Gone are the days when most cars wore their hearts on their valve covers. Tidy simplicity has given way to plastic soul and the art of the cover-up. It's time to revolt: Kill this junk. Kill it now.
It used to be so simple: You opened the hood, you saw some cool stuff, and you were happy. Even if you didn't understand what was going on, you grabbed a flashlight and got busy. You stared. You poked. Maybe you even disconnected something, curious as to why this sensor ran into that harness and what the whole thing was about. Time evaporated. Man and machine. Ape and monolith. It was good.
No more. We live in an age of perpetual polish, and if something isn't smoothed and groomed within an inch of its life, then Johnny Public doesn't get to see it. The engine cover is the mechanical equivalent of an aging supermodel's photoshopped thighs, a mass-consumption fantasy that shows the rubes only what they want to believe. I am clean. I am strong. I will not hurt you. Machinery as politically correct pal.
To hell with that. The internal combustion engine is a dirty, mean and unruly thing, and while it grows more domesticated with every passing year, it is still a bloody, saw-toothed beast. It inhales flammable poison and carries thousands of volts in its belly. It hurls chunks of iron, steel, and aluminum around with enough force to saw a man in two. It is raw, it is crude, and I'm tired of the whitewash. The engine cover must die.
This is not a rarefied opinion. People like displays of the engineer's art, and even your TV-addled next-door neighbor will cast a glance at the small-block in his senile Silverado after he brings it home from the used-car lot. Hell, my grandmother used to look at the engine in every car she bought, and she didn't know an exhaust valve from an exorcism. If you listen to the marketing men, the engine cover was designed to serve these people, to reduce noise and necessary visual roughness. Poppycrap. These people would be better served by a punch in the mouth.
Admittedly, the cover is not a universal evil. In the supercar world, visual flamboyance is a necessity, and the engine bay of the average exotic is a masterpiece of clear-eyed presentation and elegant madness. Track specials and featherweight sports cars, predictably, don't bother with plastic lily-gilding. And the low-production fringe dwellers, including the electric-car crowd, free themselves by eschewing traditional anything. But these are the exceptions. The engine cover dwells in the land of random disappointment (BMW 760Li? A 6.0-liter, twin-turbo V-12 is under there? I've seen sexier things in line at Old Country Buffet), and its presence is neither logical nor predictable.
A few sense-free examples:
• Acura TL vs. Chevrolet Corvette ZR1. You can walk into an Acura dealership and buy a luxury sedan with a Buck-Rogers-meets-Sally-Sexbot pile of silver love under its hood (the V-6 you see above), but the 600-hp Corvette ZR1 rolls off the line with a gaudy-ass jim hat stuck on top of its supercharger. You might as well be eye-humping a Toyota Prius's battery pack. They cut a window in the hood for that?
• The Mazda RX-8. I don't care if it's almost dead. This is the one and only rotary-powered car left, and its engine bay could double for a California Closet as laid out by a comatose Martha Stewart. So what if the Renesis looks like garbage without its clothes on? For all intents and purposes, so did the 13B, and everybody loves that thing. Madza, let the RX-8's mill run naked. You make sports cars, for chrissakes, not filing cabinets.
• The Lexus IS-F. (top image). The first truly bonkers car from a marque not known for bonkers. Lexus's product planners wanted it to be different, so what did they do? They gave it the lid off a Rubbermaid garbage can. Lift that lid up, and you find a hairy mass of runners and wiring harness and hell-for-leather, capital-T Toyota. You ever look under the hood of a Mercedes-Benz C63 or a BMW M3? Ubersedan people like the freak flag. Fly it.
Man must have his machine. The need for a kickass underhood landscape is impossible to overstate. These things do not always make sense, and they are not always logical. Hell, one dude built himself a Fieroghini, stuck a much-modified, 600-hp LT1 in its rump, and then spent countless hours crafting a fake Lamborghini V-12 to go on top of it:
If that doesn't tell you that people have complex relationships with engines, then I don't know what will.
On a certain level, it all comes down to this: A machine's appearance is a window into its soul. You can stare into an exhaust header or a block casting and see the faces of the men behind them. You can learn about a company by examining how its engineers approached a specific task, and how proud they are of their work. Even if you aren't a gearhead, the car can be a source of pretty strong feelings, and an engine is a powerful emotional switch. And you cannot spend a Sunday afternoon drinking beer and gazing lovingly into a piece of plastic.
One more thing: Although I identify with the enthusiast — everyone loves an artful intake runner — I also speak for the common man. The enthusiast can open his hood and yank out whatever he likes, spinning wrenches until he's happy with what he's got. Joe Ordinary is at the mercy of the automaker. And while most of America may not be aware of what's happening, there is a silent majority that is aching for something more. They are being pandered to and left out in the cold, and while they're not exactly sure what's wrong, they do not like it. And they need our help.
For their sake, walk out into your driveway. Pop the hood. If there's a flat, soulless pile of polymer staring back at you, give it the finger. Rip it off, light it on fire, and watch it burn. When the flame finally goes out, ship that hunk of crap back to its maker, melted goop and all. It probably won't make a damn bit of difference, but every great journey starts with a single step.