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Story and photograph by Jack Baruth
They call it “Trauma Bonding”, and although the exact definition is highly debatable, it’s generally understood to mean a situation in which victims come to identify or sympathize with their victimizers. It occurs in cults, domestic violence situations, and even hijacked airliners, but most importantly for the purpose of today’s discussion, it’s running rampant in the automotive enthusiast community. The most recent manifestation of the illness appears to be a fondness for outrageous fuel prices; it’s characterized by statements like, “I can’t wait until five-dollar gasoline forces us all to drive small, economical cars,” or “The best thing for everybody would be if we were taxed into using (insert naive reference to diesel, soybeans, unicorn sweat, or whatever other smelly, sticky, low-power, improbably available fuel tickles one’s fancy). Then all the SUVs will be gone from the road and we’ll all drive the cars we need, instead of the cars we want.”
It’s not enough for these pump-price Pollyannas that miserable suckboxes like the Prius are available for them to purchase; they’d prefer that you be forced to purchase them as well. They’ve taken the American Dream – the idea that everyone should be free to achieve as much as their ability permits – and perverted it into a socialist fantasy where everyone will be issued the car they need. Who will determine the need of the American motorist? Well, you can bet that our quasi-Communist “betters” won’t let the American motorist actually make his or her own choice, because they might choose something outrageous, like a Mercedes CLK63 Black Series – perhaps even a Ford Expedition Funkmaster Flex Edition! Instead, we will be limited to “sensible” choices along the lines of the aforementioned suppository-shaped Toyopet or, if we’re lucky, one of those rocketship Nissan Versas, preferably in a nice shade of beige to discourage unnecessary feelings of aggression or enjoyment.
Decades ago, Kurt Vonnegut anticipated these pathetic people and their hateful outlook on life with his story “Harrison Bergeron”. It’s worth a read, because Vonnegut makes a pretty decent argument that enforced equality at the level of the lowest common denominator is not something to which we should aspire. Still, I can see the merits of the mandatory-one-point-two-liter-crapbox argument. If we really are facing an era of unprecedented resource scarcity – and there is considerable evidence to that effect – then perhaps we’ll need to burn the automotive village in order to save it, so to speak. Better to have some cars than none at all. No, I’m not quite ready to condemn the “responsible usage” people to the absolute lowest level of Car Guy Hell, although I will continue to apply random throttle on the freeway to frustrate the ambitions of any would-be hypermilers in my vicinity. No, I think I’ll save the worst of my venom for the most evil so-called enthusiasts in existence, the scum of the motoring earth, the Trauma-Bonders par excellence, the basest filth imaginable. That’s right, I’m referring to those sick bastards who complain about the prices in the Porsche option catalog.
And now we can finally come to the mystery of why this column features a picture of a pair of two-toned shoes placed atop the decklid of a Porsche Boxster S 50 Jahre Edition. Those shoes are unique. I designed them, you see. They are Allen-Edmonds “MacNeil” long-wing spectators, constructed in Wisconsin to my specifications based on an idea I had after seeing a picture of a set of brown-and-tan Edward Green brogues. Confused by all this shoe talk? Most people are nowadays, in this era of cheap Chinese “oxfords” and endless casual Fridays, but take my word for it: these are one of a kind. The nice people at Allen-Edmonds were kind enough to make them just for me, and although I had to wait four months for them, I’m patient when it comes to this sort of thing. I’ve waited a long time for various custom shoes, suits, and shirts. I once had former Peugeot designer Craig Taylor hand-sew a multi-toned pink custom shirt, using a rather exotic fabric known as “Superfly”, just so I’d have something outrageous to wear during the 2005 One Lap of America. So-called “bespoke” clothing is a passion of mine.
Why? There isn’t really a point to it, not in the conventional sense. Custom shoes won’t end world hunger or take two seconds off your lap time around Laguna Seca. A perfectly stripe-matched Borrelli shirt won’t keep you any warmer in the winter than a Chinese Ralph Lauren buttondown, and I can tell you from experience that linen Kiton jackets require a disturbing amount of maintenance. They’re like sartorial Alfa Romeo Giulias in that respect. There’s no practical benefit to this stuff.
Yet… Dear reader, if only I could put your soul into my skull for a brief moment and let you experience the sheer unadulterated extravagant pleasure of slipping on a pair of utterly unique shoes! To know that there are more than six billion men and women in this world, all scrambling for the same land, the same air, the same food, the same barrel of oil, sweating together in a giant undifferentiated pulsing mass… and I, I alone, have a pair of two-tone MacNeil longwings! I’m not the wealthiest man in the world, not the most successful, certainly not the luckiest, and yet these shoes are plainly, indisputably mine! Would you take that happiness away from me, particularly when you are perfectly free to walk into the shoe store and buy a pair of plain black regular MacNeils whenever you like? I don’t think you would. It harms you not a whit and it does me a world of good. You may live your life from cradle to grave wearing whatever the department store has in stock, never wanting anything better or even anything different, and yet surely you have no wish to prevent me from waiting those four delicious anticipatory months just to open a box with my name engraved upon it, with my own shoes within, in their velvet wrap?
Most people are perfectly happy to ignore my eccentricities in this respect, but when it comes to cars, it isn’t so simple. Why not? Perhaps it’s that Trauma-Bonding. Let’s consider the history for a moment, fire up our time machine, and invisibly follow the car buyer of 1955 into his local Ford or Chevrolet store. The first thing we notice is that there aren’t any cars at the dealership! Oh, sure, there are a few demonstrators, perhaps one or two examples of each model, but the entire stock of one’s local dealer might be contained in the parking lot of a modern 7-Eleven, and that suits our buyer just fine, because he has no intention to take a car home today. That isn’t his plan.
Rather, he will pore over the order book with his salesman. He’ll navigate the labyrinth of options, the thousands of boxes to check, the endless choices. Nearly everything is optional, you see, from the trim on the tailfins to the color of the seatbelts. Standard equipment? It hardly exists. There are uncountable combinations of engine, transmission, differential, wheel, tire, dashboard, radio, trim, cloth, headliner. Our buyer expects that he will order a car which will be uniquely his. He may be purchasing a Biscayne, and his neighbor may be a Biscayne man, but the cars will not be identical. Indeed, there’s a better chance of both their houses being struck by lightning. How could it be otherwise, when there are hundreds of options on his build sheet? His Biscayne will roll down the assembly line at a dignified speed, and at each station the sheet will be read, the equipment will be retrieved, and the car will take as long to build as it must take, and there is no just in time, no kaizen, no monstrous robots delivering the exact part to the hand of the man on the assembly line. The car is built in unique fashion, for a unique buyer, millions of times a year. How many are exactly the same? Very few.
So our buyer waits for his special car to arrive. He doesn’t wait terribly long, because the car is built in Detroit quickly. In just weeks it’s gracing his driveway, his neighbor envious at the Positraction or the Wonderbar radio or perhaps just the color-matched seatbelts, while simulataneously congratulating himself for purchasing the Turbo-Fire engine or Turbo-Hydramatic transmission so sadly missing in the new arrival. Each car unique. Each car special. Each car ordered, by its owner.
The importers, those early mavericks who brought us the Beetle, the Porsche 356, the Austin-Healey, and the dozens of other foreign makes which would sink or swim across the nearly three thousand transverse miles of the American continent… they could offer no such experience to their purchasers. The man in the street expected to wait four weeks for a Biscayne, but he wouldn’t wait six or eight months for a unique MG or Speedster. No, there would be no bespoke Beetle on these shores. The importers would choose the options and the buyers would take them or leave them.
When Honda’s brilliant Accord arrived in the United States, its importer came up with an even more reductive idea. In Japan, the order process for an Accord closely followed the original American model, as is Honda’s practice in Japan even to this day, but the newborn Honda of America knew that it wouldn’t make sense to let each customer design a unique Accord which might not even be delivered in that same year. Instead of a list of options, there would simply be two or three “trim levels”, each consisting of an importer-chosen equipment blend. Any other options, should they be desired, would be installed, at mercenary expense, by the dealer. The endless possibilities of, say, the 1955 Ford would be mercilessly pared down to just two possibilities: DX or LX. Do you wish to have intermittent wipers, Mr. Accord Customer? It’s the LX for you, then, even if you find the accompanying velour seats a bit too frou-frou. The Accord sits on the lot and the choice is this – DX or LX. You may purchase the DX, or you may open your wallet a little further and have an LX. They sit on the lot before you, ordered a year ago, delivered to the port eight months later, and finally trucked across the country to this very spot, and it comes down to DX or LX.
But the Accord buyer cares little for choice. Choice is a luxury. He wants an Accord desperately, because it’s a low-cowled, fire-breathing, 40-mile-per-gallon masterpiece of tidy engineering. DX or LX? Either will do, and he’ll pay the additional dealer markup as well. Just give him the car!
The American manufacturers were eager to beat the Japanese. Perhaps they should have emphasized the fact that their products were so much more than DX or LX. The buyer of the 1977 Cutlass could choose “S”, Supreme, Salon, Brougham, not to mention the several engines, the many interior choices, and a variety of Landau tops. So many choices – but instead of reveling in those choices, the buyer ran to the Accord shop and picked between DX and LX, because the Accord was the better car.
Panic ran through the domestic automakers, and they learned the wrong lessons. They could have built a better Accord – could have used more durable materials, made the car more spacious, sold it at a friendlier price – but instead they purged their majestic labyrinth of options, ruthlessly compressed the multitude of possibilities into Popular Equipment Packages and miserably reductive trim levels. Instead of beating Honda’s finest qualities, they would imitate their worst. The dealers were encouraged to order for stock, the lots around the showrooms began to swell, and the sick emphasis on “buying today”, the demand to take that expensively “floorplanned” car off the dealer’s lot immediately, poisoned the domestic industry as thoroughly as it had corrupted the Japanese importers. Legendary names such as Impala acquired little trailing groups of meaningless letters, even as the Germans arrived with their completely nameless alphabet soup cars, and the magic went out of those names, perhaps for good.
It’s been nearly thirty years since any mainstream American, Japanese, or European manufacturer offered a true, meaningful selection of individual options. There is one exception to this rule, and that exception is Porsche. They will let you choose whatever you like. Each option may be selected individually. There are very few of those damned “dependencies”, the heartless arithmetic of the kaizen producers which says that one must purchase cruise control in order to have a remote trunk release. It is possible to purchase a miserable grey-and-black Porsche with a featureless cliff of a dashboard, marked like the biblical Cain by a sad poverty of multiple blank plastic plugs, or one may have all the buttons, each covered in leather and dyed a separate color. One may create a thrillingly equipped superstar, a drab daily driver, or anything in between. The advertisements state the price of the Porsche vehicles as “From (the base price) to the limits you set.” What a wonderful phrase! To the limits you set! Do you want a five-tone interior replicating the flag of your home country? It’s possible! Do you want your Carrera to hunker sport-suspensioned and angrily on the ground, its X51 Powerkit breathing flame at the price of nearly one thousand outrageous dollars per additional horsepower, slathered in a color to match your wife’s lipstick? There’s no problem! To the limits you set!
Who would have the miserable, skulking gall to actually criticize Porsche for making these dreams possible? You know the answer. The Trauma-Bonded survivors of the other carmakers. They’ve taken the poverty of choice offered by the Big However-Many and turned it into a deliberate discipline. Like a millionaire heiress brainwashed by revolutionaries who voluntarily robs banks for pocket change, these people have convinced themselves that lack of choice is a virtue. You’ve all read their rants on the web forum of your choice. “How can Porsche charge fifteen thousand dollars for a color-matched interior! It’s disgusting! Sick! A waste of money! Chevrolet would never do that on a Corvette!” True enough; a custom-colored interior cannot be had on a Corvette for any price. Corvettes are built in near-identical fashion, a fleet of red and yellow automatic base coupes and the occasional black Z06. The new Nissan GT-R is even worse, available in very few colors and just two barely distinguishable alphabet trim levels; if you want so much as a set of red seats you’re out of luck. Our automotive industry has traveled through a literal miracle of computing power, design success, and engineering accomplishments only to return to Henry Ford’s Depression-era philosophy. You can have any color interior you like in the stunning six-hundred-horsepower Dodge Viper, as long as it’s one of about four combinations. You can have anything you want in the impressive new Accord, as long as it’s a DX, LX, or – new! – EX.
We should rebel against this manufactured conformity, but our enthusiast community instead embraces it. We sit there in the overstocked how-can-I-earn-your-business-today dealership and mindlessly accept that our new Mazdaspeed3 is available in probably no more than ten combinations of equipment. How often have you been on the road and seen two absolutely identical Honda Odysseys, Jeep Grand Cherokees, or (whisper it) BMW 3 Series sedans in a row coming the other way? We may all be undifferentiated cogs in the miserable machine of the world, but does it have to be so damned obvious? Why be a Trauma-Bonder? How does the existence of a six-thousand-dollar carbon-fiber center console harm you in any way? Buy it if you like, and if you can – or don’t, and shut up about it!
Pause in the midst of your online rant about Porsche’s option prices, and celebrate the fact that the options even exist! Why not take a moment to consider the fact that there still exists an automaker which will move heaven and earth to give you exactly the car you want, even if there is considerable expense for both of you in doing so? Instead of complaining about the price of color-matched seatbelts, why not consider the fact that color-matched belts are nearly as dead as the dodo everywhere else but Stuttgart?
My Boxster is a “Special Edition”, which means that Porsche bundled together $25,000 of options for $15,000, in return for my acceptance of that exact bundle. It’s a heck of a deal, but I wouldn’t want that to be the only way the men from Zuffenhausen do business. There’s just a slight taste of “DX or LX” about it, and the more I think about, the more I think I won’t do it again. My next Porsche won’t be a so-called Special Edition; it will be truly special, as custom, as personal as the two-tone shoes which sit on its decklid or operate its pedals. You will know me, and my car, when you see us. Instead of conforming, we will stand out a bit, and the consequences be hanged.
I’m pleased to note that the Trauma-Bonders are losing this fight. The pendulum is swinging in the other direction. The future holds more personalization, more special choices, more relationship with one’s car. Several upscale manufacturers have taken small steps to emulate Porsche and offer a bit of an individual choice. As a result, I’ve been able to make a very special selection for my next car, which I have ordered this very afternoon. It will be painted from roof to rocker panel in Porsche’s outrageous 1974-vintage “Gelbgrun” Lime Green, but although it will share the driveway with my three existing Porsches, it is not a Porsche. What is it? That’s a surprise for later, but rest assured it’s as outrageously, almost comically individual as my many pairs of two-tone shoes. I never Trauma-Bonded, you see. I’m determined to go my own way. Call me Harrison Bergeron, or perhaps just an adherent of 50 Cent’s statement, “Hate it or love it the underdog’s on top/ and I’m gonna shine, homie, till my heart stop.” As long as I can afford to, I’ll take the unique, the special, the individual route. What will you do?