There’s a very old joke about a man driving a huge Cadillac through the sticks in the southern States. He stops at an ancient service station for ‘gas’ (to buy some, not because he has it). The young hick serving him has never seen such a vehicle – sorry – ‘vee-hickle’, and is awestruck.
He points to small plastic spikes with a flared and round end that are sitting on the dashboard.
“What are those?”
The man looks at the golf tees and says “they’re for putting my balls on when I’m driving.”
“Wow,” says the kid. “Those Cadillac-makers think of everything.”
Haven’t told that one for decades (ever?) But it came to mind tonight as I was trying to encapsulate my thoughts and feelings upon seeing a land yacht parked up opposite our house, of a type you only see in old episodes of Kojak, or as a good sight gag in Serial.
I also got to thinking about what the sociologist Georg Simmel called “the hypertrophy of objective culture” – by which I understand him to mean that we humans are surrounded with so many damn THINGS (of our own making), that it affects how we think about the world (ask me some time about coming back from the ‘Third World’ and getting ‘supermarket shock’).
Cars this big are a very clear living fossil of the world when fossil fuels were ‘cheap’. Of a world before the 1973 Oil Shock, where oil prices quadrupled in six months, and the world economy – and society- changed for ever. Along came stagflation, (Nixon had already ended the tie of the US dollar to the Gold Standard). Along came talk of New International Economic Orders. Along came the belief that the old economic order might crumble. Along came neoliberalism.
Taking this back further though, the fetish for cars with distinctive features, – which would help you display your masculinity, prowess and disposable income – was created by clever marketeers for General Motors and Chrysler in the 1920s. They knew they could not compete on price or reliability against the Model T Ford. So instead they started marketing basically irrelevant stylistic changes. Ford fought back with price drops, but eventually conceded – thus the Model A…
Meanwhile, I think what it must have been like to be young (and white and western. And male) in the petro-age, in that world between say 1950 and 1970, as the Western Economies grew at 5 or more per cent a year. Harley Earl and the Great Acceleration. When we were going to have better living through technology, and when the women, the blacks, the homosexuals and Mother Nature all knew their place – in the kitchen, under the thumb, in the closet and under control. You know, the “Good Old Days”: if you happen to be… a patriarchal, racist, homophobic…. human.
And I don’t know about you, but I can understand – without sharing – the desperate need of old white men for the days of their youth – when a Cadillac Coup de Ville was a magnet, a solution to existential anxieties and problems of where to go with a young lady while still living at home “The spacious back seat of your room mate’s beat up Chevrolet.”
Different emissions at play now. These cars are a warning of our hubris. One, at least belongs in a museum. Well above sea-level.
Postscript: Literally as I finished this blog post, someone got in the thing and sailed it away. It growled.