PRINT September 1992


the New York Auto Show

Those were the sweetest cars I was ever to know because they were my first. I remember them like people—like long ago lovers—their idiosyncrasies, what they liked and what they didn’t. With my hands deep in crankcases, I was initiated into their warm, greasy mysteries.
—Harry Crews, “The Car,” 1975

C is for Car, D is for Dick
I never stood around talking about cars. I can conjure up an image of myself at 18, gesticulating with my crotch, but I never waxed on about my first car and the first girl I got to lie down in it. I’m pretty sure that if I’d had a set of balls I might have adjusted them, and I’m positive that if a girl had found her way into my car in high school, I’d have mentioned it from time to time. But my ’73 Olds Cutlass Salon left me few anecdotes. Powered by a 455-inch marine engine hooked to a Hurst Olds-Turbo 400 transmission, this beefy vehicle offered the way, but, as a girl, I didn’t quite have the means to achieve the kind of boyhood for which I occasionally find myself nostalgic.

The smell of a new car is the smell of promise. An almost seamless perfection is manifest in that snaking chrome, flawlessly buffed body, and intoxicatingly virgin interior. I went to the New York Auto Show, one of the four debutante balls for the automotive world, to search among the 4,000 tons of steel, fiberglass, and plastic for my nostalgia.

Standing among shimmering heaps of metal lust, I waited. Over 1,200 machines sat on carpeted platforms, deprived of spark. Some, like the Alpha Romeo ’92 Spider with its four-cylinder DoHC, revolved on turntables like slices of pie in a dessert case. Others had had their skirts lifted—their hoods, trunks, and doors splayed like a Penthouse pictorial, making every orifice available to the eye. The makers of these cars had tried to erase some of the mystery of what actually lay beneath all those smooth-as-MisterSoftee-curve.

It was press day and the air was greasy with old handshakes and suit sweat and a sort of fatalism, the result of slumping auto sales and the faltering performance of Detroit’s “Big Three.” Sets of teamsters were waxing and buffing. Press and PR people idled around the static cars, chowing down at the popular free-lunch tables, talking mileage and concept designs. The fluorescent-lit marquees over each auto-maker’s brood washed the convention center in spectacle—a consumer-fest Disneyland. And I waited.

If You Don’t Have It, It’s Hard to Get Up
Women older than 35 don’t usually have empowering memories of automobiles. It is the rare woman who is apt to recount the time she “nailed one” in the backseat of her Barracuda; it is the rare woman who was encouraged to drive a muscular car, to dip into its crankcase and race it down the road. Harry Crews may croon over his “1953 Mercury with three-inch lowering blocks, fender skirts, twin aerials and custom upholstering made of rolled Naugahyde.” My mother, who did have the opportunity to drive “muscle,” doesn’t even remember the color of her ’73 455 GTO.

(She does remember, though, that gas-station attendants would pester her for its specs.)

In the mid ’70s, Detroit made an effort to produce autos with woman appeal. Unfortunately, the designs they tended to come up with were for cars like the Bluebird—no more than a Pontiac Firebird in sky blue, and with matching blue tires. The Big Three still make some cars specifically for women, but they’ve gotten no smarter. (Perhaps just a little less obvious.)

Men who spend anywhere from $15,000 to $25,000 on a “stang” like the one they left for scrap twenty years ago seem to have found a way to get two boy-hoods. I can only assume (privileging boyhood as I do) that the second is twice the fun. The pleasure men realize in reliving or reinventing their automotive past is evident in the way they swarm to auto shows, to shoot the shit rather than buy. I grew up riding around in high-performance muscle cars, because my father test-drove them for a number of magazines. Also, my parents allowed me to join the all-boy Pee Wee Football League when I was ten. So I have a relationship, though somewhat thready, to the nostalgia of many men. But if I did in fact slip into a kind of synthetic boyhood, I stood on the periphery, and my memories have since merged with others gleaned from men’s more well-stocked memories. Since these nostalgic fantasies, with their intense longing and excess, are surely more exciting and butch than the actual events they describe, isn’t it possible that men strive to keep their territory “all male” to preserve not the moment but the recounting of it?

Good Girls Go to Heaven, Car Babes Go Further
The car babe is a welcome female addition to the automotive fantasy. Parked next to Lee lacocca’s swan dive, the Dodge Viper, Karen L. smiles brightly. Licking her lips a lot, she spews out information about the machine; a professional car babe who has done the circuit from New York to Los Angeles, she is a walking owner’s manual. But that’s not really the point. As Karen L. wiggles and runs her hands through the air, tracing the muscle tone of her Viper, she completes the perfect picture in which every male spectator is encouraged to insert himself.

When I was a kid my brother and I wore a lot of car-culture T-shirts. “Penzoil,” “Hurst,” and “Crager” were emblazoned across our flat chests. My favorite was a multicolored iron-on of a Formula race car. Sitting on the car was a blond woman with proportionally incorrect breasts. I drew absolutely no comparison between myself and the car babe.

I saw this woman again not long ago, a cardboard cutout squatting over a six-pack of Pabst in an exhibition by the artists Pruitt-Early. This collection of decals and stickers wrapped around beer cans served as a textual gang-bang, a boys’-night-out art show. This one-dimensional example of a pig rolling inits own shit served as an excellent ploy in dissuading women to insert themselves into “their” fantasy. There might as well have been a sign at the door: “No girls allowed; pussy only.” The woman on the Pabst can seemed like an audience of one for all the bravado (and premature ejaculations) the boys could concoct.

So Have We All, or Haven’t We?
Crews, who knows much more about cars than I do, says we have all found God in a car, “or if not the true God, one so satisfying, so powerful and awe-inspiring that the distinction is too fine to matter.” He or Hemingway might say the same about catching a fish, shooting a bear, chopping down a really big tree, or handling the winning pit bull in a dogfight. The elation of such virile activities, of course, has little to do with God and a lot to do with the control of power. Maybe in the future the old gender-specific nostalgia will be erased, as women too will congregate en masse at auto shows to trade stories of horsepower and burning rubber.

Collier Schorr is an artist who lives in New York.