Sunday, May 31, 2009

Reflections of a (Jaundiced and Olde) German Car Fanatic, Sparked By A Citroen....a CITROEN?!?

This afternoon, while enjoying a drive through Salisbury, Maryland (the Paris of the Eastern Shore) with my wife, I spotted, to my great surprise and delight (and to my wife's shock, since I think I scared her when I shouted...HOLY CRAP!! LOOKITHAT!!!!) a very beautiful and very rare Citroen SM parked at the local Best Buy. If you haven't seen a Citroen(Maserati) SM, it is an exceedingly sleek and futuristic (even 38 years later) luxury/GT coupe from a collaboration between Citroen and Italy's Maserati, which supplied the powertrain. I was so smitten by this "blast from the past" that I turned into the parking lot so I could stop and examine this lovely and oh-so-interesting car. It was a glowing bronze color with a tan interior, and was in really nice condition. We waited around awhile, hoping for the owner to come out and strike up a conversation (Here in the "DelMarVa" region of the East Coast, the owner of a Citroen SM would probably keel over dead from cardiac arrest if he met anyone else who even knew what kind of car it was, much less be interested in it! ). The owner never showed up, unfortunately. He was probably out foraging for parts. Needless to say, it was really fun and refreshing to see, for a change, a car that is not only really cool and intriguing, but is a genuine "sparker" for an old(ish) car freak like mydamnself. I used to sit in my high school classes doodling Citroen SMs endlessly back "in the day"; they were so captivating for me (my grades reflected this, by the way). It was the car of the future, but it was already here (so to speak, if you were an American). I coveted the SM then, and today is no different. It still looks like it's from 20 years from now. Absolutely stunning in every way.

The Citroen SM. It came from France, but please don't hold that against it! For one, glorious moment, the French got it RIGHT:

So, what does an encounter with a funny-looking French car have to do with the title of this screed? Nothing really, except for this: It got me to thinking, long and hard, about how much my thinking about automobiles has changed in recent years, yet in so many ways, remains pretty much the same at the same time. Pretty schizoid, eh?

Well, to any young whippersnappers out there, just you wait until you get to be MY age, dagnabbit! Back when I was a kid (which would be, say, south of approximately 30 years old), the whole automotive universe was in perfect order, and everything made perfect sense to me. I had it all figured out, you see. It was simple, really. I can state VWLarry's Theorem of Automotive Relativity in one simple declarative sentence: German cars are all that is good and right and perfect, and all other cars are scheisse (German for "poopee"). See! Isn't that easy, and isn't the logic absolutely airtight? The world of cars, seen through the prism of my youthful enthusiasm, was easy to understand, and of course I KNEW that I was right. After all, my buddies all felt the same way that I did, and we endlessly validated each other's opinions about the wonderfulness of German wagens (German for "car". We felt then that we had to use German words as often as possible when talking about cars, in order to elevate ourselves, and the cars, out of the mundane). German cars were, over-engineered. They were elegant, stern, and defiantly UN-stylish. They were beautifully crafted and assembled, and they were the cars of the AUTOBAHN. 'Nuf said. Needless to say, that last statement was about the ONLY thing that my buddies and myself weren't completely full of scheisse about.

This illustration is only slightly less idealized than my youthful image of the Deutschen Autobahnen:

We ran around in Beetles, Karmann Ghias, Porsches (356s and 912s), Volkswagen Type 3s, a Mercedes Benz 190SL or two (just about the most beautifully crafted postwar car I've ever laid eyes on); even a fabulously weird and wonderful '52 Mercedes Benz 220S sedan that my best friend bought for a song from a local import-car guru, and other goofy and totally unpatriotic (we lived in steelmill country on the Southside of Chicago, and "foreign car" types like us hippie/commies weren't too popular with the locals) automobiles. Most of them were rustier than the Titanic (another delightful characteristic of German cars of yore), but we didn't care...we drove GERMAN cars! I was the "scholar" of our group, and read everything that I could lay my hands on that dealt with the automobiles of Germany (along with anything else that remotely dealt with automobiles, period...I'm obsessive, folks). German cars were IT; Germany was the Nirvana of motorized creation, construction, and transportation, and Germans had the Secret of Automotive Perfection installed in their very genes. I mean, who could argue such truth?

German cars, even rusted, clapped-out Beetles, were all direct descendants of these Teutonic totems, in our view:

As for the cars from other nations, well, we had our opinions. British cars were amusing, even fun, and they always inspired the best jokes about them (Why do the English drink warm beer? Because they have LUCAS refrigerators! HAH! ), and so on. But who in their right mind would ever want to DRIVE AROUND in a car that would most likely NEVER assist you in reaching your destination? I mean really! And those goofy SU carburetors...who in the hell could ever figgerout how THEY worked? British cars also always seemed to smell wet inside, too, kind of like a metallic English Sheepdog just in from the rain. I couldn't ever own an English car anyway, since my dad HATED oil stains on his driveway. The one English car I ever owned myself was a 1964 English Ford Cortina GT. Somehow it did not leak any oil. I think it was the only one.

My Cortina GT looked like this one. It not only didn't leak any oil, but it was a BLAST to drive. Nobody ever said the Brits don't build FUN cars.

Italian cars were interesting. "Interesting". That's a way of damning them with faint praise. You could hear them rusting if you listened hard enough, and the steering wheel was always too far away, with the pedals too close. You felt like they were designed for gorillas to drive, fer cripesakes! But, they sure were pretty, for the most part. This was a real virtue for Italian cars, because keeping them running involved endless searching and waiting for spare parts, so you basically were left with nothing but a nice thing to look at most of the time. True story. I had a friend who dated a girl back in the early 1970s, and she drove a Fiat 850 Spyder. It was a very cute and very "cool" car in many ways, but it very seldom actually ran for much more than a half-hour or so consecutively, even though it was well-maintained and in good running condition. One night, very late, after downing many many beers with another buddy, my friend and the other fellow went out into the garage where the little Spyder sat, and took turns whacking it for the next few hours with a sledgehammer. By daylight, they had reduced the Fiat to about 16 inches in height, and that morning, 6 or 7 big strong guys carried it out and put it into my friend's dad's pickup truck for disposal. "Fix It Again, Tony", done Sopranos style.

So pretty, yet so troublesome. Most of them sleep with the fishes today:

American cars were for dolts, period. They were cars for mouthbreathers and bottomfeeders and tirescreechers at the local drive-in. We sniffed and sneered in their general direction, and left it at that. Some of us, though, had these lingering feelings of affection toward them, yet dared not reveal our terrible, dark secret. To express even grudging approval of a 1970s American car back then would be to invite ridicule, and possibly complete ostracism from the "brotherhood". I liked Ford Pintos, but you damned well didn't hear it from ME!

My first new car came the year I graduated from high school. It was a shiny new 1971 Pinto. I LOVED that car. After I finished modifying it, it looked something like this one. My heresy lasted two years.

Japanese cars basically didn't exist in the early seventies, especially in our neck 'o the woods, the industrial Midwest. They simply weren't yet on the radar screen. My brother and I went to the local Ford dealership, in January of '71, my senior year in highschool, and test drove a funny little new car from Japan they were selling...the Honda 600 Coupe. It was a two-cylinder microcar that we almost couldn't fit into, and I remember we found it strangely fun, yet entirely meaningless. The heater was a door on the dashboard where the radio was on other cars, and when you opened it, you could actually see the engine, and along with heat, came NOISE. Honda? CARS?? It's a good thing they're so good with motorcycles. Anybody could tell that Honda cars weren't going anywhere.

So much for the "vision thing":

French cars. Yes, French cars. French cars were from another planet. They had incomprehensible liquid suspension, mooshy-cooshy seats, completely indecipherable instruments, and sometimes they even had different wheelbases on either side of the SAME car (re: Renault 16). Everyone knew that you couldn't get parts for a French car unless you chartered a plane to Paris yourself, and even when you got the part you needed, the car STILL wouldn't run anyway. So what was the point? Did Frenchmen ever actually DRIVE those things? Were French cars the source of that infamous French grumpiness we had always heard about from our WWII veteran dads? We seriously doubted it, since it seemed like every French art movie we watched in downtown Chicago snooty art movie theatres always featured lots of trains and bicycles and horsecarts. The cars were usually just parked on the side of the road. Mais oui.

Renault, at one time, was the #2 importer of cars in the United States, right behind Volkswagen. There were lots of little Dauphines coming off of cargo ships and being distributed around the country. But, honestly, did anyone ever see one of them moving under its own power?

So, we flash forward to the current century. VWLarry still loves cars (some would say to a degree approaching psychosis), but he doesn't see quite the same thing he did thirty-some years ago. Scanning down the scoresheet, German cars are the biggest losers of all. I've rarely been so disappointed in anything as I have in the carmakers of Germany in the last decade. They have truly lost their way, and have nearly totally flushed their collective heritage down the drain. Volkswagen is riding off in all directions at the same time, trying desperately to be something that they are NOT. Mercedes Benz is in a design-funk that has no end in sight, and they continue to whore themselves to the altar of mega-horsepower idiocy, while letting their reputation for peerless quality evaporate around them. BMW is so damned full of itself it isn't even funny, and if anyone can show me any remaining genetic link between cars like the 2002 and the current lineup of BMW bling-mobiles, apart from the increasingly mutated "Hoffmeister Kink" C-pillar styling signature, please show me. Porsche is the greatest letdown of all. Their cars are mere caricaturish silhouettes of their mostly glorious past. They are fat, and overpowered (I'm gonna get crucified for that one, but sob e it), and obscenely expensive even for Porsches). That's their cars. I won't even comment on Porsche's trucks. Worst of all, Porsche...PORSCHE has absolutely NO presence of any consequence in bigtime motorsports. Shameful and impossible to digest for this old Porschephile. Only Audi seems to be progressing, albeit at the usual stratospheric, nosebleed-levels of pricing of German "greatness" we all suffer from today. It's a shame really. As a working stiff blue-collar type, I'm doomed to only press my greasy nose to the showroom window and sigh.... But now, you wanna talk about German cars of the pre-mid-nineties era? Pull up a chair and have a beer with me, meine freunde.

British cars are still fun and interesting, but they are now also relatively reliable, and those damnable SU carbs are finally on museum shelves and committed enthusiast's workbenches, where they belong. Italian cars are still Italian cars...nice to date, but you wouldn't really want to MARRY one, would you? Japanese cars are, well, they're pretty much the whole show, now, aren't they? Who woulda thunkit all those years ago, when everybody knew Honda as a really nice motorcycle maker, and Toyota had a car called the Corona that some wonky professor at Purdue had purchased, and whatinthehell was a NISSAN(Datsun)?

SU Carburetors. It's a carburetor, but you are supposed to fill it up with OIL? You're kidding, right?

French cars. Ah yes, French cars. Well, some things do remain the same, don't they? Puh-leeze, spare me the sermons about today's Renault and Peugeot cars; you're not fooling me for a minute.

What about American cars? If irony could materialize, it would be in the form of a contemporary American automobile. Today, the cars from GM, Ford, and even Chrysler, at times, are among the best and the brightest coming from anywhere on the planet, at least in my opinion. But, as Ford struggles to stay afloat and solvent, Chrysler is already being methodically taken-apart by Italy's Fiat (too weirdly ironic here for words), and the once mighty General Motors Corporation is about to, in about 24 hours from the time I'm writing these words, to be transmogrified into a ward of the state that may not even carry the name "GM" any longer. Chevrolets have never really been better cars than they are today, likewise Cadillacs, and even Buicks are showing spark and vitality that couldn't have been predicted 10 years ago. But at this point, does any of this even matter anymore? Oldsmobile flared bright and strong just before the axe fell on them, and Pontiac, perhaps the marque, other than perhaps Chevy, that is most emblematic of American Automotive Joy in the post-WWII era, is on the slab, being embalmed for its upcoming funeral as we speak. There is little joy to be found these days in the automobile bidness, no matter the country of origin, though. It seems like everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop, and no one is quite sure of what the world of cars, and car enthusiasm, will look like 5 or ten years from now. Change is now the only constant.

"Aye-aye, sir. The deck chairs are all re-arranged, and the leaks should be plugged any time now."

I still love those damned Citroen SMs, though, and I still have those old sketches. Maybe that guy in Salisbury will put his up for sale someday.


  1. My family had several SM's, DS's etc. Plus Renaults, Corvairs, TVR Griffiths.....wierd stuff to most but normal to me!! I thought a Buick was "different!" These new cars are better in almost every way, but I will keep my 16v Jetta forever because its just a load of fun to drive. I did just drive a 09 M3 with the 6spd and it was really fun.

  2. Those Citroens were light years ahead of every other car back then. Still are in lots of ways! Great article!

  3. Great article! I agree we all learn to appreciate great cars over time no matter where they where made. I have to say though im still a huge porsche fan and even the new panamerica is a beautiful car when seen in person( its not a streched 911 )! I am kinda biased though because there is nothing like driving a 300 hp 914-6 with no power brakes or steering! Older cars are great because there simple and require the driver to be a driver!


  4. Excellent article! The Japanese have dominated the automotive industry for most of my lifetime, so it was interesting to learn what the automotive landscape was decades ago. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I'll never forget seeing the Citrone for the first time as a boy riding with my Mom who promptly said,"hey look, it's a watermelon car".

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  7. I grew up in the 80's, but with the same sort of experiences, because the cars you describe here were available well used. German cars were seen like nuclear submarines: dense with complicated and advanced technology. English cars were like English motorcycles" great...when they ran. I remember Fiat being described as having "self combusting electrics". Then there was the Yugo (only, you didn't).

    Today I live in Southern Germany. I had a little Fiat which I had to sell because after waiting 18 months for a windshield wiper motor, I gave up. French cars still have weirdly cushy suspension and seats. BMWs are perhaps the most over-rated car on earth. The new ones are just Chevy quality with a Lexus price tag.

    I think I was ruined for cars because my dad can't fix them, and loved Geo Metros. I started fixing his cars when I was about 10. 15 years of working on those freaky little triples, with their melon sized transmissions and dinner plate sized wheels made me realize how little it actually takes to do everything a car needs to do. I feel like 80% of the work I do on new cars is fixing crap that never should have been bolted to it in the first place.

  8. Maybe French cars are the inspiration of the modern cars that we have today. But no matter how modern a car is I will always appreciate classic and vintage cars more. Like you I am more thrilled to see a car from late eras than of todays. But if you would ask me what I love to drive nowadays, well, I’d say Kia Soul indianapolis is the best for me. I drive my children to school with it and I do feel more secure with it. But now that my eldest son is old enough to drive his Dad is planning to buy him his first car from Indianapolis used cars. It would be his gift for his 16th birthday.

  9. So where does the NSU Ro80 fit in? German, but kind of French (soft suspension, etc) in some ways too.

    I grew up not far from you and there were tons of those early Civics (any color so long as it's orange) floating around our neighborhood. My grandfather always had English cars (in Detroit no less!); when they moved to Dearborn his Fold came from Dagenham, not River Rouge. My grandmother wanted us to keep his Cortina Mk II when he died, but my parents hung on to our rusty Vega another couple of years until we moved back into town.

  10. Being no stranger to uncompromising adolescent automotive teutonic snobbery I'm certain there is a hormonal neurological trigger that the Germans have tapped into. Status anxiety perhaps.

  11. Nice article, by the way.
    I'm from Portugal, and I own a Citroen BX 14RE '85, too advanced for that years, godamn advanced.
    In Europe, nowadays, french cars are seen as cheap cars, Peugeot more conservative, Renault more evol, but Citroen as better techonology, great suspension, confortable, etc.
    German cars - the greatest, tough cars, great engines. VW more conservative in inside technology, more sober. BMW - beatiful in everythig. Mercedes what to say?! ...
    Italian - My best Alfa Romeo159 sw, fantastic...

  12. Great article! I agree we all learn to appreciate great cars over time no matter where they where made. I have to say though im still a huge porsche fan and even the new panamerica is a beautiful car when seen in person( its not a streched 911 )! I am kinda biased though because there is nothing like driving a 300 hp 914-6 with no power brakes or steering! Older cars are great because there simple and require the driver to be a driver!
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  13. Hi Larry, What a blast for me to have "stumbled" upon your blog. Also curious as to although you live in the U.S. your blogspot has a Canadian address (I live in Montreal). All fine, anyway, as I am also a Jay Leno fan. Once owned 4 Citroens, 2IDs & 2DSs consecutively, including a DS21M like Jay's, but with less bling. My last one was a DS19 Pallas,with all hydraulic assists as per the original '55. Currently "driving" an '88 Volvo 740. The word "driving" is in quotes because of some glitch which defies repair - car won't start, after 14 years of satisfactory service. Your comments about European cars struck many chords, however, not about to "make a short story long" :-) I'm 76 years old and no longer have the patience or stamina to go poking around under the dash. My posts on Jay's Youtube channel are under my own name (Omar Jette) while on the Volvo brickboard, I use "techie68". Hoping to find a solution.

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