Do you pat your car’s fender after putting it away in the garage? Do you give it a name? Do you call it “he” or “she”? If so, you’re not alone — millions of otherwise normal Americans treat their inanimate cars as if they were alive. Why else the outrage when all those EV-1s got crushed in "Who Killed the Electric Car?"
I’m not reporting this from some high cliff of superiority — I do it too. When I scrape my car’s paint, it’s as if it is feeling actual physical pain. Why do we do this? Frankly, it’s complicated. The ownership of an automobile (and especially a classic with a long history) is intertwined with all the emotional experiences we’ve had in it, from a first kiss to the drive to the hospital when baby’s due. You can’t just send it to the crusher without a second thought, but you also have to put it in clear perspective — it’s not alive!
Understanding the emotional attachment people develop toward firearms is a bit harder for me, but it’s obviously there for millions of Americans.
I was reminded of this whole phenomenon this week by two unrelated incidents. In the first, Bob Palma, a columnist for Hemmings Classic Car, is moved to rage by an insurance institute’s crashing of a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air (Stovebolt Six and Powerglide, if you were wondering). Here’s the gory video: (Viewer discretion is advised.)
Now, the point here is that cars of that era were not very safe, and that’s underscored by the Bel Air’s total annihilation at the hands of a 2009 Malibu. In real life the impact would have killed the occupants in the old Chevy, cute as it is. The Malibu driver, in an intact passenger cabin, with advanced safety protection, could probably have walked away. The fatality rate in crashes of that era — with no crumple zones, seat belts, breakaway steering columns or airbags — was much higher. That’s why the death toll hasn’t gone up (much) despite a vast increase in vehicle miles traveled. As Consumer Reports pointed out, the crash test “shows just how far passenger protection has come in the last 50 years.” But the columnist (writing in the March 2013 issue, though the Bel Air went to glory in 2009) completely misses the point, instead bemoaning the sad fate of that two-tone classic car.
“That Bel Air was a well-preserved original car,” wrote Palma, who’d actually inspected it in Arizona before it was sold to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for $8,500. “That bat-wing sweetheart had survived five decades, only to suffer five seconds of intentional — not accidental — destruction in a vain, senseless act.” Palma wrote the IIHS a “terse” two-page letter condemning the crash test as “grandstanding” that was “foolish” and “irresponsible.”
Readers of a New York Times column on the crash test were similarly incensed. “What a waste of a nice ’59 Chevy Belair!” says one. “What a waste of a sweet Bel Air,” adds another. “Nice whitewalls.” I'm recalling similar grief over the hugely successful Cash for Clunkers program ("they crushed a perfectly good 1964 Le Mans!"). As much as classic car owners (and I'm one) don't want to admit it, their shiny beasts are often big polluters, minus catalytic converters and other emissions equipment.
At least some of us (not me) are similarly fetishistic about guns. That’s demonstrated clearly in a column written by Steve Kozachik, vice mayor and City Council member in Tucson, Ariz., (scene of the Gabby Giffords shooting). He led a local gun buyback program (turn your weapon in to the police and get a $50 grocery coupon) that met with a furious reaction.
“The response made it clear the event I was planning hit a nerve among a group who evidently believe the proper disposal of a firearm is tantamount to the desecration of a holy icon,” said Kozachik, who has recently switched his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat in protest of the party’s position on guns.
“Guns are not fetish objects,” Kozachik wrote. But they obviously are for people who hate the idea of perfectly good rifles and pistols going out of circulation. Being killed, as it were.
I’m not advocating the crushing of all classic cars or the melting down of every gun. I’m just sayin’. Perhaps we’re getting a bit too emotionally attached to these man-made objects. If it would save one kid’s life, taking some deadly weapons out of circulation isn’t that big a price to pay. If it would stop one horrific fatal crash and teach us more about safety, saying R.I.P. to some antique car survivors is perfectly justified.