The Annals of Authenticity, Part I

By Tom Frank

I took the train to the auto show, past the battered diesels inching towards Indiana, on by the snarled traffic that’s become a nearly permanent fixture on Lake Shore Drive. I walked across a flimsy walkway into the world’s largest or second-largest or third-largest convention center (it’s so hard to keep up), down into the palsied heart of the most fabulous American fantasy of them all. Here good consumers from across the midwest had gathered to go guileless for a few hours, to gawk at the beautiful steel bonbons as though all the old Detroit promises were still viable; as though a Cadillac or Lexus were something to which an average American might still aspire; as though the futuristic vision of orderly traffic, clean air, and speedy, effortless travel were not so laughable.

In many ways the auto show is a nostalgic fantasy of prosperity past, a ritual whose unadorned charlatanry is little changed from its postwar heyday. Yes, the cars still rotate on circular platforms. They are still described in larded terms by slick barkers and pretty female spokesmodels. There are plenty of flashing lights, drawings for free basketballs and Magic Markers, and Olympic has-been gymnasts, perma-smiles on their faces as they cavort happily around a makeshift stage near the new Chevrolets. The Ford Motor Company brought in the coach of the Chicago Bears, who drew a line of autograph-seekers several city blocks long. And, yes, you can touch the cars. You can sit in the cars. You can ask the spokesmodels questions about the cars. And an army of scurry races constantly among you, polishing the cars to keep them sparkling for the next gaggle of touchers and sitters.

The showiest exhibitions offered all the usual consumer dream: detachment, mastery, individual fulfillment, all delivered throught the magic of technology. This year, I learned, nearly every car manufactured in America offers some kind of double-excellent air filter to prevent passengers’ allergies from acting up. And a system for adjusting the seats, mirrors, air-conditioning, and radio to the programmed-in tastes of three different drivers. Both Pontiac and Buick have done away with the mere dashboard, offering instead a “Driver Information Center” that allows one to “really feel in control.” And over at the Cadillac display a particularly popular duet of barkers, “Clark” and an unnamed female companion in a bright fuchsia jacket and matching lipstick, recited a rhyming spiel about the new Catera, which comes with an air-conditioned glove compartment to keep candy bars from melting. I’m not kidding.

But this familiar hucksterism is only half the auto show; there’s another half, a kind of anti-show reflecting an unspoken but omnipresent marketing theme that divides the car buying world into two classes, the suckers and the supersuckers. The suckers are the mindless gawkers drawn by Chevrolet’s leaping Olympians and by the pretty female in the red leather jacket demonstrating the experimental racing car. But supersuckers are above all that. They are the consumers of the 1960s and after, shaking their heads at the tawdriness of the Detroit exhinbitions, the crass materialism of it all, and chatting knowingly with the dealers at the Infiniti display. Supersuckers demand more from their cars than futuriistic fantasy and chrome-and-glass individualism; they demand authenticity, an authenticity that, they like to believe, mainstream America will never appreciate or understand.

There’s really nothing new about the supersucker dream. Revulsion against consumerism itself, against the effete, overcivilized way of it is thought to have brought, has long been a primary engine of consumer desire. A whole host of products (dating back at least to Kellogg’s Corn Flakes) have risen to consumer prominence by promising to put us back in touch with our natural instincts, to make vigorous, fulfilling experience possible again–and have then ironically sunk into the consumer commonplace themselves, becoming an element of that overcivilized culture against which we are in constant revolt. At the auto show this impulse is prominently represented, with the overblown spectacle of the traditional show reinforcing the self-assured cool of the other, providing a constant reminder of the aspects of America from which luxury car owners most want to escape.

Thus the exhibitions for the supersuckers’ cars brands are free of rotating platforms, spokesmodels, and chamois-raffles; here the selling is done efficiently by ads with individualistic slogans and by the covetousness we bring to the show with us. Audi ads proclaim a particular model to be “a shot of triple espresso after a lifetime of decaf.” Saab exhorts you to “Find your own road,” and Lexus owners are said to “leave the crowd behind.” Volkswagen, a company long propelled by clever advertising, runs an endless reel of TV commercials on a giant screen; each one speaks to some aspect of the overcivilized frustration of the hip young executive, and all of them promise to fulfill impossibly contradictory desires. “All the fruits of capitalism. None of the guilt,” says a shockingly frank subtitle in a squealing electric-guitar commercial for the Volkswagen Passat. Facade. (As it later turns out it’s actually called a “Passat”) In another ad a woman complains that she is “watch-dogged, door-manned, security-cammed, and dead-bolted,” but her Volkswagen allows her to break free and remain safe at the same time. In a third a car is described as an emblem of hip family life: “It’s about having kids. Not becoming your parents,” who are, no doubt, over at the Chevy display ogling the gymnasts as they straddle the portable pommel-horse.

But as you probably know by now from the media blitzes in the Tribune and local TV, the hottest anti-consumer product at the this year’s show is that automobile counterculture known as sport-utility vehicle, or SUV. A class once restricted to the durable products of companies like International Harvester and Ford, it has transmuted over the last few years into an unlikely branch of the luxury car industry. Even while their names and advertising images offer glimpses of transcendent rural ruggedness, SUVs now feature all the urbane amenities of a Cadillac and are just as likely to bear a Lexus logo as the mark of Chevy. Today the wealthiest demographic has little interest in conquering nature or paving it over; they imagine themselves returning to real life by interacting with nature more sympathetically. Roaring up a logging road through the clear-cut, maybe, or doing 180s in some farmer’s field. The makers of SUV’s (as they are called by those in the know) understand their customers well: their exhibits consciously reverse the symbolism and fetishization of the sleek Detroit machines. In the Range Rover display, for example, the cars bear mud smeared just as carefully and as lovingly over their bodies as the polish that adorns the traditional displays.

But “imagination” is the key term here: in the press SUVs are openly referred to as luxury cars, fantastically expensive units little suited to the duties of a pickup truck or an army-surplus jeep. Both Lexus and Mercedes had models on display at the auto show, luxury cars jacked up like monster trucks and with stunning price tags that should keep them safely distant from the dunes of Eastern Washington for the duration of their car lives. Furthermore, the reluctance of sport-utility-vehicles’ owners to drive their extraordinarily expensive cars anywhere but suburban streets is the stuff of legends, legends you can see acted out any day on the streets of Winnetka or Lake Forest.

The appeal of SUVs is symbolic, not practical. Like mountain bikes, which have virtually forced all other bicycle models from the field even in places where there aren’t any hills, SUVs speak to fantasies of the strenuous, fulfilling life. These days we want a winch on the front bumper rather than tailfins on the back, but that winch–even though it may be operable–is just as plainly decorative as the tailfins were useless for actual space travel. The Mercedes and Land Rover exhibitions came closest to openly acknowledging the SUV’s primarily symbolic appeal, showing filmstrips depicting the cars in all sorts of fantasy adventures. The Mercedes video, honestly entitled “A vision of the sports-utility,” offers images of a cowboy watches a sports-utility vehicle drive through the desert, where it also passes a land-sailboat and all manner of exotic athletes before coming to rest in a suburban driveway where it is boarded by a mother and her children. The SUV lets you have it both ways, offering virile cowboy-and-athlete Authenticity, the rejection of the tawdry world of office and Auto Show, as well as the finest of climate-controlled comforts. The Land Rover filmstrip nails the image more precisely: a line of the cars are shown driving through one mud-hole after another, alternating with images of Aztec temples and Mayan pyramids. This car is the key to the wisdom of the Primitives, to that strenuous Real Life from which we Americans, with our TV dinners and six-packs, have unhappily alienated ourselves. Too bad getting in touch with nature is such an expensive privilege.

Once upon a time, no doubt, the spectacle offered by the American automakers promised the same satisfying dosage of Real Life, but today they rely upon an ideological end-around maneuver to flank the appeal of the SUV. This year the Detroit products offer a different form of authenticity: working-class, blue-collar Americanness. Each of the big three American automakers has seen to it that there is a significant organized labor presence at their displays. For Chrysler it’s just an unwatched videotape about “Team Belvidere,” who assemble Neons at a plant near Rockford, but Ford and GM have actually brought nametag-wearing members of the United Auto Workers to the Show with them, milling about in white lab coats at the Ford displays; dressed in nondescript burgundy sweatshirts for GM. Although admirable, the strategy did not seem to be meeting with much success during my visits: however the union members tried to make themselves useful and proffer company literature to passing suckers, they were pretty strictly avoided by the upper-bracket car-buyers drawn to the SUV displays. Unlike the perfect spokesmodels with their thickly made-up faces and wispy miniskirted bodies, the autoworkers wear unkempt hair, no ties, and bulging, non-televisible physiques. This was a glimpse of Real Life that held little appeal to the Real Life cravers: driving the family through Central American mud, maybe; American autoworkers and their gaudy products, never.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.