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Hobbes and Small Cars

Ford Aspire

Ford Aspire

I’ve discovered Eric Felten. Felten wrote the weekly column How’s Your Drink for the Saturday Weekend Journal section of the Wall Street Journal until last month. Since I essentially never drink cocktails, I hadn’t paid much attention. I happily read Raymond Sokolov’s Eating Out column and Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher’s Tastings column. But cocktails? Nah.

Alas, I now realize that I’ve been missing the work of a fine writer.

Felten’s final column, A Valedictory Toast, appeared last month. As he explained there, “Starting the week after next, I will be taking on a new challenge, writing the De Gustibus column on the Taste page of the Weekend Journal every Friday. It’s a chance to look at American culture and the way we live today from a perspective somewhat wider than that behind the bar.”

It took me three of Felten’s new columns before I realized that it was a new regular feature, and that I really liked Felten’s writing, whatever the topic. Felten, it turns out, is not just a writer. He’s a jazz singer, trombonist, and band leader. One can learn more about him at his website. And it must have been natural, given his musical taste, for him to devote his first De Gustibus column to movie songs, in response to the announcement that week by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that in the Oscar award category for best original song, “if, in the nomination-voting, no song rises to a certain minimum score, then ‘there will be no nominees and thus no Oscar presented for the category.'”

Felten’s interpretation is that this “has less to do with maintaining standards than with making room for clips from the extra films that will now be contending for best picture.” He goes on to discuss the decline in quantity and quality of original songs in the movies, perhaps brought home best in the following passage:

But there is also a sense that the best-original-song category just isn’t what it used to be, that the movies aren’t producing the sort of tunes they once seemed to manufacture with ease. There were years when the Oscars considered songs so brilliant that even the losers became standards. Take 1936, when “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Pennies From Heaven” were defeated by “The Way You Look Tonight.” In the decades to come, the Academy would give awards to songs such as “Over the Rainbow,” “Mona Lisa,” “All the Way” and “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Compare them with the deathless melody honored for best movie song of 2005: “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” All together now, let’s all hum a few bars . . . anybody?

Now, mind you, I don’t think I’ve heard the song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” I might love it. So I don’t want to just nod along in agreement with Felten. But those 1936 songs make quite a trio.

This past Friday, Felten turned his attention to GM current car design efforts and the quality of design of small cars over the years by US auto companies. You may recall that the great Bob Lutz returned from a brief retirement two weeks ago to re-assume control of GM designs. Felten opens his column by taking Lutz to task over recent comments:

With General Motors fresh out of bankruptcy, veteran GM exec Robert A. Lutz took to the Internet this week to do some crotchety cheerleading in a chat at the company’s Web site. One questioner had the temerity to write: “In my group it is just uncool to drive a GM car — even if they are as good as the imports.” He asked Mr. Lutz how he planned to turn that attitude around.

“I guess it depends whether you have your own personality or whether you are a lemming-like follower of current trends,” Mr. Lutz grouched. “I think an audacious and bold person with a mind of his or her own would go to a dealership and see that our new vehicles easily trounce the foreign competition. . . . It’s uncool to drive an import.” Some salesmanship.

If it was odd to berate and belittle a potential customer, stranger still was the claim that imports are passé. Strange, because Mr. Lutz is himself an avid automotive importer. Just a couple of days before, Mr. Lutz had trumpeted his plan to re-badge the Australian-built Pontiac G8 sedan as a Chevrolet.

Detroit’s eagerness to attach its famous brand names to cars that were designed elsewhere may have something to do with its downfall: Cars get us around, of course, but they also, in their look and feel, capture a cultural outlook, a spirit, even a national identity. You can’t count on that anymore, especially when it comes to small cars.

Felten’s critical eye turns to Ford next: “Who can forget, as hard as they may try, Ford’s re-badged Kia subcompact, the dismal Aspire? (The joke went that Aspire owners aspired to own real cars.) Such cars help car makers meet mileage standards on the cheap, but outsourcing so much design cheats small ‘American’ cars of any identifiably American style.”

What about the title of this post? Well, that’s explained by Felten’s closing thoughts, with which I leave you:

Style is no less important with small cars than large — perhaps more so. No doubt it is difficult to come up with distinctive shapes for vehicles that share the basic dimensions of a golf cart. But the challenge also presents an opportunity. Daimler’s much-talked-about Smart car is crabbed and clumsy-looking. Surely an American designer can do better. As Apple has shown time and again, high- concept American style can go a long way in selling small products. Must our little cars be nasty and brutish in addition to being short?

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Categories: Automobiles, Design, Movies, Music
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