For me, it began with a letter to the editor.

"Since the [Triumph] TR8 in the article was a convertible," said the reader, "the girl in the photo should have been topless also. Try to do better next time."

The reply: "And when we test a car with a moonroof? - Ed."

This was my late-Seventies introduction to Car and Driver, the one automotive magazine that's been a constant in my mailbox for two decades and more. And while the identity of Ed. has changed over the years, the mission of C/D has never wavered: Driving ought to be fun, and cars ought to contribute to that fun, and people who get in the way of that fun, be they on the road or in a government office, need to be identified and dispatched to the slow lane.

One of the hallmarks of C/D has been an absolute refusal to accept dogma handed down from on high. In the Seventies, to get some unfiltered data on the dangers of drunk driving, the magazine rented a test site, got some of its staffers soused, and measured their driving proficiency at various levels of inebriation. The published results — basically, "this stuff is obviously bad for you, but not everyone is impaired at exactly the same rate" — were sufficiently offensive to Big Brother to encourage C/D to repeat the test in the early Eighties with a different drug: marijuana. The results, unsurprisingly, were about the same.

It should surprise no one that this fearlessness has gotten them in a lot of trouble with the sort of kinder, gentler fascists that tend to accumulate in government departments and in "independent" organizations with axes to grind. C/D doesn't care. When the fracas over Ford Explorers and Firestone tires came to a head, C/D bought an Explorer, rigged up a system whereby a tire could be instantly blown by remote control, and watched for signs of rollover. There weren't any. Why are all those Explorers turning up topsy-turvy? Editor-in-chief Csaba Csere isn't assigning any blame, but I believe (and I suspect Csere does too) that this is natural selection in action.

A common theme at Car and Driver is society's apparent willingness to make the many suffer for the sins of the few. So they opposed attempts to tighten the drunk-driving blood/alcohol content standard to 0.08 percent, pointing out that drivers between 0.08 and 0.10 (the previous standard), by the proponents' own statistics, cause a lot fewer fatalities than drivers way over the limit; in fact, the average BAC for a driver involved in a fatal accident is a whopping 0.18 — and the majority of automotive fatalities don't involve alcohol at all. Not that any of the New Prohibitionists care about little details like that. Neither do the Greens, which embrace expensive smog tests and increasingly-tight emissions controls despite the fact that the vast majority of pollutants of automotive origin come from a relative handful of grossly out-of-tune cars. Donald Stedman, of the University of Denver, the inventor of remote pollution sensors (which the EPA spurns because they can be run without a whole lot of bureaucracy attached), was consulted for the February 2001 C/D, and he reports that in his neck of the woods, half of the pollution comes from a mere 5 percent of the cars; the worst 1 percent produces a full third of all auto emissions. Tightening the screws on automakers will have absolutely zero effect on this situation, and routine "smog checks" are subject to all manner of subterfuge, but apparently it's more important to appear to be doing something than actually to be doing something.

I mention all these political stances just in case you thought it was the job of a car magazine to test cars. Certainly C/D tests cars, also trucks, minivans and SUVs, and occasionally, um, other vehicles; in February, they reviewed a Trident-class nuclear submarine. (Power, 60,000 hp; top speed, 28 mph submerged.) But man does not drive by test results alone, and considering how close we came to electing a man with a morbid fear of the internal-combustion engine to the Presidency, it's clear to me — and to Car and Driver — that an open mind is just as important as an open road.

The Vent

8 January 2001

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 Copyright © 2001 by Charles G. Hill