In Praise Of Automotive Imperfection

I like to think of myself as a connoisseur of cars in their most rotten, terrible forms. There are many kinds of bad cars, and I would like to explain one certain kind and its hard-to-capture charms.

Let me start by explaining what this story isn't about. It's not about praising beaters, though I do love complete turdboxes. I do love the ease of owning a pointless, extra car. There's a peace to it. A level of detachment that's liberating. One day I walked down to my $600 Lexus and found someone had driven into it the night before.

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I didn't mind.

In fact, I hope the person who crashed into my car had enjoyed it. I hope it was someone in a clunky '80s Suburban who took one look at the already bumped, scratched exterior of my car and just turned into it. I hope they knew there would be no consequences for their actions; I did not mind another dent in the least.

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But that's not the kind of imperfection I mean.

This is not about unreliable cars. I understand that not everyone hopes to have the exciting and stimulating threat of any number of mechanical failures during even the shortest drive. Not everyone wants to never leave home without a full set of tools. Trying to replace a clutch cable lying in a soppy cold field gets old very quickly.

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I'm also not talking about eccentricity. I love to stare at how Edsels had their push-button gearchange controls in the center of the steering wheel. I love how old Citroëns stubbornly refused to make self-cancelling turn signals. I love that Mazda stuck it out with the rotary despite every other carmaker in the world giving up on the engine.

It's fun to be unique in the car world, but it's usually bad business to go things alone. Hell, Mazda had three different flirtations with bankruptcy before it finally quit on the Wankel. But again, this is not what I'm here to talk about.

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It's hard to measure something as being better. I've driven several old Volkswagens with stock brakes. I've driven ones with renewed drums and front discs. I can say that the new brakes are categorically better. Or at least they don't make you shudder with fear slowing down for a speed bump.

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Some cars have more braking ability than others. Some cars have more traction than other. Some cars have more power, more leather, more whatever.

And this always looks good. You can drive two cars back to back in some track test and comment how one car stays flatter in the corners than the other, or how one car runs through the gears with more precision.

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This is the pursuit of automotive perfection. This is not always right.

There's a road I know about an hour north of where I live. It's a perfect drive, just far enough where you really feel like you've escaped the city. When fall is ending in NYC, it's already winter up there.

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The trees are close to the edge of the pavement crumbling away into dirt. There are hills and crests. Gutters and drains, rough patches and bumpy fixes.

But the road is so satisfying, so varied and tight that I keep coming back to it.

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There are cars I wouldn't take on that road. My coworkers and I happened to have a new Camaro 1LE right in that area the other day. We steered very clear of the road itself.

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There are lots of reasons why the 1LE does not jive with this stretch of turns, from the thick a-pillar blocking your view through a corner, to the sheer width of the thing taking up most of the lane. More than anything else, it's the wheels that explain what doesn't work. The 1LE sits on 20s. They are vast. They are expensive. They feel like they are going to explode every time you hit an expansion joint.

I could never take the car on that byway for fear of cracking a rim. If I was forced to, I'd spend the few miles dodging potholes. Even then, the 1LE is just too much car for that road. The pavement is too rutted and narrow to show off the car, to use it right.

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I can understand why GM would go with 20s. They look good in pictures. They help the car put down great numbers on a skidpad and on a smooth track. When it comes to objective performance figures, the wheels and tires on that car are simply better than something smaller.

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Ok, this is where things devolve into personal preference.

I don't always want something that's objectively better. Performance numbers mean nothing when you're dodging potholes or always keeping one eye out for speed traps. All I want out of a car is to be able to cut through something like that dream road of mine. I want smaller wheels. I want less grippy tires. I want a softer rider.

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I can't say that this is the only way to make a good car, but bigger, faster, and more fragile do not appeal to me for a fun car. I like small, tight roads. I want a small car, compliant car for them.

I don't want a car that forces me to seek out a smooth road and spend the whole time watching for cops. I don't want to have to go off and pay a couple hundred bucks for a trackday.

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What I want is imperfection, because the more carmakers to try and get the best out of a performance car, the more they end up screwing it up where I want to drive.

Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove

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