Thursday, January 28, 2010
Recalling my favorite car ever while thinking about the deathtraps in the driveway
I'm in an extreme state of cognitive dissonance. For years now we've bought used cars with our heads, not our hearts. We put our trust in Toyota's legendary quality and reliability, ignored the bland styling, and our trust was rewarded. Both the Corolla and the Avalon have provided many years and miles of trouble-free driving. Eight years ago, I bought the Avalon with 97,000 miles on the odometer and drove it another six times around the earth as a commuter with never a problem. I'm still driving it.
Now Toyota informs me that both cars are potential deathtraps because of the sudden acceleration thing. It's not that I'm particularly worried. The problem is rare. I've been in other cars with stuck accelerators and know what to do -- forget about the brakes, throw the car into neutral and pull over, and if you can't do that, just turn off the ignition. But not everyone reacts that way, and people who should be alive today died through no fault of their own.
The way Toyota handled this has been terrible. It seems their lust for market share led them to compromise their quality standards. Coverups were followed by obfuscation, which were followed by halfhearted recalls, which were followed by this week's draconian production shut-down. In just a few months they've thrown away the trust they built up over decades. If you can't trust Toyota, who can you trust?
When I was younger, I didn't take such a functional approach to cars. As I look at the deathtraps in the driveway I think about my favorite car ever -- the old Peugeot 403 I owned in the Sixties (Colombo later drove a convertible version of the same car on the TV series). It was far from reliable. It had a twitchy, hypersensitive electrical system that often failed to start in wet weather. But Peugeot was thoughtful enough to provide a perfectly logical French solution -- a hand crank with which to start the car.
It was a wayback machine that transported me back to the early days of motoring. I loved those days when the car wouldn't start and I had to get out the crank, careful to hold it properly so it wouldn't come back and break my arm. It might have driven some people nuts, but I found it a lovable quirk, not to mention a practical one.
It was by far the most comfortable car I ever drove. There was something about the seats that made for a perfect driving posture in great physical comfort. The car handled beautifully for the time, with precise, European steering and a nice road feel. The design, by the great Italian design firm Pininfarina, was my idea of the ideal car design. Sheer grace in sculpted steel -- neither bland nor too flashy, just perfect.
Maybe it's time to follow my heart again.