Get the motor running...

THE American auto industry as we knew it – even just 12 short months ago – is officially dead and as nobody yet knows what will emerge from the ashes of automotive behemoths such as General Motors and Chrysler (Ford are still clinging to the wreckage of gross corporate mismanagement), PJ O’Rourke’s paean to this once-great and all powerful manufacturing phenomenon is timely.

As the bastard Republican son of gonzo journalism – Hunter S Thompson in a Brooks Brothers’ suit and a pair of Kenneth Cole loafers – O’Rourke has always been a pain in the side of the dweeby, moaning Minnies of the left, which is to say any American who ever visited Europe, lauded Greenpeace or voted for Obama.

But O’Rourke has been lucky enough to live long enough to have seen the great days of the American car industry – days which saw America building “the best engines in the world – compact, powerful, gas-station-mechanic-proof V8s that were overbored, understressed and deliver terrifying horsepower at comforting rpms.”

Such an assertion, of course, might not find much support among European and Japanese experts and O’Rourke’s dismissal of fancy-dan European cars as “useless in America,” while their Japanese counterparts were “rice-burner junk” might just cause some to cavil.

Even so, his dismissal of the formerly great British motor industry is a joy to behold, especially for those of us sick to the back teeth of being told by the Top Gear mob that Britain is still a vibrant element in the worldwide scheme of things automotive.

His recalling of a time when Car and Driver stalwarts David E Davis and Brock Yeats nominated a Rover 2000TC as the “best sedan we have ever tested” before later admitting this claim was made prior to their discovering that “the screw under the Rover’s hood that, if given a quarter-turn counterclockwise, caused everything to fall off the car,” will resonate with many petrolheads.

O’Rourke’s editorial line here is designed to provoke reaction and undoubtedly it will. His assertion that the native industry has been killed by the “fun-suckers” – “people who make their kids wear bike helmets, knee and elbow pads, shin guards, safety goggles and steel-toed boots to use the teeter-totter in the kids’ playground” – responsible for pollution control, drink driving “hysteria” and air bags, is a tad on the rum side.

It is particularly so when the Democrats cop the blame, while the havoc the Republicans were responsible for in terms of the worlds environmental wellbeing during the wonderful Dubya era is largely ignored.

Nevertheless, classic pieces such as “How to Drive Fast on Drugs while getting your Wing-Wang squeezed and Not spill your Drink” are revisited here and while, nearly 30 years on these will still infuriate any sensible and responsible adult/parent/motorist, truisms such as the fact that the best car in the world is a rental car because you can “go faster, turn corners sharper and put the transmission into reverse while going forward at a higher rate of speed in a rented car than any other kind,” are still essentially factual.

O’Rourke’s sometimes whimsical, sometimes downright nasty humour, is – bottom line – funny and even as completely disrespectful, possibly racist and downright irresponsible as it is, you have to accept a tongue-in-cheek premise before you call on the authorities to have the book banned. On the other hand, pieces such as “Taking my Baby for a Ride” (not what you might think, in the circumstances) should provide serious head-scratching in European design salons. In the search for a suitable form of transport to cope, in 1997 after 50 years of bachelorhood, with the arrival of “six pounds, six ounces of adorable iggum-squiggums,” he comes up with further evidence of the greatness of the American car.

Having tested a Volvo V70 R, a Toyota Land Cruiser, A Mercedes M-Class and a Dodge Grand Caravan (and discovering that all four failed in one major respect – that the interiors could not be cleaned with a garden hose), he and his wife are surprised that the Dodge is the perfect answer to their conundrum.

But the real problem – this conclusion having been arrived at – is that they could not bring themselves to buy the American minivan. It made sense; it was the best kiddie kart they tried, but they simply could not bring themselves to purchase what was essentially a horribly grim example of modern American automotive design.

In the heel of the hunt, and as we later discover, the O’Rourke clan end up in a Land Rover Discovery II after a “spiritually enlightening” test in the car in Pakistan and India. That the venture was part of a round-the -world test to prove its abilities was impressive enough for O’Rourke to be smitten, although we don’t get to find out what happened when, after helping to drive it around the world, he tried to take it around the block back home.

Several chapters undoubtedly had to be heavily revised following the collapse of the American auto industry, but that is of little concern as this is a beautifully erudite and funny look back on the author’s many and varied escapades and it is easy to see, with this evidence in front of you, where one particularly famous motoring hack on this side of the world, honed his particular brand of misogynistic, anti-European cant.

In any event, O’Rourke’s judiciously irreverent take on various motoring madnesses – particularly his slant on various cars of the “great” British motor industry, or his patriotic defence of the SUV, or his dismissal of “weenie” hybrids – will fuel the naysayers, but also elicit knowing winks and nods from those of us old enough to appreciate where he is coming from.

His assertion that all middle-aged male car nuts should “buy an Alfa Romeo 8C 2900A and let the wife and kids go on welfare” will not find much support in our PC world. But you do have to admit the idea does have an attractive side. The US auto industry might be dead, but there is still plenty to celebrate in terms of the automobile and O’Rourke sure knows how to party.


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