Braving the New World Order

Is it wrong, at 49 years of age, to start wondering if I should have at least one modern “grown up” car in my stable? It has been a point of pride that nearly every car I’ve ever owned has been a two-seater with manual transmission and no top. One exception is a used pick-up truck, which is also a two-seater, but has a permanent lid and a slush box. Its role is to pick up scattered bits of all the others, as required.

Enroute to the Rallye to Reno, which by all accounts was a tremendous success, I was presented with a rare opportunity to reflect. While sitting on the side of the highway waiting for help, I started asking myself if it might be time to grow up. Aha, says the reader, his MG died on the way to Reno. No dear reader, my cheap, used pickup, which was towing the MG, chose to die instead. We’ll chalk it up to variety, as the truck has dragged the MG home more than once.

Odds are, the Flaming Cockroach (what else does one name a supercharged Midget with flames on the hood?) would have made the trip, but it has been in the habit of shaking itself to bits lately, and I didn’t fancy breaking down on the Donner Pass with winter fast approaching. Yes, I know it wasn’t technically even summer yet, but I need it to sound like winter, or the Donner Pass gag won’t work.

Not counting the truck, my main modern car is a 2007 Mini Cooper S, bought used on the way home from work one night, because the Ford SVT Focus I was driving didn’t seem to me like a grownup’s car any more. Sitting on the side of the road that day in June, watching adults drive by in a succession of leased BMWs, Mercedes, and Lexuses, slowly but surely that little voice spoke louder and louder. Isn’t it time for you to own something modern with four doors?

Finally, just last week, I went to a car dealer and drove a modern car. They handed me a key fob-like lump and said to stuff it in the dash. I did. The radio came on, the lights came on, the driver’s seat moved around, the mirrors wagged at me, but the car didn’t start. I looked for a start button, but none of the thousands of knobs, switches, or TV screens said “Start.” The salesman had to explain how you start a modern car. In this case, it required shoving the key in an extra special amount until it just knew you really wanted to go.

Starting an SU or Weber carbureted engine required subtly different techniques, but at least you could get a Holley to go the same way as a Weber. And if you flooded a carb, you had to know to hold the throttle on the floor while cranking the engine. Computer-controlled fuel injection made all of that obsolete.

Just turn the key and wait for the motor to fire. Now, however, things are heading back the other way. One company’s start button is another company’s keyless proximity sensor thing in your pocket. And so, after half a lifetime, I seem to have come full circle. I used to tell the story of a friend’s 20-something kid who couldn’t figure out how to start a car with a carburetor. Now, here I am unable to start a new car with a keyless lump thing you stuff in the dash. Is it still called a key if it uses a proximity fuse instead of a metal spike with teeth?

By Robert Goldman

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