Just a Car

Wildly popular when new, the BMW e46 chassis is a car with soul, and it's enjoying a revival as a platform for amateur racing.

Use of the phrase, “It’s just a car,” is dichotomous because it can be spot-on at times and glaringly off base at others.

For example, it’s entirely fitting if you’ve just stepped out of a crashed car without injury, and you’re left to survey what insurance carriers would deem a “total loss.” The car can be replaced. It’s just a car. The important thing is that you are OK.

However, more often than not, the expression falls a bit short of the mark in terms of what cars are, at least to a car guy like me whose mind wanders to such things while he’s washing one by hand in preparation for a NASA weekend.

From a right-brain perspective, a car is so much more than something that carries you from point A to point B. Great cars have a soul, something that stirs its owner beyond mere appreciation for its form or utility. Cars with soul have the ability to arouse within their owners a sense of brotherhood — one in which sisters also are welcome — that transcends the idea of transportation.

Cars with soul make you part of something larger than yourself. If you’re reading this, I’m nearly certain you know what I mean when I talk about a car with soul. If you don’t, you need look no further than the paddock at a regular NASA event.

I’m biased, admittedly, but the Mazda Miata enjoys a lofty position as a car with soul. Of course, 3 series BMWs of all vintages, Honda Civics and CRX’s, S2000s, Acura Integras, Corvettes, Vipers, STi’s and 86’s and Mustangs all have soul and a faithful following of drivers who have owned numerous examples of each — and wouldn’t hesitate to buy another. We just bought my son a Mini Cooper, and having driven it I’m convinced that car has a soul.

About a decade or so ago, I read in one of humorist Dave Barry’s columns that, “There’s a fine line between hobby and mental illness.” I’ve never been able to punch a hole in that theory, and cars with soul only reinforce it in my mind. To the right side of the brain, soulful cars are a source of fellowship, an art object and experience to be savored. Who can deny the feminine curviness of the second-generation Miata?

Yes, I know seeing something sensual in an automobile walks that fine line that Dave Barry talked about, but I’m sure you can think of a car that has similar qualities.

From a left-brain perspective, cars are — once again — so much more than mere transportation. The right cars, again, those with soul, can bring opportunity and commerce.

Take the 3 series BMW, for example. Wildly popular when new, the E36 and E46 are enjoying a renaissance as two of the most popular racecars in the NASA paddock. Decent used examples are now available at “donor car” prices and people are putting them on track and rediscovering how wonderful they are. That translates to commerce, a vibrant aftermarket, and full racing grids, whether it’s an M3 destined for German Touring Series competition, or the opportunities for an E36 to be prepped for Spec3 or a 330ci being readied for Spec E46.

Being for the most part a right-brained thinker, I never really considered the avenues for opportunity and commerce that cars bring until I read in Smokey Yunick’s book, “Best Damn Garage in Town.” He was writing about Ed Cole, who was the lead engineer of the original small-block Chevrolet, a brilliant little V8 engine that debuted in 1955 and still lives on to this day.

Yunick remarked about how many people have jobs because of the small-block Chevy and how many businesses that exist because of the commercial viability of that engine. The same line of thought applies to cars. How many jobs and businesses — and NASA racing classes — were derived from the soulful cars mentioned above.

Cars with soul don’t tend to sell in the volumes that SUVs, pickups and crossovers do, but they represent the best of what an automobile can be, which is far more than “just a car.” Sometimes washing one by hand is all it takes to remind us of that.

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