When I was a teenager, I studied and trained to get my pilot’s license in a little Cessna 150.  It was great and I was…a PILOT!  Woo Hoo!   I was a pilot of a small single-engine prop plane, qualified for VFR (visual flight rules) only…but I was flying.


USAF ThunderbirdsWhen I joined the Air Force, I had to learn how to fly a second time, starting out in a T-37 jet trainer, then transitioning to  the very hot, very sexy T-38 Talon.  The in-joke used to be that what you really needed to fly the ’38 were ballet slippers, not combat boots because it’s a touchy plane to land.  And although I was a “pilot” going in, it took an entire year to be able to fly that T-38.  It was that different.  Cars are that different as well.  Beware.


Smart_carBringing that simile back to automobiles.  You can buy a Prius or the Smart (?) Car, and tool around and be an excellent Prius driver.  However, plop your fanny down into a  Hennessy Corvette or a Dodge Viper, or a Lamborghini and go for it…and you just might end up dead or worse, kill someone else through your inability.  These aren’t just fast cars, they are a different breed of animal entirely.  Beware.

And yet, you can actually go out and buy one.  Porsche has a very fast and rare exotic car that most racing drivers won’t touch.  They’re just too squirrelly.  But you, with no training at all can buy one if you have the $$$$$$

Why???  Because not one company creating cars really cares whether you kill yourself in it…as long as it’s your fault, not theirs.  It’s survival and it’s Darwinism.   Eventually, maybe they will come out with special license requirements for 900 hp super cars.  For now, it’s up to you to act like a grown-up.

Bieber getting a ticketFor the sake of you, your wife, daughter, son, granddaughter, plus the idiot who purchases the car, there should be a reasonable law passed requiring some bare minimum aptitude, in the same way pilots of puddle jumpers don’t fly F-18 Hornets.  I’m thinking of Justin Bieber at the moment, but you see what I’m saying.  If you have a son or daughter graduating now and you want to buy them a car (I’m assuming you really love them and care about their welfare) don’t buy them a Vette, or an M-3 Beemer…or anything in that category.  They’re just learning.  Get them something heavy, big, and safe…preferably with an automatic, because just learning to survive in the eastern corridor or L.A. freeways these days takes a bit of luck and a lot of practice.  First comes survival.

If you talk-the-talk, you must also walk-the-walk.  When it came time for me to sell my Shelby Cobra I put an ad in the paper.  A woman called, then drove up our driveway in her Mercedes with her 16-year-old son in tow…with a check for the full price.  They came in.  We sat down, exchanged pleasantries and then…I handed her back her check.  I attempted to explain to her that her kid wasn’t old enough nor mature enough to handle that much horsepower.  She went ballistic and red-faced.  She ranted, raved, and threatened to sue.  (Well, that didn’t happen.)  Shortly afterwards, I sold my Cobra to McCluskey Racing, and guess what.  It’s still around and restored from the ground up. It’s now a rare classic and in pristine condition.  No one died from owning that Cobra.

Shelby GT-350Henry

P.S.  If you think you can text and drive, you haven’t done your homework.  If you think you can safely use your cell phone or Blue Tooth while driving you’re either arrogant or misinformed.  Even with Blue Tooth, it’s the equivalent of driving drunk…every time.  Yeah….write in to me agreeing in principle, but whispering that you are very gifted and can get away with it.  Yeah…  Sure…

P.P.S.  If you’re a woman, waded through this article and are thinking, Gee, guys are really infantile about cars, I have no real defense, except sometimes…just sometimes, there’s no prettier sound than a Ferrari V-12 revving through the gears in a hairpin.  It’s as good as Beethoven…sometimes.


10 Responses to "The American Dream vs. The American Nightmare…in Cars"

  1. Elizabeth Buckwalter says:

    Well, you hit a nerve on this one, Henry.
    Prejudice connotes pre-judging. Drawing conclusions from experience is something totally different. I have a deep dislike of nouveau lawyers who run out and buy Porsche 911s as soon as they’ve won their first case, (usually from screwing over someone). Not sure why but most Porsche drivers can’t drive well. It’s not the car, it’s the driver. They pull out in traffic, then slow down at the most inopportune time, they miss their shifts, and hog the lanes.

    Once, my husband and I were driving to pick up our mail, and a lawyer with vanity plates to advertise his profession, cut us off in his 911 then tried to peel out. However, he missed his shift and stalled at the light. His articulated whale tale rose up…but then immediately wilted Very symbolic. My husband tooted at him and waved as we went by. I know the cars are great…but…for the most part, the people who buy them aren’t very good drivers.
    Liz B.

    • Henry Harvey says:

      Boy, you really don’t like lawyers do you? I have to say, though Porsches are some of the best-designed cars in the world, that there does seem to be a strong vein of truth to what you say, at least in my experience. I’m not sure what the relationship is…maybe wanting to “own” perfection? No matter how much you’ve spent, if you don’t know how to drive, you don’t know how to drive.

  2. Pat Ivaldi says:

    Very recently in Doylestown, PA, a gentleman and I use the word loosely, decided to take his newly super-hopped-up Mustang out on the 611 bypass to see how fast it would go. The speed limit is 55.
    He was going approximately one hundred miles an hour faster than that when he rear-ended a young Japanese woman in a Honda Civic. The closure rate between his Mustang and that Honda was 100 miles an hour. Strangely, he survived. The two gals in the Civic died. Being able to mash your foot on the accelerator doesn’t make you macho, doesn’t make you a man, doesn’t really make you much of anything except possibly an idiot…or worse…a murderer. The lens sharpens to crystal focus when you see one of these macho-mobiles upside down and burning while the ambulance attends to what’s left.
    Give me something safe, quiet, and somewhat economical.
    Pat. I.

  3. Henry Harvey says:

    Well put and your point is taken. Thank you, Pat.

  4. Henry Harvey says:

    Great, great and great again.

    Ah, the Cobra. Right decision

    And while I loved my Mercedes C320 red hot convertible, the real issue was whether it was worth keeping after warranty expiration. My mechanic said “not.”

    So, car guy I really am not. Riding in a Vette once almost made me deaf. So I toddle along with my Acura and am very happy. But the last car, Explorer with 289, was more empowering.

    And God love you for dissing the texting/talking thing as it is truly a killer. Even with my hands free capability, I’m wary…

    Hope all are well.


  5. Henry Harvey says:

    Thanks my friend,
    Remember the Spring Break drive to Florida in the Shelby with Paul and Albert joining? Albert wanted to drive and promptly got a ticket. Laughed my ass off….missed me.
    Regarding the deafness factor, I have a friend who’s into a different kind of car than I. He purchased a new Dodge Viper without ever having driven or even seen one. He flew out to pick it up and drive it home. By the time he got home he was seriously hearing impaired for several weeks. Sold the car immediately. There’s such a thing as too much power and there’s such a thing as to damned loud.
    Good to hear!

    • Henry Harvey says:

      Hey Greg,
      Except for your penchant for chattiness…thank you! Your answer reminds me of a philosophy final I took at Franklin and Marshall. The question was, “Why?” We all scribbled frantically in our blue books for 50 minutes…but one guy printed out in big letters, BECAUSE. I don’t know what grade he got, but whatever it was…he deserved it.

  6. Hi,
    Thought I might throw in my two cents on a related topic: Teslas. Lots of things have been written about them, and there are very strong arguments to recommend them…but huge arguments against them, too. The good is that they are electric, good-looking and very very fast, particularly off-the-line. The downside is you can go fast…OR…you can go far, but not both.

    When they first tested a Tesla on Top Gear, it accelerated like a bandito, but was out dead by the third lap. Several have caught fire, but they seem to have fixed that, but the biggie is, you really have to be careful how far you go and where. Though quoted at 200+ miles per charge, in the Zite article today, a Tesla driver had to be towed after 150 miles.

    In our area, they are popular with the nouveau riche. The drivers seem intoxicated with the instant torque from the electric motors and with intoxication comes abuse…then downright assholedness, if that’s a word.
    That ties into your “posing” vs. actually driving. You have to be able to drive it fast…and then drive home.
    Peter S.

    • Henry Harvey says:

      Hi Pete,
      Consumer Reports gave the Tesla one of the highest ratings I’ve ever seen… But I think, in this one instance they may have been blind to the range issue you mention. Another factor that you didn’t mention…no one does. Where do you get one serviced? There are essentially no Tesla dealerships.

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