2008 Saab Turbo X
The Age of the Automobile
Saab’s seemingly awesome special edition is nothing but a symptom of the pointlessness that’s eating the car industry alive.
Words and pictures: Peter Orosz
Now that The New York Times has decided to use 96-point type on its cover yet again, it’s about time to consider another event which may not be encapsulated in a single headline but which is of similar significance. The automobile, apart from computers and airplanes the single most defining machine of our times, is in its greatest moral crisis yet with no obvious way out.
Take the Saab Turbo X. It is a limited edition of two thousand copies based on the third generation 9-3, with a 280-horsepower turbocharged V6, a pressure gauge reminiscent of the one on the 900 Turbo and twin exhaust pipes which emit a merry oil drum of a noise.
It also has bodywork which triggers a Darth Vader reflex in anyone who’s been exposed to even the most miniscule bit of Western culture over the past 30 years.
Beneath its veneer of cool, it is also highly symptomatic of the decline. It is manufactured by a company whose original line of business was aircraft and which has produced a number of remarkable if weird cars in its early decades, sold by a sales force that included Kurt Vonnegut. This company is now owned by an American company whose assets are evaporating like ether, whose product lineup consists of one interesting car and a boatload of outdated dreck and whose business model would be right at home in Soviet Russia. The car itself is based on an Opel Vectra, which is only slightly less boring than a Volkswagen Bora.
A futile amalgam of the 900 Turbo and a Star Wars DVD set.
If we look past the Turbo X at all the funky dory rides we get these days from car companies, we end up with a remarkable list here: they are all forty years old. You have your Mini, your Cinquecento, your Mustang, your Challenger, your Camaro and even Lamborghini has commissioned a redone Miura which is an affront to any eye ever exposed to Gandini’s original.
Of course they all look awesome! They are focus grouped and engineered to do just that. It works wonderfully. When nobody’s looking, I look at pictures of the Fiat 500 Abarth SS and think of climbing aboard in a fitted shirt with cufflinks the shape of its lovely, menacing wheels. And try not to think of what Carlo Abarth would say of a turbocharged car sporting his last name, a sort of engine right at home in a Ferrari F40 or a Nissan GT–R but which has no place whatsoever in an Abarth.
Every single one of these cars lacks the purpose which defined the original. The Mini was an exercise of sitting four people in a box only slightly bigger than the ones used by Kellogg’s to store breakfast cereal. The new one does nothing of the sort. It is three times the size and in Cooper S trim will probably out-accelerate a Daytona, but really, what is the point? What is the point of a Miura with twenty inch wheels?
What is the point of a Ford Mustang that still has a live rear axle in the year 2008? The point of a Dodge Challenger that does not deviate a millimeter from the look of the original. Yes, it is awesome to consider owning a Bullitt Mustang after watching Steve McQueen being super cool on screen, but without purpose, a machine loses its point.
As if you constructed a Saturn V and flew it to near-Earth orbit.
Forty years on, will anyone be inspired by the muck we produce? Or will they just make copies of copies?
The automobile reached its cultural zenith in the late Fifties and blossomed into magnificence in the Sixties. Space rockets, microchips and LSD were accompanied by the Ferrari 250 GTO, the Mini, the Fiat 500 and the Ford Mustang, along with every muscle car that mattered. Add the Maserati Ghibli and the Lamborghini Miura, which was followed by another sort of LSD on the Countach.
The automobile blasted into adulthood with the power of a thousand F-1 rocket engines, it came of age, as a machine singularly different from all the machines which had preceded it. It was no longer a horseless carriage, easily derived from earlier modes of transport: the car had branched off to become a new kingdom on the phylogenic tree of transport. A Miura is a different quality, it stands fully formed, sprung forth like Pallas from the forehead of Zeus, a messenger of an age where things happen fast, and so is the Fiat 500.
The automobile was as natural an expression of the age of technology as the albatross is of the Southern Ocean.
No longer, and this is not an accident. There was a scarcity to automobiles back then, ample road space to rev your engine to its limits. As humans migrate into cities and as cars become ever cheaper to manufacture, they will continually edge toward the precipice of pointlessness. I live in a city of two million, insignificant by world standards, and my mobility would not increase by a single notch if I were to buy a car. They just take up too much damn space.
That is, when everybody has got one and they clog the very streets they ride on.
And what exactly is the point of commanding a ton or two of metal, plastics and rubber just to translocate my own ass when said translocation does not involve crossing continents?
When the car is obviously pointless yet is without an obvious successor, the way out for an industry still employing millions is to cover its eyes and charge full speed ahead. To produce ersatz Sixties cars for both the masses and the rich, devoid of their original meaning. To make seven hundred horsepower the new six hundred the new five hundred and run laps on a circuit whose last relevant years were in the Sixties. To produce gimmicky concept cars for every fucking auto show, none of which will ever set rubber on public road.
There would be a way to end this in a stylish manner. Let General Motors introduce the 2003 Cadillac Sixteen as a production car at the Waldorf-Astoria on January 4th, 2009, price it into the stratosphere, then follow it up by a glorious Fight Club-style controlled explosion of the Renaissance Center, complete with a humonguous dick on screen. The alternative would be to figure out how to let billions of people in high-density cities move about at speed and in relative comfort.
Vespas and scramjets may not be the answer.
The car industry has become a deeply uninteresting, morally bankrupt construction which does not stimulate and which has detached itself from the philosophy of Vorsprung. We need a leap way bolder than sticking laptop batteries in Elises. We need the personal mobility equivalent of the iPhone. You will know it when you see it. You will want to work very hard to be able to own it. And owning it will make you happy.
And you will also want to take it apart to make it go faster.
∞ Published on Friday, November 14th, 2008