Dave Barry

These cars can't be tuned

(This classic Dave Barry column was originally published June. 29, 2003.)

So the other day I was waiting at a stoplight in my car, which is nice, but like most cars today, boring. For example, when you turn the key, it starts. Every time! It has one of those modern, quiet, dependable engines. At least I ASSUME it has an engine: I've never had a reason to look under the hood. For all I know, there's a small alien spacecraft in there.

Cars were different back when I got my first driver's license, just after the invention of roads. In those days, cars were powered by an insane system called ''internal combustion,'' which involved gasoline actually EXPLODING INSIDE THE ENGINE. Naturally, this was very hard on engine parts such as the ''carburetor'' and the ''pinions.'' Cars were always breaking down, which meant that, if you were a male, you were always opening the hood so you could glare manfully at the engine until somebody came along who actually knew how to fix it. In those days, you did not expect perfection from a car. For example, in 1971, I bought a Chevrolet Vega, which was the result of a bet among General Motors designers to see if they could make a car entirely out of plastic and rust. If a Vega had a head-on collision with a moth, the Vega would be reduced to a small pile of subatomic particles, while the moth would flit away, laughing. For several years, the only way I could start my Vega was to raise the hood and use a screwdriver to connect two pieces of metal; any thief could have done the same thing, but no thief ever did. ''He's so stupid, he'd steal a Vega,'' was a popular expression among car thieves.

So by today's nitpicky standards, the Vega was not so much a motor vehicle as a paperweight with a horn. And yet I vividly remember that car, unlike the cars I've had in recent decades, all of which have the personality of a pension actuary. In fact, that might be the formal name of my current car: The Actuary.

So anyway, I was at this stoplight, and a guy about my age pulled up next to me in a Pontiac GTO convertible, 1964 or 1965 I believe, light blue, top down, engine rumbling. I lowered my window and said: ``Nice Goat.''

Lest you think I am some kind of pervert who was trying to fondle this man's livestock, I should explain that ''Goat'' is the hepcat slang nickname we used to use for the GTO.

''Thanks,'' said the GTO driver, and the light turned green, and he rumbled off, gasoline exploding audibly in his large internal-combustion engine, while I glided forward in my eerily silent Actuary, which I think runs on a computer hard drive powered by nuclear fusion. I knew the GTO guy would probably have to pull over within the next 150 yards for gas, oil, new pinions, etc., but I was jealous of him. I found myself humming ''Little GTO,'' the 1964 hit by Ronny and the Daytonas, in which Ronny describes the GTO in loving technical detail (''Three deuces and a four speed and a 389'') and the Daytonas, not quite in tune, sing: 'Turnin' it on! Blowin' it out! Turnin' it on! Blowin' it out!''

That was from the Golden Age of Car Songs, songs like the Beach Boys' ''409'' (''My four-speed, dual-quad, positraction 409!'') and of course Chuck Berry's ''Maybelline,'' in which Chuck's V-8 Ford (pronounced ''Foad'') chases down a Cadillac, and Chuck displays his grasp of automotive thermodynamics (''Rainwater blowin' all under my hood; I knew that was doin' my motor good'').

Nobody will ever write a song like that about my Actuary, or any other modern car. Modern cars are just not songworthy.

The other guys are all jealous of me

When I cruise in my Hyundai Elantra GT

And the girls always feel a romantic explosion

When they learn that my warranty covers corrosion

No, today's cars are just not exciting. I've thought about getting a fun old car, like a GTO or a vintage Mustang. But then I'd have to keep it garaged, find a mechanic, etc. So maybe instead I'll just get a vintage Vega. I'll keep it in a Tupperware container, which I'll carry in my glove compartment. When I encounter other vintage-car guys, I'll lower my window, and shake my Vega at them. That way they'll know that, inside my Actuary, I am still cool.

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