The last time I attended a ball game, JFK was running for president. My older brother tells me that Mickey Mantle hit a homer. He would remember. Tom was a baseball fan.
I loved cars, not sports. At age six, I asked my mother to count the days until I could drive. I loved especially the elegantly maternal Mercurys. Nonetheless, I saw brands as classification systems, like the species of my beloved butterflies, rather than as foci for tribal loyalty, like my brother’s Yankees.
But fandom–the word derives from “fanatic”–is a holy grail of marketing, and I was not immune. At age nine, I sacrificed my objective appreciation of cars on Madison Avenue’s altar. In choosing my favorite car, loyalty trumped aesthetics. We had a Chevy.
Then my mother informed me that Chevy was part of “General Motors,” which also made Pontiac, Olds, Buick, and Cadillac. Once my shock wore off, I learned to love the sibling brands. Soon, I viewed General Motors as the One True Car Company, and I proselytized anyone I could corner. “Gee, he likes cars,” said the 12 year old daughter of parental friends visiting from out of town.
I kept score. I knew that GM owned more than half the US market. I also knew every car in my suburban Boston development. The McRaes’ ‘59 Borgward was no threat to GM’s hegemony, but every neighbor’s new Plymouth or Dodge stung me like a lost ball game.
True, Fords sold better, but Chrysler Corporation played the spunky underdog. “THE DODGE BOYS ARE WOOING CHEVIES,” the radio would boom. “YES, BRING YOUR CHEVY DOWN AND WE’LL GIVE YOU A SPECIAL DEAL ON A BRAND SPANKING NEW DODGE!” I took it personally.
But by that time, our ‘57 Chevy, with 85,000 miles, had gone geriatric. My parents rented cars for trips. For a ski trip, they rented a Dodge Dart. Before we reached Black Mountain, that car’s obvious excellence would test my powers of denial.
When we stopped to leave the pets at the vet, Dad locked the keys in the trunk. Two policemen came to the rescue. “We’ll have your keys in five minutes,” one assured us.
Twenty-five minutes later, the officers were huffing and puffing, the sweat pouring down their faces in rivulets as they labored to remove the rear seat back from its fasteners. “This [huff] is a great [huff] car,” one officer told my father. Most seat backs detach so easily that in a crash, they can kill people, he said. But not this Dodge.
That only added to the cognitive dissonance weighing down my soul. Consumer Reports, the family bible on big ticket items, consistently ranked Chrysler above GM. My logical mind could not fault its methodology, so I combed each issue for slant. When car-shopping parental friends I evangelized dismissed my recommendations with allusions to Consumer Reports, I insisted it was biased.
I wanted empirical evidence to support my own bias, which was further strained by my sense–which I would never admit to myself–that the Dart felt durable. In contrast, the Chevy was clunky. So as we drove north, I prayed, “God, make the Dodge break down,” over and over, not realizing that had God intervened, it would have been deus ex machina.
We drove into the evening, Tom and I in back with our toddler sister, Miriam, between us. At length, a mysterious warmth permeated my nether regions. When it turned cold, I realized what it was.
“Mom, Dad, Miriam peed on me. Can we stop, so I can change my pants?”
“We’ll be there within an hour, Mom replied. “You can wait.” My cold, clammy privates rearranged my priorities. I quit praying for a breakdown.
Fast forward six years. The current family Chevy had just been totaled. With a sabbatical to Stanford looming, my father sought a beater for the interim. Cognitive dissonance had eroded my devotion, and my expectations were low. But I was still disappointed when he announced his purchase: a $200 1962 Ford Falcon. But when I saw the new car enter the driveway, I was instantly smitten. (Scientific fact: car enthusiasts use the same part of the brain to recognize cars and faces. See Nature Neuroscience, March 10, 2003) It was as if some female schoolmate’s obvious beauty had finally penetrated my thick skull. A revelation ensued: I was no longer a Chevy man. I was free to like whatever car I wanted to like.
At the end of the summer, my parents gave me the Falcon, and I drove to California. Though I loved it, I was through with fandom. My parents needed a car, and so after they arrived, we went car shopping. They had asked me what to get, and I had checked Consumer Reports. The Plymouth dealer offered us a Valiant for $2600–a bargain. The Dodge dealer wanted $2750 for a Dart. The salesman put on the hard sell. My father hemmed and hawed. Finally, in desperation, the salesman said, “well, ask the kid!” I noted that the cars were mechanically identical, and that we could save $150 ($820 in today’s dollars) with the Valiant. He threw in the towel.
My sister was then seven. Years later she told me that she had known–as I had known with the Dart–that the Valiant would last. I taught her to drive on it, and it was still running when she graduated from college.