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Why do today’s cars look like shit?

Now this is a car: 1957 Chevy Bel Air.

Now this is a car: 1957 Chevy Bel Air.

I went to a car show recently. A couple of hundred vintage vehicles, strong on low-slung Studebakers with chrome-studded front ends. Some excellent ’55 T-Birds, a ;’50s-era Hudson and, as always, the candy-colored ’57 Chevy Bel Airs. And cars of the early ’60s, like the 1963 Plymouth Belvedere, making the awkward transition from rocket fins to conservative lines, yet still artful. Really memorable designs.

Unlike today’s vehicles. Car shows of the future will not feature the Honda Kia and the Chevy Malibu. We are living in an automotive moment that is best, and will be easily, forgotten.

Today’s vehicles are loaded with standard and optional toys – cup holders, phone chargers and GPS, plus a bare-minimum of cylinders to prop up the mileage. But style-wise, it looks like the architects of ’70s strip malls found new jobs in the automotive industry.

As evidence, examine the evolution of the Thunderbird over the decades. The first couple of years were classic, the next few acceptable, occasionally interesting, distinctive, always some sense of sporty. But by 1971, Ford’s designers lost it. They started creating 4,400-pound monsters. Square and dull. By the mid-’80s, the Thunderbird looked like every other car on the road. By 1990, the pounds-per-wheel pendulum was swinging back the other way, and the  poor, confused Thunderbird looked like a Pinto.

Why is it that car designers, floundering for new ideas, don’t go back to concepts that people really liked? Remakes don’t often work – did anyone see that McHale’s Navy movie? But people like retro furniture, which was pretty much what we had in the 2002 Thunderbird, a resurrection of the old ’55 Thunderbird’s sporty lines. Its brief experiment in style over substance declared a failure, Ford went back to making all of its cars look like SUVs.

This is an era of automotive identity crisis. A car goes down my street, the driver honks at me and waves. I don’t know who it is, because everyone’s car looks the same. The headlights and taillights all now have that squinty, wraparound appearance. The cars don’t look sleek, but blunt. And there’s a 72 percent chance that it’s silver. Or some fantasy color like Atlantis Blue. Really? Atlantis disappeared beneath the waves centuries ago, if it even existed at all. How do we know what shade of blue was preferred by Atlanteans?

I haven’t owned a piece of automobile chrome since my 1972 Impala.

I recognize what’s going on here. Automotive design is being strangled by the same corporate culture that’s killing talk radio, sports commentary, news reporting, pop music, fast food and hairstyles. Group think. That fella over there is doing it, he must know something, we’d better do it too.

Group think spills over into car names. They’re killing me. Back in the day, car names held a degree of romance. Buick Riviera. Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. Hudson Terraplane. Rolls Royce Silver Wraith. Corvette’s Sting Ray really did look like a sting ray. And I doubt that anyone knew what this thing was when it was first introduced in 1938. But years later Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, knew a good name for an alien journalist when he saw it: Ford Prefect.

Today’s cars? Walk through a mall parking lot reading the names of the vehicles, and be prepared to be walloped by the numb world of marketing. Prius, Scion, Fiesta, Forte, Elantra, Altima, Fusion. The focus groups that approve of these names even named a car for themselves. The Ford Focus. But the car of today that I most fear is the Ford Probe. Who wants to be stopped at a red light, only to get rear-ended by a probe?

The Critical Mass

OK, so call me a Twit

I continue to arrive in the the 21st century: Follow me on Twitter @jeffspevak1.

I started Tweeting last month because Steve Martin wasn’t doing interviews. But Martin is a big Tweet guy, with 2.7 million followers. Maybe, if I sent him some Tweets, he’d respond. That would be like an interview, right? So I directed four quick Tweets to him, each one focusing on an aspect of his life. Collecting art, playing the banjo,  his comedy and his writing:

Jeff Spevak @jeffspevak1

@SteveMartinToGo $120 million for Edvard Munch’s “The Scream?” Isn’t Thomas Kinkade a better investment?

Jeff Spevak @jeffspevak1

@SteveMartinToGo Has the banjo ever figured in the commission of a serious crime? If so, I can’t find it.

Jeff Spevak @jeffspevak1

@SteveMartinToGo What’s this about a curse on those who first enter the tune of King Tut? Are you OK?

Jeff Spevak @jeffspevak1

@SteveMartinToGo In “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” the painter encounters Albert Einstein in a bar. Ty Cobb could out-drink them both.

As best as I could figure, Martin never replied. Unless this was directed at me, I’m not sure:

Steve Martin @SteveMartinToGo

Working on reality show based on Venus’s transit across the Sun.

So he’s saying he’s too busy to respond right now. But I’ve made lots of new friends. Twitter recommended that I follow Alton Brown, who is one of my favorite celebrity chefs. And the actor George Takei. And comedian Albert Brooks. I’ve also discovered that I can use Tweeting for self-promotion:

Jeff Spevak @jeffspevak1

I’ll have copies of my book “Chasing the Wind” at “First Fridays” at the Hungerford Building, 1115 E. Main St., Studio 307.

And restaurant reviews:

Jeff Spevak @jeffspevak1

Favorite restaurant Mr. Dominic’s re-opened today. Just had the swordfish au poivre and grilled Lonsberry.

But mostly, it’s important stuff:

Jeff Spevak @jeffspevak1

I just found a three-leaf clover. Pretty damn close!

Jeff Spevak @jeffspevak1

UPDATE: The God Particle was found in that kitchen drawer where you keep twist ties and the keys to the car you traded in five years ago.

Jeff Spevak @jeffspevak1

The Sadies at Abilene: I am comforted by any band with half-empty beer bottles sitting on the amps.

Jeff Spevak @jeffspevak1

Looking forward to “Zappa Plays Zappa” tonight. And happy Pat Boone’s kids didn’t have the same idea.

The Critical Mass

I hate Jackie’s new friend

My friend Jackie’s Christmas Day potato pierogies were awesome. She’d also spent the day watching a couple of the big Christmastime epics. No, we’re not talking Elf. This was Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. Jackie may be Jewish, but she’s really into the holiday. As an educator at one of our top institutions, she mused, “I wonder how many of those Bible epics they made?”

“Depends on how broad your parameters are,” I said. “Ben-Hur is about chariot racing.”

She ignored me and turned to her new friend for an authoritative answer. As she has been doing for what seems like the past year. The new friend who knows everything. You know how annoying they are.

But this time, no. “Argh!” she wailed. “I can’t get on your WiFi!”

Indeed, Jackie’s new best friend, her iPad, was at a loss for words. Finally. And I was damn happy about it. Maybe I’m jealous, but I’m getting fed up with Jackie including that thing in every conversation, as though it were a real person. It’s dominating the Saturday afternoon gatherings at Java’s at the Market. It always remembers to bring the pictures from the latest trip to Jerusalem. It always knows what goes into a classic fruitcake. It always knows where to find her husband John.

Bible epics? “Why don’t you just ask us?” I said.

Spartacus!” Dick suggested.

“Yeah,” I said. “How about Davey and Goliath?”

But no, her old friends were not good enough. The answer had to come from a Higher Authority. The Internet.

Here’s what you can find on the Internet. Obama was born in Kenya. Death panels. The 9/11 government conspiracy. Anchor babies. Bigfoot. Archaeologists have uncovered a cemetery for extraterrestrials in Africa. The Apollo moon landings were faked. Tim Tebow is God’s quarterback. Sarah Palin’s son Trig is actually her daughter’s baby. The War on Christmas. The ACLU wants to ban crosses from Arlington National Cemetery. Jon Bon Jovi is dead. Michael Jackson is not dead. Need a recipe on how to deep fry a cat? JFK was shot by… well, at least a half-dozen different groups.  Jersey Shore‘s Snooki says the ocean is salty because its full of whale sperm.

Jackie, your new best friend is a liar.

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