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Confessions of a Sports Car Bolshevik
What it was like to be young and in the front lines when Europe mounted an assault on Detroit with small, snarling, irresistible machines that changed the way we drove and thought
November 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 7
Something about this exotic breed of cars crystallized a latent disaffection with life as I saw it at the time. To a restless adolescent seeking his place in the culturally constipated world of the late forties and early fifties, the sports car dramatically symbolized freedom and self-expression and, pithiest of all, nonconformity. It was flamboyantly individualistic, even selfish: only two seats, for God’s sake. It was impractical. You looked silly driving one in a suit and tie. It was all about speed and exuded a frisson of danger. It was flagrantly anti-American. In brief, the sports car cocked a snook at everything—the John Foster Dulleses and Arthur Godfreys, the Rotary Club, “Your Hit Parade,” fedoras, golf, The Saturday Evening Post , suburbia—that middle-class America in the fifties held dear. It was a playful poke in the eye of the whole weary, dreary, middle-aged Establishment that ran everything and that seemed determined to smother society’s and my life force under layer upon layer of safe conventionality.
And if, in the process, my emerging sports car mania might just happened to stir up a bit of oedipal mischief in the McCall family, well, what the hell. You have to break with the old man sometime, and at seventeen, an eager voluntary commissar of the sports car revolution, I couldn’t imagine a worthier pretext.
It may have been the first oedipal dilemma fought out on four wheels. Dad might be described as the worldliest Babbitt on earth. He was an ex-newspaperman, well traveled, who considered his mind broad and his sophistication cosmopolitan. He also distrusted every new idea he ever met, hugged convention the way a koala hugs a tree, and knew in his bones that “European” was a synonym for decadence, corruption, and seventy or so other deadly sins. A stodgy Dodge was good enough for him, for any normal person. His own flesh and blood’s curious affinity for European sports cars verged on perversion.
It rapidly escalated in his eyes to something like attempted patricide in 1953, when Dad took a job as the head of public relations for Chrysler of Canada. When you hired T. C. McCall, you got his heart and his soul, and his Doberman loyalty, at no extra cost. Never particularly car-minded before, he became a walking, talking, full-time one-man lobby for the Automobile Manufacturers’ Association and a splenetic one. No matter that the foreign-car invasion was still no more than a lone rowboat far out at sea, and that 99.5 percent of the market belonged to the domestic industry; any Canadian or American caught even thinking about cars with foreign nameplates deserved to be caned. The sight of a foreign puddle jumper parked within eyeshot of his house was a personal affront. And any son of his caught up in this idiotic fad was a professional embarrassment and an ingrate. No, make that a viper nursing at his breast.
Sorry, Dad, but I was too far gone. If my deviant automotive beliefs brought family exile and martyrdom, so be it. Like a persecuted Christian in ancient Rome, I went underground, feeding my religious zeal with smuggled tracts— Sports Cars Illustrated, Car Life , and Road & Track from the U.S.A., Autocar and Motor from the U.K., quickie sports car guides and classic car paperbacks from wherever I could grab them. I hadn’t money enough to even dream about owning one, but sports cars by now more than dominated my life; they were the prism through which I saw life. It was all so clear: If only everything were as enlightened and creative and bold, as fresh as the sports car, what a wonderful world it would be.
The agony of choice could drive men mad. The sports car landscape of the mid-fifties resembled a pre-1914 map of the Balkans, a bewildering patchwork of tiny independent entities. That a good two-thirds of them were English was no coincidence. Their factories pounded into varying heaps of rubble during the war, the handful of German, Italian, and French carmakers that had managed to resume production after 1945 were only now turning again to sports cars. Continental sensations like the first-generation Mercedes-Benz 300SL and the Alfa Romeo Giulietta as yet had few North American dealers, much less customers. Meanwhile, England—where the sports car had always been a virtual cottage industry—was again a hive of manufacture, and from AC to Aston Martin, Berkeley to Bristol, Jaguar to Jensen, MG to Morgan, and Sunbeam to Singer, most makers were shipping the lion’s share of their output overseas in England’s desperate postwar export drive. In the U.S.A. and perhaps even more so in the British Commonwealth member Canada, you could have virtually any English sports car you fancied.