Lots of people think that the faster a car is, the better it must be. That's not the case. Some people just want style over everything else. Mistake. There are those who think that handling is the ultimate automotive qualifier. Wrong.
(Welcome to the Continuing Misadventures of Raphael and his Baja Bug, a series on how I buy a half-broken 1973 Volkswagen offroader that I proceed to break, fix, break, fix, and break again. Please excuse this brief digression before I continue the story of how I rolled my car.)
Well, it's not exactly wrong to want a fast car, and then go out and build a 3,000 horsepower lakebed speedster. It's not wrong to want a stylish car, and then go out and buy a Rolls-Royce Wraith. I've got nothing against someone who wants to float cross the country in a chrome-and-leather V12 sensory deprivation chamber, though that isn't necessarily as fun as it sounds.
But there's only one thing that I want from a car and it was perfectly explained by one car writer exactly four decades ago.
The author is Ralph Stein in his 1973 book The Great Cars, describing a 1930s Alfa Romeo 1750 he used to own.
He never says the car is easy. If it hadn't been used in a while, he'd need to let the car warm up "at 1000 rpm for ten minutes before taking to the road." It wasn't what you might call a comfortable car with seating "too narrow and high, so that the top of your head was above the top of the windshield." The chassis was "quite conventional" and shifting gears on its nonsynchro gearbox was "perfectly feasible, if nerve-wracking." You didn't read the level of oil on a dipstick, but rather on a "float in the crankcase [that] raised and lowered a brass rod which slid in a groove cast into the side of the crankcase."
It wasn't exactly straightforward to take out with a passenger, either, because there was an auxiliary oil tank in the cockpit that caused him many problems.
The contents of this small, flat tank could be let into the engine by means of a valve when the oil-pressure gauge on the dash gave warning. People were always fiddling with this valve on my first 1750 and I put a lock on it after someone (unbeknownst to me) let all the auxiliary oil tank flow into the already full crankcase. Although I made a smoke screen which filled a canyon-like New York street from wall to wall, I didn't foul a plug.
The handing wasn't what most people would call secure or sure-footed. Stein warns that "you could not be ham-handed. Should you grip the wheel hard to prevent its slight juggling on road irregularities, you would be all over the highway."
But there was one thing about the car, one thing that perfectly redeemed it.
I never went to take mine out of its garage without a pleasurably nervous feeling that I was embarking on an adventure.
If that's not a perfect description of exactly what I want out of a car, I don't know what is.
Sure, there's more to driving than getting from A to B, but there's also something more than any of a car's material characteristics. There can be a nervousness, an unreliability, a look, a feeling — something that lets you know maybe if you don't know a road very well you might end up in a ditch, something that lets you know you might get invited to tour a complete stranger's hidden private classic car collection, something that lets you know a spark plug might shake itself apart on a dirt road.
That's exactly what I dreamed about when I read about Stein's old Alfa Romeo, and it happens to be exactly what I love about my current car, a rusty old lifted Volkswagen.
There's more to cars than what you can measure, and sometimes it's the imperfections that make a car just what you want.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove/Alfa Romeo, RM Auctions