Art and the Automobile

 We just returned from a pilgrimage.  We’re a little sunburned.  We’re road-weary – we drove over 600 miles.  We’re a few hundred dollars poorer and we’ve spent three days eating bad food.  But we’re satisfied – we’ve done what we needed to do – we paid homage to the automobile. 

The first shrine we visited was the Portland Art Museum, an odd spot for car worship, but I’ve always enjoyed cars as sculpture, not as machines, so maybe not so odd.  The exhibit, “The Allure of the Automobile,” overworked both my camera and my brain.  We saw a Tucker, a ‘37 Hispano-Suiza, a ’57 Jaguar (once owned by Steve McQueen), a Bugatti, … but the names mean very little.

We saw voluptuous curves and long, strong lines, elegance and breathtaking beauty, rich color and polished chrome. Each car reflected light in a thousand gleaming shimmers.  Each perched on its own simple pedestal, each with its own engraved plaque.  I suspect we were admiring over twenty million dollars worth of cars, but there were only seventeen vehicles.  And they were silent.

Later we sat in the sun and watched Listers and Lotuses and Corvettes careen around the last turn at the Portland International Raceway.  These cars, like the ones at the museum, were historic cars, but these were not silent. 

Only the sound of the ocean moves me the way the sound of highly-tuned engines screaming, thundering, back-firing into the down-shift just before the turn and then roaring out of it, sometimes with a frightening little squeal of the tires.  There is such power in that sound – sound that envelops and reverberates down into your bones, sound that comes in layer upon layer, each car at its own pitch, but harmonizing with every other car and after the first lap, blending like a round, thinning into separate strands that keep repeating, lap after lap.

I sat there in the perfect sun, head back and eyes closed, and thought about that sound as it infiltrated my soul.  It is an important sound, one that embodies the all of the vibrations of our culture – our freedom, our ingenuity, our devotion to being the best.  What we think can always, for better or for worse, be traced back to God.  What we do, goes back to the wheel, to four wheels powered by pistons and fossil fuels, to the car.

It is the car, and Henry Ford’s method of making them cheaply enough that anyone could have one, that has made modern versatility possible. Neither we, nor the goods we produce are stuck in any one locale.  The car has empowered us all to be where we want to be, to be what we want to be.

Yes, in a perfect world the miles of available road would be in perfect proportion to the number of cars traveling on those roads. (We were stuck in Portland traffic for two hours Friday,)  In a perfect world the fuel to power these cars would be cheap and politically neutral, creating neither international tension nor ecological miasmas.  And I’ll admit that the testosterone-laden sound I’m so fond of loses some of it allure when its ripping past my house at two in the morning.  But no matter how stylishly disdainful of the internal combustion engine we try to be, we are we because of it.

It has allowed us to conquer, in part, both time and space.  It has allowed us to rejoin those we have left – and to have left in the first place.  It has allowed us to avail ourselves of a myriad of goods and services.  It has allowed us to be independent, to push ourselves.  It has given us speed. 

The automobile has helped us understand our world – to understand power -- acceleration, aerodynamics, centrifugal force.  Those aren’t theoretical ideas, those are things we’ve experienced – the surge when we push the gas pedal, the buffeting of a hand held out the window, the sickening feeling when we take a corner too fast.

And that learning has produced great beauty.  The search to control those forces has allowed scientific law to show itself as beauty.  Those cars at the racetrack didn’t just sound good, they were stunning, each one designed to make the most of the air it travels through.  The Mustangs were ruggedly good-looking, angular and masculine, the Corvettes beautifully blending curves and points, the Lolas delicate and exotic.

As exotic as a pilgrimage, and just as in the Middle Ages, going on a pilgrimage is a vacation, a fun, as well as a pious, undertaking.  I love vacations when we go to see what God has made, but I also love admiring what man, in God’s grace, has made.  The automobile, in its beauty and power, in its gift of possibilities is worthy of that admiration.