"The focus isn't simply sheet metal; it's on the distinctly human presence." -- Margery Krevsky "Sirens of Chrome: The Enduring Allure of Auto Show Models," by marketing maven Margery Krevsky, was recently named Book of the Week on Double X. I'd already bought it; I felt like I had an obligation to support a book written by a woman that had a respectful (bordering on reverent) perspective on auto show models and the hard-earned knowledge to back it up. By the time my Amazon shipment arrived, I'd already forgotten about it. Like most coffee table books, it seemed the act of the purchase itself had already served its purpose. I've followed Double X, a women's blog under the Slate/WashPo umbrella, since its inception. Sadly, its editors have never shown interest in automotive content, despite prescient, newsworthy topics with cultural impact, like the ties between the automobile industry and the economy, cars' impact on the environment, increasing numbers of female car buyers, outstanding engineers like Ford's Sonya Nematollahi (who designed the Fusion Hybrid's gorgeous leaf-growing instrument cluster), and, dare I say it, the ridiculousness of Danica Patrick. So at best, Double X informed a few thousand readers that the book exists. At least, it inspired me to finally open the shrink wrap. A few years ago, when I was optimistic about my future as an auto writer, I wondered why there wasn't a front runner for a women's auto media association. As it turns out, there had been. They had a few meetings, presented a couple of awards at NAIAS 2003, and disintegrated soon afterward. I was so intrigued, I did something I rarely gather the courage to do: I reached out. I e-mailed the vibrant, infamous editor of a certain glossy mag, since her name was all over the group's Web crumbs, and inquired why. She said the women in the group were wary of the ramifications of separating themselves from their male colleagues; however, she gave me her blessing to give it another go. What a position to be in; the informal handing of the reins from a print editor! a muse! a siren! I toyed with the idea for quite some time, though before I made any significant investments, it dawned on me that, generally, we women don't really like each other. I already knew that, but in my excitement, that basic understanding of human nature temporarily slipped away. No disrespect to my correspondent, because she's been around, but that reasoning sounds like BS. I don't doubt that's what was said, but if a gay auto media party can draw upwards of a hundred revelers during NAIAS, the only reason women can't gather a similar size crowd --and have a good time -- is because we don't want to. Let's review: The gay faction is more inclusive and less catty than the female counterpart. That's pathetic. I suspect we don't want to work for solidarity because it helps the competition: each other. It's not exclusive to the auto industry; I'm endlessly amused watching Double X and Jezebel bloggers snipe at each other. Nor am I surprised. I've been attending VW shows for ten years, and with few exceptions, every girl there thinks she's the one and only. It's a rare pleasure to meet someone who's an exception, who isn't in it purely for the attention, who has more to contribute than an inane Twitter feed. Which brings me back to "Sirens of Chrome." We have no obligation to be nice to a book that's pretty, but doesn't have much to say; that was my impression based on its reviews. I should know by now not to pass judgment so quickly. What's more magical, for a culture aficionado, than being shown a time in which people actually dressed up to attend an auto show? The alliteration-heavy prose (perhaps wisely) shies away from hard-hitting commentary or an overall conclusion; to avoid breaking the spell, the reader's gently delivered to a threshold of revelation. However, the retrospective is solid. Before actresses and athletes commonly found side work as "product demonstrators," suffragists filled the role, driving cross country in rebellious short and comfortable dresses, showing American women how to change tires and replace spark plugs. Reproductions of the artwork, a collection of carefully-sourced vintage auto show posters, should be decorating my office. It wouldn't hurt to surround myself with the imagery of muses and goddesses; I could certainly use the inspiration. Maybe that's the connection: we all want to be worshiped. We all hope we'll be immortalized, and only a few of us have quite figured out the proper path. There was only one Spirit of Ecstasy, after all, and that was Eleanor Velaso Thornton, the inspiration for Rolls-Royce's famous hood ornament, created nearly a hundred years ago. Styles and trends have evolved immeasurably over the last century, perfectly documented in "Sirens." Women, however, have not. "My basic rule of thumb is, if it works against you to be a woman, ignore it. If it works for you, take it," advised my redheaded siren's e-mail. Or, as Krevsky quotes author and editor Frederick Lewis Allen: "…Each of them, as an influence, was played upon by all the others; none of them alone could have changed to any great degree the folkways of America; together their force was irresistible."
Category - Rational Bohemian
When we last met, I was enraged about the diffidence with which Volkswagen has treated its New Beetle. Kindly note that, since the publication of Dub Chick Be Trippin', Tracy Morgan's been profiled in several glossies. It seems that though my perception might have been the harshest, I'm certainly not alone. But that's ancient history. It was before the Chicago Auto Show media preview, anyway, at which I was reassured that really, not much has changed with VW. Whether I attend several auto shows a year or just one, it'll feel as if I never left. The New Beetles were holding court at opposite sides of the show floor, proud like Wilbur, the radiant piglet, pre-bacon revelation. The '10 Red Rock Edition: distinct red, black roof. The '10 Final Edition Convertible: rather pretty, light blue with cream, capturing the prized retro aesthetic quite well. The Final Edition Coupe and Convertible were introduced at the LA Auto Show, concurrent with VW officially pulling the plug on the Beetle. I was soothed, in a morbid kind of way, to witness an appearance in Chicago. Paradoxically, the term "special edition" seems to go against everything VW stands for, implying that some specimens off the same production line are better than others and should, therefore, be purchased as quickly as possible before availability expires. It was in response to consumer demand, however, that VW released the '02 337 Edition and '03 20th Anniversary Edition Golf GTIs, which (to the layman) featured little more than spruced-up interiors, bigger wheels, and in the case of the 20th Anniversary, an exclusive selection of Audi-sourced exterior finishes. Each bore an aluminum number plate to indicate its place in the production queue. Though they're "just" extra-tarted-up Golfs, they still carry a premium in their niche market and are discussed endlessly in certain circles. Most of the time, though, the move just reeks of desperation, like in the case of VW's third-gen Jetta and Golf special editions, identified as such by heinous (and rare) cloth seats. Many car manufacturers run special editions to use up stock of premium parts or generate interest in a stagnant model. I don't think that's exactly the case here, but the numbers tell a different story: the New Beetle's 13-year run was spiced up by an average of two special editions per model year. It was particularly suited to this trick, or, depending on your perspective, beholden to this life support. Largely unchanged since its 1998 introduction (save a few minor facelifts and drivetrain upgrades concurrent with VW's lineup) a kicky new color combination a couple times a year was enough to to justify a press release, perhaps a couple print ads, and a prime spot on the showroom floor. And some of them were pretty freakin' cool. Who else remembers the 225 hp, 6-speed, $58k (U.S. equivalent) Mexico-issue Beetle RSi, with a build run of 250? A race-inspired Beetle. Yep. Like, really race inspired. As I wrote in the previously-mentioned Rational Bohemian #6, I want to make clear: I'm not criticizing VW for the New Beetle's life. Rather, I take issue with its undignified death. At the very least, the car deserves a really damned heartfelt thank-you. At best, well, a Sexual Favors Edition wouldn't be as inappropriate as it sounds. Perhaps special editions worked well because they brought an idiosyncratic feel to a ubiquitous car. VW's abandoned the pretense of the people's car, and thus, the New Beetle's time has come. I guess that's why it falls on me to write the eulogy. "You of countless cheerful colors, spirit-lifting commercials, hippies reliving the glory days in the newfound comfort of regular paychecks. Your J Mays-designed bubbliness and famous greens inspired The Onion's fictional columnist, Jim Anchower, to refer to you as 'globs of snot' flying around. You inspired me to put a flower vase on the dashboard of my GTI. You came along, and VW actually had to pick itself up by the bootstraps and put forth some effort, because people were suddenly paying attention. Though recognized worldwide, the silhouette alone betrayed none of the charm of the countless special editions; it was a blank slate, and countries across the globe have their own treatments (such as Mexico's cheeky HotWheels Edition). A short history of the most notable, and how they changed Volkswagen of America. In 2000, VW used the Reflex Yellow and Vapor Blue editions to test the Internet's sales potential. These eye-catching colors were flaunted on TV, but could only be ordered online, a process that, then, was nearly unheard of. 2002 saw the release of the Color Concepts: Snap Orange, Double Yellow and Cyber Green, marked by a whip of color-matched upholstery stitching inside and coordinating wheel inserts outside. A year later, VW brought forth the ChromaFlares: two lovely flip-flop finishes, turquoise to lilac and silver to green, inspired by expensive custom paint jobs and so rare that a sighting still justifies a double take. By far, they were the most outrageous exteriors in the lineup. Coincidentally, at about this point, the VW family paint palette took a turn toward the dull side. By and large, from the mid-2000s forward, bright colors were a New Beetle exclusive. Remember when factory satellite radio wasn't yet a basic expectation? It was 2004, and we had the Satellite Edition Beetle, more notable for its sparkly exterior than its audio, modern despite being so thoroughly teal. 2005's Dark Flint Convertible fit much better with the aesthetic of VW's grown-up sedans. The exterior was anthracite, the interior had red accents, and the top was deep cabernet. A bit too brooding, but beautiful nevertheless. VW went lighter from there on: the throwback Triple White Convertible in 2007, followed by the Coupe in '08. In case the creamy white interior, exterior and top were too wholesome, the Coupe was released alongside a Black Tie Edition. Drive forth, friend; the Final Edition finish makes fine burial garb."
Photo courtesy of Volkswagen of America This installment of Rational Bohemian was scheduled to be a eulogy for the New Beetle, since Volkswagen hasn't really troubled themselves with anything of the sort. Attendees of the L.A. Auto Show did get a long-expected, totally overdue announcement of the model's retirement and the inevitable commemorative special editions, but that was about it. So I'll say it now, in brief: New Beetle, I adore you and I'll miss you. Your not-insignificant role in reviving the brand will not be forgotten (by me, anyway). In light of a press release I received last week, though, there are more pressing concerns; a respectful and sentimental sendoff will have to wait. Because what the hell, Volkswagen? Really, what the hell? As much as I lament the passing of the New Beetle, its time had come. Did Volkswagen have to insult its memory, though, by immediately dusting off the old Punch Buggy game and trotting it out like a prizewinning show horse? Though the phenomenon of walloping companions in the shoulder upon sight of a Bug dates back to the sixties (according to Wikipedia, and who are we to argue?) it's safe to say the New Beetle's 1998 launch and subsequent lifespan introduced the game to a few new generations. Now that the car's on its way out, logically, it's a good time to launch a marketing campaign based on the meme, right? Well, timing's never been VW's strong suit. Though I'd eagerly anticipated a campaign from their new ad agency, Deutsch LA, I was left cold by the announcement of "Punch Dub," featuring a cameo from boneheaded man-child Tracy Morgan (otherwise known as the reason I haven't watched "30 Rock" in about two seasons). To be honest, I'm not intimately familiar with Tracy Morgan's work beyond the current NBC sitcom, but "Half Baked" sucked, sketch and standup comedy irritate me, and I'm not terribly optimistic beyond that. His "30 Rock" character, Tracy Jordan, is a comedian/actor who, after starring in films such as "Who Dat Ninja?" and "Honky Grandma Be Trippin'," was added to the cast of the fictional show-within-a-show, at the insistence of upper management, to add a little diversity. In other words, y'know, he plays himself. (Not that I'm slamming him for that alone; Tina Fey also plays a thinly-veiled autobiographical character. "30 Rock's" biggest departure from reality is Alec Baldwin's portrayal of a Republican.) Bitching about celebrity endorsements feels like the realm of amateurs, but I've always strongly believed that VW deserved, and was capable of, something much greater. I've written editorials applauding VW's marketing decisions, especially the excellent New Beetle "Force of Good" ads circa 2005 that celebrated the uniqueness of real Beetle owners. I think it's awesome that for "Punch Dub," VW found the guy who claims to have invented Punch Buggy; it shows the path hasn't been lost completely. Let's grant that even the best marketing teams are sometimes at a loss. Lucky for us, we can compare two pretty brunettes preening for bland-ish family vehicles. When Jill Wagner stepped up for the Milan, with her tight blue sweater and shiny hair, the Mercury brand finally had some sort of personality: until then, when had a Mercury spot ever been reposted ad nauseam? The demographic that was thrilled in the pants with that campaign later scratched their heads over Brooke Shields' presence in Routan commercials. A lovely woman is usually a welcome addition, so what was the problem? Brooke Shields simply brought no authority to the table and thus, her endorsement seemed empty, whereas Mercury had the relative advantage of a blank slate for which any smiling face would suffice. A random celebrity doesn't cut it for VW, not without a sense of purpose, though a celebrity appearance is not an automatic failure. Peter Stormare's appearance in the "Unpimp" series is a notable exception to the rule because his skills were particularly suited to the ad; he was simply one of the elements of a memorable commercial. So what does Tracy Morgan bring to the table, other than his undeniable blackness? He's made a career of milking a stereotype. He's such a living, breathing caricature that in a "30 Rock" episode exploring the dynamics of celebrity endorsements, of all things, a cartoon rendering of Tracy Jordan needed only dreadlocks to turn into a cartoon of Whoopi Goldberg. At the risk of being crass, it's worth noting that if "diversity" is VW's ultimate goal, and I suspect it is, Tracy Morgan-Jordan's entourage of "Grizz" Chapman and "Dot Com" Kevin Brown would be far superior candidates: warm, charming, overwhelmingly more intelligent and reasonably skilled in the fine art of voice modulation. After all, if a refined, classy, wholesome pre-fall Tiger Woods couldn't sell Buicks, what makes VW think Tracy Morgan can boost Passat numbers? And that pisses me off even more. Tracy Morgan's never-ending one man minstrel show is actually the less disrespectful half of this equation. Remember, if you will, that the New Beetle was recently laid to rest, with commemorative Final Editions available this spring. Remember also that I pointed out the ridiculousness of designing a marketing campaign around a retired model. VW and I were in agreement on one point, at least, which is why, as far as I can discern, the iconic New Beetle will not be sharing the stage. "Punch Dub" is supposed to boost the rest of the product lineup absent any bug shapes whatsoever. Hence the name change from "Bug" to "Dub," I guess. Plus, it sounds more "diverse" that way, don't it? For the last few years of its life, the New Beetle was largely ignored. On the heels of its life support being disconnected, VW finally claims a meme it's ignored for so long, and for which the New Beetle must be given at least a shred of credit, and for what? To inject some life into its current model lineup with a sad clown. VW says the ads are "designed to increase model awareness and familiarity by reminding consumers of all the Volkswagens on the road." Well, that's certainly a noble goal, but what could "Punch Dub" have done for the New Beetle? My warm and fuzzy feelings for Volkswagen have a bit of mileage before they've run out completely, fueled by my lifelong fondness for the brand if not the actual cars. That's why I hope Tracy Morgan and "Punch Dub" aren't a complete catastrophe. VW should hold itself to a higher standard, and that's why I look forward to browsing the wares at the Chicago Auto Show next week, and why I hope to get a few minutes of relative privacy with one of the last New Beetles to sit in a spotlight. I have faith that the Punch Buggy will get its swan song. See you at the Chicago Auto Show.
I've loved public radio since my days on the executive board of my college's tiny station. We shared one of Vermont Public Radio's frequencies, very convenient because we didn't have enough warm bodies to broadcast original programming around the clock. I remember with great fondness and exasperation the semester in which I had morning office hours, fielding hundreds of calls from confused and angry listeners (mostly depressed, snowbound older women) who couldn't figure out that we switched to student programming at 8 am, and that, yes, BBC World News was indeed cut off in favor of Lamb of God and Napalm Death. When I moved to Chicago, nostalgic for home, I immediately began listening to the local NPR affiliate. Chicago Public Radio is more upbeat than its Vermont counterpart, and I was grateful for any entertainment during my 90-mile round-trip commute. This summer, I've fallen off its radar; my comfortable new car is gone and my partner-in-crime GTI, long ago rendered radioless, has a vestigial antenna to plug the hole in its roof. Then Wes mentioned NPR and Chicago Public Radio were in the middle of yet another pledge drive. I was always touched by the shamelessness of the commentators; I've certainly been in similar situations, putting my dignity on the line for the sake of my career. It was Wes' sudden declaration that he wished we could donate to NPR at the much heralded dollar-a-day level, however, that brought some trepidation. We've been mentally grappling with his transition from salaried auto journalist to full-time student, and this proposition seemed like crazy talk. For some perspective, we're in the habit of supporting our colleagues—to say nothing of my desire to see print media survive long enough to land an ink-on-paper byline—and even then we had just agonized over renewing a $12 car magazine subscription with the gravity of a couple deciding between food or medicine. Even though the dollar-a-day donation is a lump sum on the AmEx and therefore relatively painless, my rational side demands a justification of the expenditure—what could we cut from the budget instead? I'm not much of a philanthropist. I justify my inherent selfishness by spending money with local artists and framing shops (and in my younger days, I was a proud patron of many VW parts suppliers). Shiny, fabulous objects quell my dependency on my car, at least for a few soothing moments. I can't put a price on such relief, as fleeting as it may be… and as soon as it retreats, I'm back on the throttle. It was only in the interest of my chosen industry that I pointed out, "If we quit driving like assholes, we could easily save a dollar a day." "Do you want to quit driving like an asshole, though? I mean, sometimes it's the best part of my day." On my way home from work, much later that day, I powered the GTI through a tightly-coiled entrance ramp, windows down, listening to 6500 RPM through a Techtonics exhaust. Quite inconveniently, my conscience kicked in—how much cash could I repurpose by driving more rationally? Throughout the gas crisis of summer 2008, we were bombarded with advice and lectures on efficiency. I bitched at the pump like everyone else, then I drove from Chicago to New Jersey and back, and Chicago to Maryland and back, in a 22 MPG Rabbit with 91 octane software and heavy 19" wheels. Short of logging my mileage per tank and tracking averages, there's really no way to answer my question; a casual assessment doesn't work with a car that has a lackadaisical fuel gauge and displays the tank's contents in liters. (Screw real-time mileage—what we really need is a gauge that calculates the cost of throttle input based on current gas prices.) Even then, I need room for user error—the truck I had to pass, the traffic jams, or the really crappy days when I know nothing else will cheer me up. On these days, I take pride knowing I've spent less on gas than a smoker spends on a pack. I've tried and failed to convince myself that sacrificing one form of entertainment for another is the noble way... why? I'm occasionally apprehensive about driving like a selfish bitch, but clearly, not often enough. So flippant I was, and shall remain, about the effects of my habits. Maybe donating to public radio will offset my bad karma, like buying carbon credits (which isn't a bad idea, if they are tax-deductible and come with some intellectually-stimulating way to waste time, like an iPhone tracker app). A dollar a day for NPR? Sure; it's my asshole tax. An additional few pennies for magazine subscriptions? Absolutely—a smaller sacrifice, but just as important. In the context of The Auto Industry as a Whole, the media seems like a minor issue. I'm still undecided on my feelings about the bailout; the upside is that my opinion on the subject matters not a bit. The media, though, has fueled my love for cars, has justified it. It's inspired my career path, given me a somewhat productive way to while away my sleepless nights. So, Chicago Public Radio, you've given so much and asked so little… your proverbial check is in the mail. Thank my husband. His car has a radio.
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