New York may be the cultural capital of the United States, but the city's taste-making agencies have no effect on the country's most important cultural by-product - the car. Apart from a few advertising accounts, the city exerts only a feeble influence on the cycle of car desire and design that moulds so much of the national psyche. Instead, New York offers itself up to be occupied by whatever rolls off the lines in Germany, Korea or Spring Hill, Tennessee. Architects, planners and politicians can do what they want to shape the city, but they cede the space between the curbs to a ragged influx of foreign objects; they build towards one future, but someone else's dreams always garland the streets.
A slice through any of New York City's great avenues reveals the visual dominance of the car. There's a flat building front rising out of sight, 15 feet of sidewalk, and up to 100 feet of traffic: twin beads of parked cars framing more parading down the centre. Three-quarters of the city's public space is given over in this way to the whims of automobile designers. God help us, they even design New York's 14,000 yellow taxis. Here, a strange affinity may be operating. Is it a coincidence that New York entered a kinder, gentler period immediately after the taxi fleets switched to the bubble-headed Ford Crown Victoria and Chevrolet Caprice? Is it just chance that large stretches of the city, from Times Square to Brooklyn's big box retail strips, have become increasingly suburbanised since the introduction of the first minivan and sport utility cabs? Cars shape the idea of New York more than we dare to imagine. Behind the wheel of an Isuzu Odyssey, Travis Bickle would have been just another hack aching to take someone out to LaGuardia.
Each year, automotive America crosses the Hudson River and makes a beachhead at the Jacob Javits Convention Center to stage the New York International Auto Show. There are other important American auto shows - Detroit's has more cars, and people actually buy more of them in Los Angeles - but New York draws the most people. The 1998 auto show had more than 1.2 million visitors during its nine day run. Still, despite the prominence of the New York show, it is clear that car designers do not understand the New York state of mind. One quick proof of the distance between New York and Detroit was provided by General Motors. OnStar, a communications system now available in most GM cars, links a car phone, a GPS receiver and live operators to provide a slew of travel and safety services like remote diagnostics and distance to the next mall. OnStar also offers remote door locking: if you lock yourself out of your car - or walk away and leave it unlocked - you can call an toll-free number and they will hit the button for you at the OnStar Control Center in Troy, Michigan. At the auto show's Cadillac exhibit, there was universal shock when a spokesmodel described this locking feature. A nervous crowd peppered her with questions: Couldn't the signal go out accidentally and unlock every car in the country? An OnStar rep responded to this negative reaction, the first she'd heard: Y'all are just paranoid. It doesn't bother me. I'm from Texas.
So what else did they bring to New York this year? Stylistically, 1998 marks the continuing triumph of the egg, the rounded-out look that once meant the future. It means something else now. Think of the poor Ford Taurus: there is no dignity in this kind of streamlining, no heft. Other cars following the same evolution that destroyed the beloved Corvette include the Audi A4, the Mazda Protegé, the Lexus GS 400 and nearly everything from Mercedes. In a year when even Volvo cooks up an egg - the new 370 Coupe - something is very wrong. Increased fuel economy ostensibly drives the trend toward smoothed-over cars, but an old view of the future - a late-1960s eco-friendly vision of domes and bubbles enclosing happy pod-based societies - plays an equal role. With the central control heralded by OnStar, and the intelligent highway technologies that are working their way from Scientific American to the Interstate Highways, we may be only a few decades from the hands-free people-movers of Logan's Run or Sleeper.
Enter the new VW Beetle, the most hyped car in recent memory. It is all eggy retro-futuristic nostalgia - and all rotten. Sadly, it is already worming its way into people's hearts: two of my friends have fallen for it (they're on a six-month waiting list for the car) and it is reportedly the pin-up darling of the architecture studios at Columbia University. CBS television news recently conducted a test of the car's popularity with New Yorkers, parking a bright yellow bug in Times Square between a $750,000 Ferrari and a vintage Mustang convertible; both its desirable neighbours were ignored. At the auto show, fans waited for hours behind a velvet rope to get a little plastic bug churned out by the Arburg Allrounder 270, a formidable milling machine that VW set up in the centre of its display. The appeal of this car is hard to understand. Cab-forward design and the need for a reasonable (read: saleable) amount of interior space have savaged the front end. The teardrop wheel wells that were the glory of the old bug are now reduced to sadly vestigial semi-circles, killing the lines and giving the thing a little pug sneer: not sinister, just bratty. Clearly, we welcome this car to the city at our peril.
Romance on the streets of New York would be better served by something darker, a car that might drive out of the pages of Akira or King's Views. Aerodynamics be damned: gas is cheap now - can't we get some cars with a little character? There is a small reaction forming along these lines. Ford's much-sung New Edge styling introduces a few hard creases into the egg profile of cars like the 1999 Mercury Cougar. Other edgy production models include Hyundai's Tiburon (the company reminds us it means shark in Spanish) and the Acura TL-X, created by Honda's American design division in Torrance, California. Judging from the recent crop of concept cars, more help may be on the way over the horizon. Mitsubishi's cough-syrup orange SST Spyder two-seater is an example of that company's so-called geo-mechanical theme: organic rolls in a nicely rectangular frame. The Chevy Monte Carlo concept car, with its steep, flat sides and pillbox cockpit, looks like a low-slung Brink's truck; it clearly craves the streets of New York. Either of these cars would look fine shooting out through the Palisades onto the lower deck of the George Washington bridge on a foggy night.
With nothing eye-catching in production, Chrysler seemed particularly interested in using the auto show to focus on the future. They aired three concept cars: the Pronto Cruizer - a nasty humpbacked thing - its ineffectual cousin the Pronto Spyder, and the Chrysler Chronos. We can only hope that the Pronto ideas will not follow the path of Chrysler's unspeakable Prowler - a bathtub with outrigger front wheels which was shown as a concept in 1995 and moved into production last year almost unchanged. The Chronos, however, should be fast-tracked on to the streets as soon as possible - with or without a Mercedes hood ornament. It is a magnificent car, stretched back from a seductively aeronautical stainless steel grille, radiant in its metallic take on the light blue of the moment. It is streamlined, yes, but not formless. I defer to the Chrysler spokesmodel for details: From its 250-inch length to its 76-inch width, this automobile is endowed with dramatic proportions that are further emphasised by its immense 20-inch front and 21-inch rear aluminium wheels. Bringing this rear wheel drive Chronos to life is a 6-litre, 20-valve V10 engine capable of more than 350 horsepower. And inside, for those of you who can appreciate one of life's finer pleasures, there is, of course, a cigar humidor replete with a lighter and a humidistat.
Beyond the obvious appeal of such
a car, the Chronos brings with it a whiff of a wonderfully urbane future.
Imagine New York's avenues filled with the Chronos and its affordable siblings!
I dare not even dream of the glory of a Chronos cab. Naturally, these cars
would look best in the shadow of the Chrysler
Building. The Chronos would be perfect taking the corner under the
nearby Helmsley Building, wrapping around Grand Central Terminal, and roaring
off into the Park Avenue tunnel. For the rest of the city, architects should
build to match the car.