Saturday, August 12, 2006

Rattletrap jalopy

My friend Ian was visiting from Chicago the other day and we went out to dinner in the city. At one point, the subject of lousy cars came up, and I mentioned the worst vehicle I have ever driven, along with the advantages of having a lousy car.

It was a 1978 Dodge Aspen owned by the research group I was a member of in the early 80's and shared by all the students who were living on site at Fermilab. It was only fitfully maintained, (nobody wanted to do the paperwork for reimbursement) since I don't think at the time that safety inspections were a requirement for keeping up the registration. Because of this, the rigors of the climate, and the inherent low quality of the construction, it was quite a mess by the time I encountered it. The muffler was rotting out, the hinges on the passenger side door would shriek loudly when you opened the door, the suspension was bouncy and soft, the car probably had never been aligned and would more-or-less slowly drift toward the gutter left to its own devices, and the broken contacts for the horn inside the steering column would cause random honking when you turned the wheel. Driving 40 mph (the speed limit on site at the lab) felt like you were going 80, with the underpowered 6 cylinder engine valiantly laboring to bring the monster up to speed.

At this point in my story, I made my confession: what a thrill it was to drive! Certainly much more of a test of nerves than the Mercedes SL series owned by one of the other students.

Junk car

Consider: one cannot legally race on road anywhere in the country, so having a car that goes 180 mph is nearly pointless. But with the right kind of preparation, you could get the same delicious sensation of danger, the alarming vibration in the driveshaft, the random buzzes and clatters under the hood, the body lurch when taking a turn, without necessarily needing all the speed or acceleration. Of course, nowadays with strict safety and emissions requirements, simply allowing car to deteriorate for real is not an option, so much of the features of having a heap should really be simulated, not real. For instance, since actual suspension bounce can be dangerous when one has to maneuver in critical situations, one could get something of the same sense by installing a servo on the seat mounting to give a little jolt, not too much, based on amplified road feel. Toss out your fancy high-tech radio while you're at it and put in an antique pushbutton unit which you have to work at tuning to bring any stations in, and put a piece of whippy metal coat hanger there in place of an antenna, and even listening to music becomes an adventure.

Naturally, when it comes to having a wreck of a vehicle, it is possible to go too far.

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