By on June 20, 2006

alternatorwiring.jpgWhen people say a car has “character,” they mean one of two things.  First and foremost, the word is deployed to praise gross ergonomic errors.  We’re not talking about minor design quirks: Saab ignitions on the floor, CR-V shifters high on the dash, horns on the wheel spokes.  Pistonheads trot out the “C” word to heap praise upon those interior peculiarities that stand up and demand you notice them when you should be doing something else, like driving.  While enthusiasts have been praising these automotive “eccentricities” for years, it’s time for carmakers to write this character out of the program.  

I once read an editorial criticizing GM for finally placing the headlight controls on a stalk on the wheel.  The writer claimed The General was surrendering its “American character” by following some (but not all) foreign manufacturers’ lead.  Nonsense.  The dash-mounted light switch was ergonomically inefficient; stretching forward to turn the lights on/off was both uncomfortable and dangerous.  Even worse, the switch provided no feedback whatsoever.  GM’s light switch remained out of reach simply because of bureaucratic inertia and corporate parsimony.   

That’s no more “character” than Land Rover’s decision to locate their CD changer under the passenger seat (pre-Ford).  Did Volkswagen feel obliged to continue the “character” of its cars by building them without heat?  If a function or design is ugly or inconvenient to its user, it can only justify its existence by offering some form of compensation.  Saturn’s panel gaps may have been visible from low earth orbit, but that’s the price customers paid for dent resistance.  But hide my radio controls behind a menu– hide ANY controls I need to get along– and we’re going to have words. 

“Character” is also a term meaning “horrific quality.”  Cars with “character” must have at least one good feature– go like hell, turn on a dime, look like sex, etc.– along with a myriad of defects and problems.  Alfas didn’t have “character” because they were built out of compressed rust; their electrical and engine faults earned them the right to the descriptor.  Old British cars are notorious for having bags of “character.” Although credit is usually laid at the feet of the “Prince of Darkness” (Lucas electrics), the fact that anything and everything else mechanical was equally susceptible to a sudden interruption of service made them “memorable.”   

This brings the whole “character” issue (and the people who use the term) into focus.  If a flaw is predictable and universal, there is nothing special about it.  Real “character” comes from design so poor that you literally don’t know what can (or face it will) go wrong.  And if every problem is different, the car and by extension its owner are unique.  Jaguar owners’ clubs often given an award called “the cat’s bite” to the owner who had the worst breakdown in the last year.  “Please, tell us just how capricious, how temperamental, how “special” your catastrophe was.”    

Ordinary drivers often feel disconnected from expert car reviewers’ opinions.  How many mainstream motorists power slide through turns or assess aerodynamic stability over the ton?  But if car writers are narcissists and libertines, then “character” people are unfathomable masochists.  From a safe distance, S&M appears to be a more normal (and probably safer) practice than driving a car that “may” work every other weekend.  Besides the uncertainty, there is also the expense (special mechanics, special parts).  The driver/car relationship, seen from the outside, appears completely dysfunctional, even abusive.  Intervention can be tried, but success is doubtful.   

Of course, this love of “character” leads to strong, nay zealous devotion to a marque by a small group of loyalists.  The “believers” don’t love the vehicle in spite of its flaws; they love it because of its flaws.  Ordinary buyers may not see the appeal of a brand that can't build straight. But the sheer strength of the fanatics’ adoration builds the automaker’s image to the point where it can seduce an otherwise sane multinational car company into buying the entire company (Jaguar again).  

There is something to be said for this insanity.  As demented as it may be, the sheer devotion of these fanatics is almost touching.  More importantly, their desire for uniqueness reminds us of the appeal of the car, the individuality that comes with going where you want when you want.  I salute them for reminding us of the century-old roots of auto appeal, and I damn their judgment for doing it in a vehicle only slightly more dependable than those pioneering machines.  

In my wilder moments, I dream of driving some of these famous crocks.  I wouldn’t mind getting behind the wheel of some Paleolithic British roadster, but I’m not crazy enough to buy one.  My family had a Chevy Vega and a VW bus back-to-back.  That’s enough “character” for anybody.

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19 Comments on “The “C” Word...”


  • avatar

    As someone who has been tossing about the “C” word for at least two decades, I strongly disagree with the narrow take of this article. Character can be both good and bad. This editorial focuses entirely on the bad.

    The unique qualities of a vehicle aren’t always bad. And when they come together to make the entire driving experience unique it can be quite a good thing. When Saabs used to have upright, deeply bowed windshields, was that bad? When a Miata reacts to every smidgen of a control input, and talks back in the process, is that bad? When BMWs used to have the center stack canted towards the driver, was that bad?

    These weren’t flaws in my view, but they were unique, and made the cars with them unique.

    The opposite of character is a thoroughly refined, thoroughly mainstream car that is also thoroughly boring to drive.

  • avatar
    chanman

    These must be the kind of people that Mr. Dederer was referring to when he said “But if car writers are narcissists and libertines, then “character” people are unfathomable masochists. ”

    http://www.canadiandriver.com/articles/pb/jbash.htm

    J-platform tuners.

  • avatar
    Spartacus

    You’re making it hard to justify the (future) five small each month with editing like this:

    Ordinary drivers often fell disconnected from expert car reviewers opinions. How many mainstream motorists power slide through turns or assess aerodynamic stability over the ton?

    Do the drivers FEEL disconnected, or have they FELT disconnected?

    I FEEL like there is a lack of literary OCD here like I FELT when I read another editorial earlier this month.

    Kind Regards,

    Spartacus

  • avatar
    Stephan Wilkinson

    Funny, I was just thinking this morning, driving a Saturn Sky–dreadful car in every way, though stylish enough to get lots more thumbs-ups than the Maserati GranSport Spyder I was driving a week ago–that more cars should have their ignition keys somewhere, anywhere, other than on the steering column. And I always though the Saab solution was a pretty good one, since it had a modicum of anti-theft property by locking the shifter.

    Reason is, I wear shorts a lot in the summer, and a column-mounted key’s fob is in the perfect position to tickle my thigh. It’s a function that could, with a little work, be made erotic and marketed as such, but as it is, it’s just annoying. So I drive these cars with my right leg slightly awkwardly angled in under the steering column…and wonder if somwhere in Sweden there’s an elderly Saab designer with a sensitive right thigh.

    Stephan Wilkinson

  • avatar
    Infamous Dr. X

    Excellent point about the ignition placement…I agree wholeheartedly. I too only truly appreciated the console-mounted ignition in the Saab *after* I traded it in and started having freak-outs about spiders, ants, and other undesirables crawling up my shorts, only to discover it was my damn keys.

    So yeah, I guess I’m a member of the Sensitive Right Thigh Society as well. In any event, I tend to agree that character is both good and bad. Kind of the same way ‘personality’ in a car is both good and bad…

  • avatar
    dolo54

    i would bet that most people here have powerslided through a few corners, but i still enjoyed reading this one. not $5/month worth of enjoyment, but a good chuckle none-the-less. anyhow, doesn’t every car have “character”? some just have more than others…

  • avatar

    Gentlemen,

    A careful reading will show that Mr. Dederer has specifically exempted Saab’s key positioning from his definition of unacceptable “character.” He classifies such stylistic flourishes (which probably have sound underlying ergonomic principles) as “design quirks.”

    BTW: I thought BMW lost the plot the moment they produced a car where the dash was no longer angled towards the driver. iDrive in the Ultimate Driving Machine? I think not.

  • avatar
    mgoldleaf

    I’d like to also point out that devoid of character, a car is bland. VW, with their Passat, did such a great job of providing a car that no one would complain about that the thing lacks any reason to comment on it. Its not tasteless, but rather it “tastes”without flavor. It does what it does well enough, but doesn’t warrant any emotion.

    Citroen: quirky yet timeless, French-logical yet easy to understand, oddball placement of controls but intuitive all the same. What happens when they create something like the new C6… something that conforms to what everyone else is doing? It looses character and its uniqueness and its reason for being (although I’m told that it drives a treat!). I guess the only way to NOT mention Citroen in an essay on character is to take a negative view on the topic.

    Keys: Stephan… not much problem with banging keys in yer Gold-Plated Porsche I hope.

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman

    The Saab soultion also has the added benefit of shredding your forearm open in an accident.

    But, totally agreed — cars need more quirk.

    To quote Jeremy Clarkson talking about a Citroen, “Instead of front-wheel drive, why not side-wheel drive?”

    I had a 1985 Pontiac Parisian Safari Station Wagon that had a dealer-installed altimeter (for towing?). Since it measured barometric pressure, a sudden shift in the weather made it useless — regardless, it was the very best option I’ve ever had in a vehicle. Endlessly fascinating and always a conversation starter.

    Also — all cars need kick on brights.

    All.

  • avatar
    Infamous Dr. X

    Kick on brights!

    Had those in my old 81 dodge ram cargo van (with a stick). God bless ’em. Didn’t think they still even existed…

    Speaking of quirks – here’s one that maybe tops the altimeter, as cool as that is. Long story as to how I ended up with this beast, but after college I had the Minivan of Impending Doom – a fire engine red 94 plymouth voyager with a 5-speed MANUAL. Now THAT’S a conversation starter. In the three years of rocking that bad larry, I never met a single person who’d ever seen a minivan with a stick (mechanics included).

    Here’s a question though – is the semi-famous Chrysler Transmission 100K Mile Explosion phenomenon an example of “character”, or just a pain in the ass?

  • avatar

    Lieberman, can you please refrain from mentioning Saab in any of your writings as you’re painfully inaccurate when you do so (the 9-2x review and now this – whatever this is).

    Character is much more than just faults. It’s looks that defy convention but stand over a long period. Innovations that do the same. It’s almost the complete opposite of the doctrine of instant gratification that seems to dominate so much in the world of car design.

    Give me character over bland any day.

  • avatar
    qfrog

    I believe that Saab put the key on the console because keys can be rather painful after a car accident where the knee and the key came to occupy the same time&space via a forceful hand shake .

    Cars that lack flavor are boring, forgettable… they are for people that just want an automotive appliance. Or for people that dont place a high importance on being amused by their personal transport system.

    Cars that are quirky and require that you make a concession or accomodation to accept them into your life are difficult to forget and that may be good in some cases yet in others exceptionally bad. I can say for fact that my ’94 G20 was reliable, it was also a pretty boring car. My ’83 944 was fun and I really enjoyed the car when it was dry (water leaks) and when it wasnt trying to bake me to death (broken heater valve control lever).

  • avatar

    RF, the “edit this” function doesn’t seem to be working.

    I was going to edit my comment above to read 9-3 where I said 9-2x. I believe it was a 9-3 report that got under my skin.

    BTW: Go Miami Heat!

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    Character in the automotive realm doesn’t necessarily mean that one has to bend one’s will to the machine, but there’s an aspect of that to it. (And no, I am not talking about something as literal as the computer “HAL” and Dave the astronaut in “2001: a Space Odyssey.”) The original Volkswagen Beetle had character the current incarnation of Beetle will never have because the new one shares its “platform” (remember when autos had chassis?) with the Golf, etc. etc.
    Yes, the original Beetle ended up sharing its underpinnings with the 411 and the ill-considered Type 181 – better known as “The Thing.” But it pioneered that platform (as a semi-monocoque auto, there was no chassis to speak of, which was part of its unique character).
    An auto with character reminded one that it came from a particular country. There were no “Saabarus” posing as Swedish autos in the days when autos had character.
    I drive an old Volvo, a 1972 Volvo 142E sedan. The key thing is “I-drive” it. There’s a harsh four-speed manual transmission and yes, the four cylinder engine is a tractor-engine, in operation, if not in scope. But when I drive it, there’s a sense of the road and of being in control of a machine, rather than vice-versa. I love the fact that one can’t drive an old Volvo safety while on a cell phone; there’s too much to do.
    The late Warren Weith got me hooked on Volvos, with his many columns on them in Car and Driver. I also had a friend named Gunnar Falck at the Art Center College of Design, back in the late Sixties, when he and I were both students there. I have fond memories of Gunnar and I cruising the Sunset Strip in one of the first 144S sedans, Volvo had given him to drive while he was in the States.
    So while most folks want to talk about cruising in their ’57 Chevrolets, I want to talk about cruising in a Swedish brick. Sweden Rules!

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    Correction: meant to write that one “cant’ drive an old Volvo safely while on a cell phone.”

  • avatar

    I have to comment on the “Ordinary Drivers feel disconnected from expert reviews” line.

    I couldn’t agree more. This is why I only value the opinions of the traditional car rags like MT and R&T and C&D very little. Same goes for Edmunds at this point. When I found TTAC last year by complete accident, it was a breath of fresh air. The reviews were intelligent, yet readable for someone who has never had a chance to rev a Ferrari engine and whose closest brush with real engine power is in a 32v northstar driven Caddy. Hell, up until last year, I had only been in a BMW while valet parking at a country club when I was 17 a decade ago. I find the reviews on this site don’t make me feel like a second class driver like other reviews do.

    I’ve learned, in that decade, to look at the intricacies of the cars that I’ve grown to love, and learn what makes up the character of vehicles. Even my much hated around these parts ’03 Chevy Trailblazer had some character to it. As the article pointed out, it’s the shortcomings that give character as well as the unique things.

    Damn I love this site…

  • avatar

    The Beetle… how great was that. I loved the idea of using the spare tire to pressurize the windshield washing system. It required no moving mechanical parts, used minimal air, and by the time you needed more fluid it was also about time to top up the pressure in the spare.

    Now personally, I wish more cars these days had such elegant solutions and simple accommodations. Instead, the compulsion is to cram a bunch of non-essential crap into our cars. Apparently we all need heated seats, sat-nav, 12 way memory programable power adjusted seats, multi- zone climate control, etc, and so forth. Why? I’d suggest that it’s middle class compulsion – craving what the upper class takes for granted. If MB has it, why not Hyundai? Nope, it’s not just cars, it’s present in the housing market too… its why you can’t buy new construction w/ less than 2K sq feet or anything but granite counter tops. And what we really get is mass-produced crap. Capitalism and economics usher in solutions like single part vendors for multiple brands. Home builders have Home Depot and Lowes, and auto manufactures have Adelphi and shared platforms.

    So we have the vast majority of cars/brands aspiring to things they can’t afford to be – and to get there they dip into the same parts bin and weigh down their watered down products to meet the “demands” of their focus group respondents. Is my life better because my car’s seats are infinitely adjustable? I don’t know, but I don’t think that my car is significantly better and I know that my gas mileage & purchase cost are not helped. But what’s really important – the driving experience, may actually be hurt by the opportunity cost of adding this stupid feature.

    So what do we end up with…mediocre products that do everything just-ok / cars that fail the personality test. If grills, woodgrain color, and key location are what differentiates a Jaguar from the Ford it is based on – or transforms a Subaru to a Saab… aren’t we missing the point. How long does this last? It seems the everything is hung on brand loyalty or looks or price or whim.

    Brand loyalty dies when there is no brand definition
    Looks become common when parts & entire cars are shared
    Price fails to differentiate when brands offer wildly diverse product range
    Whim… I can’t answer this one – I make considered decisions.

    I’ve gotten off topic — END RANT.

    /marc

  • avatar
    Punkey

    As the fortunate beneficiary of a father whose obsession with muscle cars has lead him to use the excuse of buying cars for his children to really buy cars for himself, I have a 1970 El Camino, a car that I think is an excellent example of why this article is both dead-on accurate and completely off.

    First off, it’s an El Camino, the acme of a design that we haven’t seen since, well, the El Camino. It’s fast, it makes a great noise, and if need be, it can carry the bodies of a 1950’s nuclear family in the back with room for the annoying yet endearing neighbor’s kid. The usefulness of the truck bed cannot be overstated, and it has character definately all its own by simply being what it is.

    It also has character of the other type as well. It breaks down in interesting and exciting ways, including attempting to burn me to death with faulty wiring. It may be based off the Chevelle, but the last owner put a Camaro heart in it, something I found out by way of spending twenty minutes under the car trying to fit the wrong oil filter into it. And worst of all, thanks to rust damage, it’s about as waterproof as a fishing net. So in an automatic car wash, even in a moderate rain, it leaks rather badly, soaking the carpets and turning it into a large petri dish for mold and mildew.

    I love it for the good bits of character. I love driving down the street filled with identical Toyotas, BMWs and Mercs in something that is completely unique, gets nods of approval and even the random stoplight offer to take it off my hands for a good sum of money right then and there. But if I owned and maintained it myself, I would have sold it years ago. There’s plenty of cars out there now that are unique and have the good kind of character without the massive heaps of the Stockholm Syndrome-inducing bad character.

  • avatar
    Stephan Wilkinson

    I drive a self-restored ’83 911SC, and I just love it when people at the 7-11 pumps or wherever–no, I’m not one of those Porsche weenies who insists on cheesecloth-strained race fuel–say “What a cool car,” and I tell them it’s coming up on being a quarter-century old even though it looks so contemporary. (It’d be different in Southern California, but in Upstate New York, we get few enoguh Porsches that a lot of people still don’t know what they are.)

    Stephan Wilkinson

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