“What’s your favorite car?” It’s been a long time since I’ve had an answer for this. I usually get the question after I’ve known a nice person, who isn’t into cars, for a short period of time. Hungry to make conversation, they ask me what car I’d buy if money wasn’t an issue. “If you could have any one car..?” The question throws me into an internal crisis. It isn’t like asking what’s at the top of a list. They’re asking me to pick my favorite M&M out of a bucket. I can’t even choose from those I cans see, and there are layers and layers beneath it. Yet picking a favorite out of masterpieces was exactly what we were asked to do at Sunday’s Art of the Car Concours in Kansas City.
The Art of the Car is undoubtedly the best standing car event between the coasts. Every year I stand aghast on a curb at 6 AM as dozens of millions of dollars of vintage metal roll onto the lawn at the Kansas City Art Institute, right down the road from my house. Each year carries a feature theme, and this year’s was Ford’s Total Performance program of the ’60s, when they decided to put a serious factory effort behind racing. So on Sunday I was forced in a very personal way to ask myself: Is a 1968 Ford Mirage GT40 my favorite car of all time? As I darted around one, desperately trying to line up pictures through my sweat-streaked glasses, I thought that it had to be close. This example won Spa in 1967, then went on to become that famous camera car for Steve McQueen’s Le Mans in 1970. It has those early canards. Its valve covers say “Gurney Eagle.” It is just 40 inches tall. Certainly this was my favorite car, right?
But hot on its heels came a Shelby Cobra Daytona, one of the most beautiful American cars ever built. This example, one of six, was driven by Bob Bondurant and Dan Gurney at Le Mans in 1964. They won. This takes the prize, then, certainly. It won the most famous race in the world at what some consider the pinnacle of motor racing. But then something else rolled up. And something else after that.
As I get older, this gets no easier. As I learn more and more about cars, their values, their quirks, and their engineering brilliance, I find it more and more difficult to corral my automotive interests. I find myself loving everything interesting on wheels, and for every different reason. Some cars I love because they’re simple, some because they’re complex. Some because they’re incredibly fast, others because they make slowness so much fun. Sometimes it’s the overall concepts that attract me, like my heat-fevered infatuation with truck rods, detailed last week. And sometimes it’s the tiny details. Lately I’ve fallen for the Mitsubishi Evo IX because of its upright rear glass and accompanying wiper. Perhaps asking a car enthusiast about his favorite car is like asking a father about his favorite child. He knows his children are different, but loves them all equally for their own qualities.
But despite all this, we try to rank cars. And in some respects, it’s easy. Rank you car, your beloved project, against the last car you rented. I’ll go. Yes, the 1987 Honda CRX Si is better than an automatic Nissan Versa sedan. It’s more interesting, lighter, better handling, and doesn’t look like it was pulled from the bottom of that trash compactor in A New Hope.
So immediately we can scrape a whole layer of sludge off the top. But what then? When we’re only left with interesting cars, how do we begin to decide? I stood in a field of over 200 priceless vintage cars on Sunday. Cars from every segment, performance level, and price point. A one-of-two Steyr 220 Roadster from 1938. A Saab 900 race car. Jim Clark’s 1964 Indy 500 Lotus. A replica of Buckminster Fuller’s endlessly weird Dymaxion. A perfectly restored Triumph TR4. A Ford Model T Cabriolet. A Ferrari 250 GT LWB. My loose leaf ranking system went out the window.
I didn’t vote.
I think, however, if I would have, it would have been for the GT40. Not because it was the fastest or most successful car there. Not because it was the most valuable (though, at over $11 million, it was probably close). Because it made me feel things. See, cars are not meant to be experienced objectively. Like any quality piece of art, a car is designed to grab your adult heart and wring it between its metallic fists until you begin to feel.
Children understand this. Last week, when I was dehydrating myself to death at the Hot Rod Power Tour, I chuckled to myself as a boy of maybe 5 or 6 pointed at a purpose-built, pro-touring drag car and said, “I want that car, dad.” He didn’t know that it probably wasn’t street legal, or practical, or fuel efficient. It was painted brightly and had a huge diffuser and sat at a dangerous rake, and it made that boy feel something. He reacted.
A good car should do that for us. Even cheap, over-the-counter econoboxes should be designed like this. The problem is that as we age, we begin to feel a more variegated range of emotions. “It’s complicated,” says Facebook. Last summer’s Pixar hit Inside Out illustrated this perfectly. As Riley ages, her “personality islands,” the centers of her happiness, grow in number. Similarly, gearheads begin to feel different types of happiness about different cars. They make us happy for different reasons.
The greatest day of my life came in 2013, when I drove on an abandoned road course in the middle of Corn Sea, Iowa. It was a vintage racing reunion, and joining me on track were countless tiny British roadsters, stripped and caged for racing. Today, when I see a classic British roadster, especially one with some race trimmings, it conjures that glorious experience, my favorite day. And I want a British roadster.
But a couple of summers ago, I went back to my tiny home town in Indiana for vacation. Schedule-free in a familiar, quiet place, I found myself utterly relaxed. My friend Troy jumped in his father-in-law’s floaty, tanklike 1952 Buick Super, and I in my stepfather’s 1963 Ford Galaxie and we went cruising. We parked them in a wooded area and took some photos, then sailed the vessels to a local pizza joint. So now, whenever I see a ’60s-era convertible land yacht, properly equipped with a 300+ hp V8 and a smoker-voice exhaust, despite the fact that it couldn’t take a corner to save Robert McNamara’s life, I want one.
We want our cars to replicate our joys. A huge slice of new car marketing is directed at this. And since cars are so interactive, so versatile for their environments, and so (relatively) easy to obtain, they do a fairly good job. Hop in a car, find an open stretch of road, and suddenly you’re back to the freest, most joyful experiences in your life. It’s like listening to a song from high school, but being able to steer it wherever you wish.
Yet some cars are better at this than others, we must admit. A CRX brings more joy than an automatic Versa sedan. So how can we pick our favorites? I used to think I had the answer. I would pick one car that was pretty good at everything. My WRX wagon was a road racer, a rally car, a reliable Japanese daily driver, a turbo whistler, a show car, a cargo hauler, a winter hoon machine, and more. But it wasn’t the fact that it broke constantly and bankrupted me that caused my interests to broaden elsewhere. It was my embrace of different automotive emotions. Each had its place on my shelf. Yes, a Triumph TR4 is slow and unreliable, but look at the way the tires box so far up into the body. No, a classic Mustang GT350 doesn’t handle as well as a modern Elantra, but listen to that exhaust note.
It’s healthy to broaden automotive enthusiasm, to love different cars for different reasons. In doing so, we find greater joy, because there are more cars to appreciate. Instead of insulating ourselves like 15-year-old forum addicts, swearing that our uncle’s Camaro is the greatest car ever built and that everyone else should just give up now, we can now make Clarkson’s “not bad” face at a properly kitted import when it rumbles by, and in the same trip appreciate a Chevy Thriftmaster.
Yet this still leaves me with my dilemma. What would I buy? If I could have any one car, what would it be? What car makes me feel the most? The older I get, the less capable I become of answering this question. Thankfully, that Unlimited Funds clause isn’t going to come around any time soon, so I’ll just stick with what I have, and convey my thanks to the owner of that GT40. It was my favorite. Probably. Maybe.
Andy Sheehan is a blogger, aspiring novelist, and relentless hoon. He plans to will his 2002 Subaru WRX Wagon to his firstborn, plans his daily commute around the swoop of its roads, and doesn’t plan to ever buy an automatic. A cool-car omnipath, he loves the common Mustang or Chevelle, but hunts for the weird and wonderful Velorexes and Cosmos of the autoverse. And when he can afford a garage, he’s going to turn an MX-5 into a race car.