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We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. – T.S. Eliot… or was it ex-PFC Wintergreen?
Soul. “Soul”. SOUL!
Could there be any more contemptible arrow in the pathetically trite quiver of general automotive journalism? How many times has a car been tidily scooted from last to first in a comparison test by the mere invocation of “soul”? How often has a lazy print-rag writer used the concept as a deus ex machina with which to salvage a worthless review of a nearly equally worthless car? Imagine, for a moment, that a law were to be passed banning the use of the word, or concept, of “soul” with reference to automobiles. How would Car and Driver fill an entire magazine every month, other than by bowing to the inevitable and simply making the whole thing a glossy ad for MacNeil Automotive Products, manufacturers of WeatherTech™ floormats, complete with innumerable pictures of the mystery brunette who is so frequently seen enjoying everything from side-window shields to cargo liners – you know, the one to whom the French would refer as une femme d’un certain age?
Soul is a crutch, a cop-out, a shield behind which the harried hack may hide everything from laziness to journalistic incompetence to plain, simple bias or hatred. The Nissan GT-R has no soul. The Peugeot 504 was a soulful car. When the straight-six engine disappeared from a particular car – and that car could be anything from the Jaguar XJ to the Mercedes E-Class to the BMW M3 – that car lost its true soul. What crap. What claptrap. What a waste of my time and yours, dear reader.
And yet we shall not let the bad be the enemy of the good. It does not matter how many plodding writers fall through the open windows of their own shallow talent into the luckily-placed rescue trampolines of “soul”; the idea resonates with us, however weakly, because at some level, we all understand its potential validity. We have all considered that a certain vehicle might well possess something very much like a soul, have all waved our hand at an irrational thought or preference regarding a car and chalked it up to the “heart of the machine”. Soul means something, whether we like it or not – and that means that we may discover what that something is through careful inspection and/or introspection. This is what I will now endeavor to do, and we will not pause to consider the myriad of metaphysical doors which open by the wayside, nor will we stop until we have reached something true, something real, a butterfly box in which we may pin “soul” and leave it to writhe out its final inconsistencies. Let’s find “soul”, you and I.
Begin with the undeniable fact: a vehicle may not, in fact, possess an actual soul. As humans, we may possess souls, although that is one of those tempting side doors through which we may not pass at the moment. From his frequent resting place on my wooden Nelson bench, supine beneath the warming sun, my feeble old black cat, Walther, looks into my eyes and I feel that I see some sort of consciousness in his glance, something besides the raw pain in his worn-out joints or simple sorrow at being locked in the house, away from birds, mice, and the fragrant earth. Perhaps he has a soul. Douglas Hofstadter wrote in the preface to the anniversary edition of his book Godel, Escher, Bach that we all measure the “size of souls” and that is why many of us feel no guilt at ending the existence of a small soul, which happens whenever we squash a bug or even enjoy a fine steak. Perhaps a cow has a soul; perhaps a rabbit has one; perhaps a cockroach has the beginnings of consciousness somewhere in the clicking, scuttling programming of its nerve centers, but a car has no soul and cannot ever possess one. I do not raise the garage door, stare into the frog-eyed face of my trusty (why trusty? Surely this is suspect as well) Porsche 911 Carrera, and fancy that I see a consciousness in the blind gaze of its projector headlamps. There is nobody home, no ghost in the machine, no spirit with which to conjure. It is steel, aluminum, rubber, and plastic. Nothing more.
And yet to fire up the Porsche, to hear the throb of the flat-six, to press the wrong-hinged pedals, to drop the clutch at a T-junction and smoke the tires sideways down the road to the top of second gear before straightening out with a wobble that conveys the faintest hint of deadly rear-engined malice! This is soul, surely. Is there any more soulful vehicle to be had than the very last of the aircooled Porsches? Not for me there isn’t – and yet when I open up the old car magazines and books I see that the Porsche 911 was for a long time considered an antiseptic, hateful alternative to lusty British roadsters which dripped raw soul as they did random hydraulic fluids, copiously and often. The 911, which arrived in 1963 as the most clinical of German sporting appliances, bowed from the scene in 1998 in an oil-burning cloud of soulfulness.
What changed? If anything, the 911 became more clinical over the years, adding weight, dashboard plastic, extraneous driveline hardware, and ruthlessly efficient production measures in equal measure. A short-wheelbase 1963 car is frisky and friendly compared to a 1998 Carrera 4S – but the early car was considered to have very little personality, while the end-of-line Super-SuperBeetle had a surfeit of soulfulness. What really happened over the years?
The answer, of course, is that the 911 didn’t change as much as we did. When the 911 debuted, it was a finely engineered closed coupe in a world of ladder-frame convertibles and “sports cars” which traced their mechanical heritage to before the Second World War. It’s no wonder that it appeared a little short of soul in that context! Fast-forward thirty-five years, and the iconic Porsche found itself at the end of a long, stubborn, development cycle, the last remaining rear-engined production sporting car, an island of raw purpose in a sea of beige sedans. Compared to a converted appliance-mobile such as a (Lancer) Evolution, (Impreza) WRX, or Mazdaspeed3, the 911 appears incandescently characterful…
…but I know that, to a certain percentage of my readers, this is heresy. While I see the Lancer Evolution as a hopped-up family sedan, there are others who can recite the names of the chief engineers on each of the ten Evos, who build 1/24-scale plastic models of Lancers, who feel a chill of pleasure in their bones when they see an Evolution on the street. For them, the Lancer is quite a soulful car, indeed, regardless of what I think, while the 911 is probably a pathetic old Volkswagen driven by drug dealers and the frowny-faced corporate elite. Can we both be right?
I think so. For the “soul” of an automobile does not reside within its metal frame; it resides separately, in the manner of someone who, in a near-death experience, feels his consciousness leave his body and hover disinterestedly above the quiescent flesh. The soul is in the story. It’s the interplay between what we know about the car and the needs of our own slightly more plausible soul. It’s the resonance in our hearts, the humanity behind the car reaching out and touching our own.
I’ll show you. Look at my wrist. Well, you can’t, so I’ll tell you what I see. It’s a watch. So what? It’s an IWC Ingenieur Titanium. So what? It was made by hand, by the efforts of dozens of highly skilled people who trained a lifetime to do what they do and who performed at the peak of their abilities. It has an in-house caliber, based on the Pellaton principle. Oh, the tales I could tell you about Pellaton himself… he was apparently a furiously intelligent iconoclast, determined to put the world of self-winding watches on its head. And the more you know about the watch, the less it becomes a simple watch and the more it becomes the product of a whole story. The mechanical object acquires meaning. We discuss the sheer inventiveness, effort, and labor that goes into making such a watch. It takes far longer to build an IWC Ingenieur than it does to build a Toyota Corolla, you know.
Let’s say that you are captivated by the story of the watch. So you read the books about IWC, you visit Schaffhausen, you buy a few of your own. You’re a true convert. Then, one day, you hear a rumor that I don’t have a real Ingeneiur. Mine’s a Chinese fake, assembled in a dusty warehouse by nameless people in shameless copy of someone else’s effort. Then we get together for lunch, you look at my wrist, and the watch you see is garbage. Junk. Soulless. And while we are sitting there, you grinding your teeth in contempt, I hand you the watch and you see that it is genuine, that the other story you heard, about my wearing a fake, was a fake itself. Now the watch has soul again.
Are you with me? Now imagine that, instead of being a recently converted IWC fanatic, you are a first-generation Chinese-American whose father sent you to America by working sixteen hours a day in one of those dusty warehouses where Swiss watches are copied and built by the hundreds of thousands. For you, the watch acquires soul when you think it’s a “fake” – after all, the hands of your father may have touched this very item. Perhaps he’s told you about the particularly inventive manner in which he managed to make a cheaper quartz movement replicate the Pellaton movement’s “sweep” second hand, and all the dead ends he ran into during his efforts, and the hilarious conversations he had with his co-workers, and the nicknames they gave the various parts of the watch while they were copying it. To you, this “fake” watch has a story – it has a soul. But when you find out that it is “real”, it becomes merely an object, another overpriced toy created by the spoiled Swiss for the equally spoiled American middle class. And through all of this, the watch has not changed – and, for the sake of my soul and my story, I will tell you that my IWC is, in fact, “real”, and that Tommy Kendall gave it to me for winning the autocross competition at the AMG Challenge two years ago – a fact that makes the watch more “soulful” to me than if I had simply walked into Tourneau and purchased it. But if I drop it into the gutter, and the man who finds it knows nothing about how it came to be there, that “soul” is lost. The story, which is really all we mean by soul, resides entirely within ourselves.
If soul is just a story and our reaction to it, then we have to then consider what we mean by “soulless”. If a “soulful” car is one where the story touches something in our hearts, then a soulless car is one where the story does not resonate – or one where we don’t know the story. Take the Toyota Camry as an example. I consider it a soulless car, for two reasons. The first is that I don’t know much about the current model’s “story”. Why is it so big and puffy? Why does it generally appear to be cheaper and crappier than, say, a 1993 Camry? Perhaps there’s an exciting reason behind all of it. Perhaps there was a lone engineer who bet his colleagues that he could produce a car with an S-Class-sized interior for $17,999, and his boss thought so little of the idea that he fired the man, and the engineer swept floors at a McDonald’s for six months while he spent every night perfecting his plans for a revolutionary new-size Camry, and one day he showed up at the Toyota HQ with a perfectly engineered set of CAD drawings showing that yes, it could be done, and they promoted him and made him Head of Camry Engineering For Life.
Were that the story, I’d connect a bit better with the car, even if I didn’t like it. But the chances are that, if somebody told me the real story of the car, I still wouldn’t care much, because it wouldn’t be the kind of story which resonates with me personally. It would be a story of consumer clinics, and cost-cutting, and production efficiency, and easy-to-turn knobs, and three different potential names for the color that eventually became known as “Metallic Dirt”. It would be a story of people with whom I have no sympathy – and history shows that if we don’t sympathize with people, we tend to consider them as a little less than human, and therefore a bit, shall we say, soulless.
Maybe that’s why the Nissan GT-R doesn’t feel like a terribly soulful car to me. I personally like my stories to have a little bit of tragedy or danger in them, a little bit of heroic individual effort. The “story” of the GT-R as I understand it – a car built to be so easy to drive, talentless idiots can hit the wall at their local racetrack in fifth gear instead of third – doesn’t do much for me. It’s a car where technology is both the destination and the journey. Nope, to me it’s not very soulful – but to a young Japanese enthusiast who grew up cleaning his uncle’s R32 Skyline and dreaming of the day he would have one of his own, it’s a different equation. A GT-R, for him, has a story equivalent to the one the Porsche 911 does for me, or the E-Type might have for someone else. It’s personal, this soul thing.
If I had to come up with a pseudo-equation for soul, it would be something like this: Soul is equal to the story you know, multiplied by the amount of personal interest or empathy you have in the story. Note that nowhere in the equation do we talk about the car itself. That’s because cars only possess virtues in context. The 1977 Porsche 930 Turbo Carrera, a car which terrified and occasionally killed its drivers, a car which was commonly held to have a rather demonic soul… well, today that car would lose in a drag race with a “metallic dirt” Camry V6. It was fast then, but it’s not so fast now. A modern Lexus ES350 is quieter and rides better than a 1972 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. The second-generation Scirocco, which was universally criticized for being too big and too fat, weighs much less than a “light and uncompromised” Honda S2000. The R34 Skyline was considered to be an enormous car; it looks like a toy compared to the new GT-R. You get the picture. Cars don’t have absolute qualities. They are judged in context, and they are judged by people, and people are intimately connected with stories and experiences, and that’s where we get the idea of “soul”.
Are there truly “soulless” cars, cars where the story is meaningless and there’s simply nothing in the product to stir an emotional response from anyone? As much as I’d like to answer in the affirmative and perhaps supply a few snarky examples, the truth is that every car has some kind of soul. The modern automobile is the product of the efforts of thousands of individuals, and the chances are that somebody sweated the details on their particular job. That being said, there certainly are cars which are simply not designed to resonate with an automotive enthusiast, and if we want to call these cars “soulless” as a sort of shorthand for “Well, there was nothing in the conception, design, or production of this car to excite an enthusiast”, then I think that’s probably acceptable. There’s a soul in there somewhere, but it isn’t one with which we’ll ever sympathize.
Most of the cars and trucks we review here at Speed:Sport:Life have a soul, which is to say that there’s a genuine story behind them and it’s one with which a certain subset of the automotive community will readily connect. It’s my job as a journalist to bring that soul “out of the car”, to show you the story behind the product, to help you decide if you will connect to a particular vehicle. I’m also here to bring you the performance of the vehicle within the proper context; that’s why we publish Traqmate data instead of plain lap times whenever possible, and it’s why we spend hundreds of words describing the way the Viper SRT-10 torques out of a slow corner or the Audi S5’s superb composure under ABS activation on a downhill section of track. My pledge to you, the reader, is that I won’t simply refer to a vehicle’s “soul” as a copout. I’ll continue to attempt to both bring you the soul of the machine as I see it and give you enough information to form your own concept of that soul. I will continue to attempt to put you directly in the driver’s seat through my eyes, to offer you value for your time, to present you with a review that is more than a series of inside jokes and sophomoric similes. That’s my story – which is to say, my soul – and I’m sticking to it.