Auto-Biography: Loyalties Tested

(first posted in 2007)    As an immigrant back in the days of the “melting pot,” I was as eager to assimilate as a wide-eyed frat pledge amongst his potential brothers. I tried to forget German, made efforts to learn baseball, and was deeply smitten by American automobiles. I repressed memories of my abandoned European flames: Porsche, Mercedes and Jaguar. But my jilted lovers found me hiding in Iowa, and began to torment me with their seductive powers.

My violin teacher drove to school in a baby-blue Porsche 356 Cabriolet she’d picked up in Germany. (The Teutonic roadster still wore its white oval export plates.) Her profession was auto-appropriate; the boxer’s piston quartet con blower performed its concerto wherever she drove. I could hear the Porsche’s siren song from blocks away as I walked home from school.

One rainy afternoon, she stopped and offered me a ride home. Oh, those tan stitched-leather seats! The exquisite VDO instruments! The impeccable steering wheel with its Porsche coat of arms! The sounds! If it weren’t for her mustache, I would have prayed for a kidnapping.

When new neighbors moved in down the street, they brought a shiny black Mercedes 220 SE sedan with them. Comparisons between the doctor’s imported German sedan with our domestic Ford Fairlane were inevitable. They were both black and similarly sized. Both cars sported red interiors and questionable finlets on their hind-quarters. Beyond that, there was a world of difference between them.

The Mercedes’ deeply-tucked, anatomically-correct front buckets and back seat made the hard plasticky slabs in the Fairlane look and feel like the benches at our local Greyhound bus station. The Merc’s well-wooded and padded dash, with its beautiful plated castings protruding from its surface, dripped with German Kunstwerk.  The Fairlanes’… didn’t.

In the engine room, the Mercedes’ fuel-injected OHC six bristled with alloy castings, making the Ford V8 look primitive. Adding insult to injury, the little six made more horsepower than the eight.

More painful observations: The Mercedes automatic had four speeds; the Ford-O-Matic had two. And a glance under the rear revealed a sophisticated low-pivot IRS and coils, versus a solid axle and leaf springs.

The Merc’s owner liked to drive German-style. A brisk ride on the brand new autobahn I-80 in the 220 SE made the sum of its advanced parts all too obvious. Instead of wallowing along, this baby felt planted down, rock solid at 85 or more. The well-damped long-travel suspension soaked up the frost heaves and expansion joints like a black leopard on the run. The nervous six’s raspy warm-up scales around town turned into a silky soprano aria at speed.

Ford 1931 Model A_Deluxe_Tudor

The doctor’s other car was a black Ford Model A, which he drove to work when the whim struck. It was already an antique. We played “The Untouchables” in it for hours on end. As I got to know the Model A and the Benz better, I began to have a creeping realization that our Fairlane had a lot more in common with its Ford progenitor than I wanted to admit.

The final blow was the great modeling showdown with my older brother. One Saturday, we bought car models at Kresge’s. I picked a modest-scale 1962 Corvette. He grabbed a brand new model: a magnificent large scale red Jaguar XK-E.

My brother was blessed with surgeon’s hands. He collected broken radios, disassembled them, and created new electronic devices from scratch. My hands fell more into the farmer/carpenter vocational arena. They were clumsy executors of my “the more the better” philosophy regarding cement. The fact that my ‘Vette model was a smaller scale and had about one-tenth the parts of his superbly complex XK-E only underscored the lopsided-ness of this sibling rivalry.

Never having seen a Jaguar XK-E in the flesh, his model blew me away. Its deliciously-long front end was like a well-sucked cherry Popsicle on a hot summer day. Flipping up the plastic bonnet revealed that worship-inducing cathedral of an engine, surrounded by a spider’s web of tiny chromed or shiny black parts, punctuated by the exclamation marks of the knock-off wire wheels.

Turning over the model and looking under that red mini-skirt rear end was like opening your parent’s family medicine book and seeing things you couldn’t have even imagined. The Jag’s complex erector-set conglomeration of struts, springs, shocks, in-board disc brakes, u-joints and half-shafts was a complete revelation.

I knew all too well that my Corvette’s cement-pocked body hid a pathetic cart axle and leaf springs. Before long, it too was consigned to another pyrotechnic “accident” in the drive-way.

I felt beat-up. The new ’63 Sting Ray was soothing balm on my wounds. But my unconditional love for American wheels was never quite the same again.

And I realized I was never going to be any good at baseball. Soccer, anyone?