Central to the tone of Jack Baruth’s lovely father-and-son 911 vignette is the concept of the Forever Car. It’s a nice thought – the machine acting as fossilizing amber, perfectly capturing a fleeting memory such that it lasts an eternity.
This idea is, to me, an entirely rational way to explain the presence of a theoretical soul in something that is composed of nothing more than steel, glass, rubber and leather. Cars don’t have souls, they develop them through experience – the transference of an emotion felt behind the wheel. It doesn’t have to be a 911 either, even the humblest old Volvo shoebox absorbs a personality as it slots into the background in slide after slide of family vacation pictures.
And then, you find yourself browsing craigslist and seeing a well-preserved you-name-it and thinking, “I could make that mine. I could share that with my children, and they would understand, and when I am dead and gone, they would explain it to their kids, and they would know.”
It’s a nice thought, the Forever Car. It perfectly encapsulates the human need for lasting possessions, of the art scrawled on the cave wall that says, “I was here.” One’s all-too-brief lifetime becomes a link in a chain that’ll stretch out over the years; less an ownership cycle than the work of a custodian/curator.
Well hurry up then. The last Forever Cars have already been built.
Some years ago I was travelling in Australia, winding up a hairpin road to a resort smack-dab in the middle of a Queensland rain-forest. Stopping for lunch, I took in the grounds in all their parrot-infested splendour, never imagining I’d be bowled over by a herd of centenarians.
This was the Australian Rolls-Royce Owner’s Club, some of whom had travelled from as far away as Tasmania; a creaky herd of antediluvian behemoths, the youngest of which was built in 1923. One old gentleman donned a brown Rolls-Royce jumpsuit and set about rummaging in the gorgeous copper and steel innards of his classic motor-coach. I spoke to several of the owners and they were all experienced tourers, some younger, some older, all with a passion for these beautiful relics.
Of course, you’d have to be slightly deranged to think touring around in pre-war cars is either a safe or reliable way to see the country. Usually the folks that do so are more well-heeled than Disco Stu, capable of flying in experienced mechanics when needed.
However, the cars are simple and sturdy enough that a careful caretaker can keep them running without too much difficulty. They are certainly Forever Cars, in the sense that there’s almost nothing that could break which wouldn’t be worth putting right.
For those of us that can’t afford a Roller – or who don’t care to – a legion of classic American iron constantly cycles through the auction block, supported by a healthy aftermarket of folks who know how to strip down and build up both Detroit’s best work and its follies. The same is true for less-trustworthy British steel, with stampings still readily available for those fighting cancerous lesions on the flanks of their electrically persnickety steeds.
And then of course, there’s the Porsche 911: a hardy air-cooled sporting car with some wonky vehicle dynamics, or a modern, highly-technical tarmac-ripper with a big, mortal electronic brain – the split occurs in ’98. I have to confess a certain fondness for the 996 GT3 on my part, simply because the 996 is everyone’s least-favourite engine-in-the-wrong-place P-car. There’s no question though, if you stick an air-cooled 911 in your driveway, it’s never going to be worth less than what you paid for it. Even if the mileage is huge, it’s a machine worth keeping around.
More importantly, it’s a machine that can be saved. My dad’s current BMW 550i six-speed is theoretically a last-of-breed too: one of the last proper driver’s 5ers with the very hard to find stick-shift. Once the extended warranty runs out, the thing’s going to start fritzing out like a Aston-Martin Lagonda in a salt bath. There’s no way that keeping it on the road will be worth anything like the money required to do so.
Modern cars are so much better than their ancestral equivalents in many ways. Today’s family sedans – the Mazda6, the Fusion, the Honda Accord – offer exceptional ride, handling, economy and safety. The Accord and the Mazda are also both decently fun-to-drive, and certainly equipped with some level of personality.
But even the traditionally well-built Honda won’t be kicking around in twenty-five year’s time, carefully polished up by some gaffer that kept the miles low, or ruined by some kid with whatever the Buck Rogers equivalent of Hellaflushing will be. It’ll simply be gone, replaced in its product cycle by the next consumer good, a cleaner, safer, better product which costs you money and takes you places.
That’s the lie of the “modern classic” – such a vehicle simply doesn’t exist. Sure you could argue that the Shelby ‘Stang would be worth keeping around, and it’d be easier to do than anything Teutonic, but what about trying to fix one when it’s thirty years old? Where will you take the ECU for re-soldering? Who’ll still have the diagnostic equipment?
In twenty years time, the pool of heritage vehicles will have contracted somewhat, owing to the relentless erosion of time and chance. Some fossils will be damaged irreparably; still others will be cobbled together to form a more-perfect skeleton. More and more will show up in Murilee columns.
And, perhaps, the pool of people who actually care about this sort of thing will have shrunk as well. The Forever Car might be safely in the hands of a new owners, or it may sit, unloved, as part of an estate sale while a bemused lawyer tries to figure out who’d want this leaky, dusty, decrepit, out-dated old thing.
But I don’t think so. I think any car that’s special in some way and can be resuscitated will still be found out on the highways while there’s gas to burn and places to go. Not locked up tight in some climate-controlled museum, but out on the road, subject to the risks of collision, weather and mechanical failure.
I think, forty years down the road, long after the internal combustion engine has become the equivalent of the cigarette, decades after Akira Nakai’s violent murder at the hands of a mysterious, shaggy assailant, we’ll find a white, basket handle 911 parked on the side of the road. As centipede-chains of whirring electro-pods pass, filled with people doing every damn thing but driving, a stranger will stop and do a double take. “I haven’t seen one of these forever!”
And then, one hopes, there’ll be the sort of exchange that always happens around an interesting old car: Is this yours? How long have you had it? Where’d you get it? What do you think it’s worth?
The last question may give pause because, of course, it has no real answer.
Note: The pictures accompanying this article were taken in Salt Lake City, which I passed through on the way to Aspen CO (where the beer flows like wine, etc.). I then ran into the group of touring Bentleys two blocks from my house in Vancouver a week later, which rates as co-incidence almost too absurd to be true.