Burton on the Bay

Vol. 8, No. 31
Aug. 3-9, 2000
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Accounting for Tastes:
Burton Eyes a New Car

It is the addition of strangeness to beauty that constitutes the romantic character in art.

-Appreciation, Walter Pater: 1889

y contemporary standards, there was an awesome ration of strangeness to the Patriot-blue work of art that pulled up alongside me at a stoplight on Ritchie Highway in Severna Park the other day. I was almost ashamed of the Subaru workhorse stationwagon that I've had the keys to since '92.

Now it takes an awful lot to get my attention in the field of automotive engineering and design in these days when almost all cars look alike - the same for vans and SUVs. They vary in size and color, and, of course, in price and vintage, but for the most part, they're look-alikes.

I'm not one much for fads and glitter in the things I own and drive. I want something that will accommodate comfortably my six-foot frame and the few extra pounds I continually promise to lose within the month. I ask only that it start when I turn the key, and once started it keeps going. In doing so, it shouldn't guzzle excessive fuel to contaminate the air and deplete our natural resources.

The old Subaru wagon fits the bill. It was paid for the day I drove it home, it's a miser in fuel economy, the four-wheel drive is invaluable in snow and ice, and not once has it failed to purr when the ignition was activated. Also, it can accommodate enough fishing tackle to equip me for angling anywhere within driving distance for days.

For a funeral, wedding or to pack extra adults comfortably in the back seat, there's always wife Lois' '99 Avalon, the biggest car Toyota makes. So why was I looking - and with envy - at that blue curiosity at the light in Severna Park?

Mongrel Appeal

Beauty as we feel it is something indescribable; what it is or what it means can never be said.

-The Sense of Beauty, George Santayana: 1896

Get the point? I can't tell you why that new Chrysler PT Cruiser struck me as so beautiful. Nor can I even speculate why it does the same for so many other drivers whose fascination makes it the hottest car on today's market.

It's small, even smaller than my Subaru; it's inexpensive by the standards of today, is nothing special in interior and operational departments. You won't see one souped up on the Winston Cup tour, but you will see some envious would-be owners more than willing to put up a full one-third extra or more in moola to own one without standing in line. Four months is too long to wait.

Hey, I love the car, even though I haven't been inside one, and learned this morning that I have no opportunity to do so at Tate Dodge, Chrysler and Plymouth in Annapolis. The Tate folks don't have one; they've delivered 25, have 60 on order, and Les Warfield tells me "we easily get 15 to 20 calls a day about the PT Cruiser."

I have this thing about cars. If one is really different while being affordable, I'm interested. And I want to be first to own one; not just to be ahead of the pack, but because the quicker I'm in the driver's seat, the more time I'll have enjoying its distinctiveness.

It took a lot of finagling about 20 years ago to be among the first to handle the wheel of a Volkswagen Rabbit diesel made in Germany (the imported variety had round headlights; the U.S. version, rectangular headlights). The same was true several years earlier when I became the owner of one of the first VW Things, a sporty, lighter and cheaper version of a Jeep.

Then, even earlier, there was the Nash Metropolitan convertible, the first mini sports car since the Crosley. And let's not forget the AMC Marlin, the first in ages with a sloped roof to-tail-design. All were different, truly unique, and, thankfully, mechanically sound.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This beholder sometimes demands traditional, old-fashioned design. What car can compare in design to the old Packards with their solid and distinctive grills? Volvo came close and stayed that way for years before giving up its characteristic front end and box-like shape to look like any other expensive car on the highway.

Probably that's what gets me about the PT. It's a boxy critter with an old-fashioned grill situated between a pair of ultra-modern swept-like headlights. Hell, it looks something like the old 1940 pre-WW II Ford, which came out four years after what I consider the finest practical auto of all time: the 1936 Chevrolet.

Nostalgia, sure there's some of that in all of this. That front end of the PT Cruiser brings me back to when cars were distinctive: You could tell one brand from another at a hundred yards. And there were bumpers, real chrome trim and sturdy, running boards and boxy overall configurations as manufacturers targeted interior space.

Though the bumpers are curved built-ins and there's no running board, there are real, distinctive curved fenders. So the PT reminds me of an era long gone but obviously missed even by those born a generation or two after it passed.

Here we've got a vehicle built on a Plymouth Neon frame (though several inches shorter in wheelbase) that's a combination of a pre-war sedan with a lot of SUV and mini-van mixed in. It's a mongrel, but aren't some of the best dogs just that?

Cuter Than a Bug

The market loves it. The normal waiting list is four months or more, and some buyers have anted up an extra 10 grand to start driving immediately a flivver that has a base price tag of $14,880, and with all kinds of extras can go a thousand bucks or two above $20,000.

It's great, the whole thing; great because it caught Daimler-Chrysler off guard: Those folks didn't realize Americans like something different, affordable and practical. Chrysler can't keep up with orders. It's increased production capacity and still can't keep up. The market rules, which is refreshing.

Even the new VW Bug - or if you prefer, Beetle - wasn't close to the impact of the PT. Sales were only half as much. What else can it be other than a bunch of drivers starved for individualism, something unique - something beautiful.

It can't be power, though the PT has a 150-horsepower engine, peppy for something so small. It can't be for off-road; it's two wheel drive. Nor can it be contemporary styling: It's curiously cumbersome looking from the back of the hood to the tail end.

But it's different by golly, and that's obviously what Americans like. They're tired of living in developments where every home looks alike, and so does every market, convenience store, gas station, airliner, cruise ship, bagel and computer. That's just how Apple upset the apple cart a few years ago when it introduced its iMac of distinctive configuration and colors from grape to lime: The rush was on.

So all this hoopla about the PT Cruiser is great. It's letting the makers and manufacturers know that we don't all want to be clones and we don't want to buy clones. We want things that are distinctive and different, to hell with standard contemporary appearances shoved down our throats. Enough said...

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Bay Weekly