Cars are cars

I love cars.

When I was a very little kid I remember running round public gardens making engine noises, revving up and changing down. I was a car. My father used to tell a story that once some poor people, sitting quietly on a park bench, asked me to shift gear when my engine was patently redlining. It was my dad’s birthday today, and as the years go by, more and more I realize how much I loved him.

If you’re lucky, your parents are a rock, and later on you yourself become a rock for your children, and sometimes for others around you. Exactly when one shifts to the other is one of life’s great unknowns, the moment when you change from being the water that splashes on the stone to becoming the stone itself.

My father named me Peter, which in latin means stone, and on occasion he used to quote me the words of Jesus Christ:

et ego dico tibi quia tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam et portae inferi non praevalebunt adversum eam

if Latin didn’t sink in, I got the French version:

Et moi, je te déclare : Tu es Pierre, et sur cette pierre j’édifierai mon Eglise, contre laquelle la mort elle-même ne pourra rien

But then my dad was a cultivated man. Me, I think classical music started with Elvis Presley.

Before Elvis’s time almost all songs were written about love. The best ones always about unrequited love, the breakdown of love, guilt and sorrow, but always love. My father was a big fan of Maurice Chevalier, and as far as I can remember, all his songs were about love. I promise I’ll get to the cars, but love is a terrific subject. I recently learnt that Lili Marlene, the quintissential soldier’s ballad, had simultaneous versions in German and English, thereby comforting the opposing forces in World War II,  and was written by a soldier in World War I about his two mistresses, Lili and Marlene. And there you were thinking of the poor chap longing for his sweetheart!

There was the odd song written about inanimate objects, such as cities (Chicago), and then suddenly a whole bunch of songs appeared about cars. In a constricted home environment, cars were the teenage liberator. They became the places where you lost your virginity (and I suppose these days when you changed cars you’d be a born-again), and the macho symbol for speed and power. Of course this worked better in the US than Europe, where you might find yourself somewhat cramped in a Morris Minor.

The British Morris Minor, affectionately known as the "Jelly Mould", a rather cramped place for sexual initiation

Paul Simon said it best in the aptly named Cars Are Cars:

I once had a car that was more like my home
I lived in it, loved in it, polished its chrome
If some of my homes had been more like my car
I probably wouldn’t have travelled this far

The wonderful freedom the car granted in the XXth century, and the enormous gain in productivity, stemmed from a German invention, the internal combustion engine. I’ve always been impressed by the simplicity of the idea, and how easy it is to understand. I think that’s also why it has endured. Just about anyone can repair one, as has been shown in Cuba, where US models from the 1950’s abound, complete with gigantic fins, and Africa, where the hardy Peugeot 404 continues to thrive, repaired a thousand times by the welder’s torch and the smith’s forge.

The West forgets how the world lives: in African markets surplus clothing items donated from Europe are not given, which is the intent of the good folk from London and Los Angeles, they’re sold, and widely described as dead men’s clothes. No one in their right minds would give something that good away!

All the engines seem to have been invented by Germans, Messrs. Daimler, Benz, Diesel, and improbably, Wankel. Never a Smith engine, or a Gomez. Although the Scots redeemed themselves with James Watt, who invented the steam engine and left his name on the physical unit of power.

Modern day applications of the internal combustion engine: a longtail on Kho Phi Phi, Thailand

From cars came boats and planes, generators, and a host of other items that have made our life easier and given us more time to think, write, and be creative. Or not. But that’s a matter of choice, not obligation.

Cars are cars
All over the world
Engine in the front
Jack in the back
Wheels take the brunt
Pinion and rack


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