As you might expect JDM had opinions about many things. Scroll down and take a look at a few.
First, this tidbit from a letter to a friend:
an excerpt from a somewhat longer essay:
THIS IS A LONG ESSAY/ DISCUSSION BY JDM ON MOVIES MADE FROM HIS BOOKS:
MORE ON FLASH OF GREEN:
I have had this article in my files for years and just decided that it was worth putting up on the web site. I hope you enjoy it.l
This was originally written as a contribution to an anthology about automobiles that never materialized.)
FAREWELL, MY LOVELY MACHINE
By John D. MacDonald
* (Editor's Note: This was originally written as a contribution to an anthology about automobiles that never materialized.)
We all have bright morsels of memory, sharp-tasting fragments of an automotive
past. It is the summer of·1925, on a bright cool day of my father's
vacation. He and I are in his 1925 Chandler touring car, on a gentle downslope
of new pavement between Sharon, Pennsylvania and Orangeville, Ohio.
The dusty red-tan of the new cut through a hillside is whizzing by,
beyond my father's window. He leans slightly forward. His hands are strong
on the wheel. That was before I found him fallible. The bench seat is black
leather. There is a wonderful tumult of wind and motor-sound. Without takmiinlgehiasmieyneuste!
frIt om the road, he shouts above the roar, "You're now going a
* * *
Twelve years later, on a night in the early winter of 1937, Dorothy and
I have been four months married, and own a 1937 black Ford two door sedan.
We have been driving along back r~ ds in the gentle hill country of the farm
1ands southeast of Syracuse, New Ycrk . There had been a warm heavy snow turning
quickly to deep slush in the late afternoon. and at nightfall the temperature
fell steeply, turning it to ice. We were going up a long, long slope
where one vehicle had driven while the road was slush, before hardening to
grey iron. I rode his deep ruts, slowly and cautiously because wherever he
had veered, the deep ruts wrenched us back and forth.
It was cold as a blade. with a blazing incandescence of moonlight, and
'tIe could see far far ahead up the silent empty road, and across the white
fields on either side.
I took my hands off the wheel. Automatic pilot, as the wheels followed
the ruts. In low gear, with a little judicious fiddling with the manual
choke, the car qrnund along, entirely on its own. \:Ie clambered over into the
back seat, and r reached over and punched the lights out. We kissed and
olfaufgahietdhfaunldnelsosokeads oiutttartundtlheedwianltoenrg,wosrtlede.ringThe\Vhleietltlmeakicnagr hsamadllsucmhoveamefnltasv,or
engine rumbling. How long did it last? Ten minutes, perhaps, and forever.
Then we Had to taRe over again at the intersection of the state road. Lights,
action, decision - a far lesser magic.
* * *
It is 1939, and I am to be employed as an "adjiustor" by the C.I.T ..Corporation,
based in Massena. New York . We have sold our car in anticipation
of having the use of a company car, but then there is a delay. A friend works
for International Harvester in Syracuse. He spots a car in their lot priced
at fifteen dollars. which can be repaired for about five dollars, and licensed
for what remains of tne year for two and a half dollars.
It is a big high square old Oldsmobile, black and roomy, vintage 1926.
Its horn - Aaah 00000 gahl ~ replicates the first three arresting notes of the
It served us well for that month. We were a family of three by then. and it carried us and our possessions
from Fayetteville, New York up to our apartment over a hardware store in downtown Massena.
It needed to be steered constantly, and there seemed to be a lag between the turn of the steering wheel
and the response. I did not Dush it hard. It served us. And in the end. when the company' car was available' in \'Jatertown,I
drove the old Olds down there, put it in a downtown parking lot, took my ticket, and never went back. I have
always had a twinge of guilt whenever I think of that brave horn sound, and
the faithful service.
* * *
It is 1944 and I am at Chabua in Assam, up in north India, trying tc'iitch
a ride in a cargo C-46 or C-47 over the hump to Kunming. A major of engineers
asks me if I can help him. I am a captain in the ordnance department. He explains
his problem and I go with him in his jeep through the stifling heat to
a big field where hundreds .and hundreds of trucks sit rotting and rusting in
the tropic sun and rain.
Madame Chiang had addressed a joint meeting of the House and Senate and
steamed them up about sending more help to China. All these new vehicles had
been coming up on the funny railroad from Calcutta as part of the result of
her plea~ The Burma Road was not Hnished. They were too big to be sent into
China by air. So there they sat, a giant khaki-drab, depressing used-truck lot.
We went to the oldest sector of the field, where the staunch and familiar
6 by 6 trucks had been parked for a year.
Jungly green was growing up through them and around them. The rubber was
pulp, the insulation slime, the gears rusted shut,
"You want to what?" I asked.
Up near Hell Gap, we got this damn bottomless hole, Been having them
Kachins head-carry tons of rock in them little baskets. Sinks out of sight.
We hook onto a couple dozen of this junk and haul them up and push them into the
hole, tney"ll sink down in that swamp and get wedged and we can build the road
"Is this stuff worthless junk?"
"Can't get any of these supply-wallahs to authorize a thing. Had a requisition
in for weeks, Got to get on with the road. You~re up from Delhi. They 'buy any neadquarters signature.
Just twenty of them,
What do you say?"
I hung around and watched them yank the first two out of the vines and mud,
onto a big flatbed. Tnere was a disconsolate loo~ about them. We weren't
meant to be under the road, they said.
In the late afternoon I hitched my ride. He went v'/ayabove the operational
ceiling of the C-47 to avoid bad icing conditions, but when we came back through
it for the Kunming landing at 6000 feet, we iced up heavily and I thought I
was about to be punished for favoring logic over protocol, but we landed like
a giant chandelier, and I felt I had been forgiven, or at least given a r, tis•..
* * *
As a people, we anthropomorphize our machines~ There were whip sockets
on the first horseless carriages. It is a rare driver indeed who has not talked
to his car, truck, bike, tractor. "Easy, boy! Good fella." And some of us
have felt uncomfortable talking about the new car on order while driving the
It is possible to hate a machine, of course. Sometimes you come upon a
truly venomous one. Once upon a time we had a convertible Falcon intent on
killing one or both of us. A friend of mine does not hate his Volvo because
it refuses to run when it is raining. He accepts this eccentricity, much as
if he had a dog that hides under the bed at the first grumble of thunder.
In 1946 we had a car that was docile and agreeable around town, but would stop
dead after two to three hours of highway driving. After a rest, it would continue
for an hour before stopping again. After buying it eleven coils we
learned that engine heat was causing a resister to short out, thus sending
the wrong voltage into the coil.
My father had a Rickenbacker he hated. It
was square, brown and cranky, It ate oil and parts and bulbs, burst its tires,
and shimmied at random speeds impossible to predict. It was best to stay out
of his way after he had driven it home from work.
I believe that some very complex variables have to be cranked into that
formula which has resulted in a large scale depersonalization of the automobile.
Perhaps it all began to fade and change about 1960.
By then we had begun to realize the age of the automobile had begun to
visibly rot the hearts of our cities. The ever-expanding concentric rings of
suburbs created the need for broad highways into the center city, while at the
same time shopping, schooling, recreation and work places were decentralized,
moving out to where the peo~le were..
As center city transit became congested, the traffic, like water in an obstructed river,
overflowed the banks anq found shortcuts through old residential areas, stinking and
roaring them into commercial slums, further erodtng the urban tax base.
This dispersion of our people had turned the automobile into a necessity.
Our western European critics who chide us for gargantuan consumption have no
concept of the vast distances involved, of the almost irreversible diffusion of
people into open spaces. The equation of space, time and necessity is so complex
that public transportation is a partial and inadequate solution..
Minibuses are maxi-labor intensive. So we are irrevocably wed to the automobile
within our structure of society.
Necessity can make for a lumpy marriage. Necessity meant. volume production
Necessity meant. volume production, so capital intensive that the smaller makers faded and died,
my father went into some other line of work: LaSalle, Studebaker, Packard, DeSoto, Hudson, Reo, Franklin
- all those cars we could identify as we sat on tne porch steps, and call
out the make and year as they went by under the elms.
Necessity meant a reasonably predictable demand, a predictable percentage
of market, a quasi-monopoly status for the surviving Big Three + One. Monopoly
conferred the power to enhance profitability. Mechanically, the machines
had become reasonably reliable. Ford took the lead in making those mechanical
design change$ which made it very difficult to get a car repaired except
in the service department of a Ford dealership.
Of course, nowadays, that trend has reached full and glorious flower. When our Turbo-Scorpion belches,
gasps and shudders, we take it to bored specialists in white ~ocks who plug
in an electronic diagnosis machine, then use a special tool to retard or advance
the helical spondicky, then look in lithebook" and find the appropriate
charge for this seven minute service is $18.00.
When you can no longer work on your car without doing more damage than
benefit, it is easier to cease anthropomorphizing it, to cease having any
name at all for it.
Eventually your dealer became independent in name only and as a practical
matter he was an employee of the maker, but nevertheless, he had to
take the risk of floorplanning the new models.
The power of monopoly turned one of the credos of the competitive society
to myth. The marketplace no longer determined the ticket price. The cost
of a car was based upon adding up all the manufacturing, overhead, sales and
advertising, and then adding what seemed to be an appropriate percentage for
profit. This can only be possible when selling necessities-- like electric
power or water.
The power of monopoly born of capital ~ intensive manufacture enabled the
makers to erode the independence of the dealersa Franchise te~mi-became
much tougher. The maker could reach into the dealership and require reporting
on specific fonns of specific percentages, so that if, for example, the percentage
of utilization of the service department fell below 80%, the dealer
could be forced to correct this situation or face losing his franchise. And
one way to improve utilization was to promise repairs would be completed by
Tuesday, but deliver the vehicle on Friday, with a few things undone or badly
Overpricing became another one of the lumps in the marriage, and then it
became possible to e~tend the time payments further than ever before, in some
cases well beyond the useful life of the vehicle financed. A dead horse does
not become more attractive through the ritual of continuing to pay for it.
One of the final and most disheartening factors in reducing our affection
for our machines was the look-alike trend. It began way back in the midthirties
when Chrysler introduced the Airflow. Their curved lines foretold
the future, and the introduction of automatic choke and automatic overdrive
transmission were clues to an increasing mechanical complexity which today is
celebrated by a friend who cannot blow his horn without automatically locking
all four doors.
When one must wire a plastic butterfly to one's radio aerial in order
to locate one's car in the supermarket parking lot, some endearing individuality
has been lost. And not only does the GM Snipe look exactly like the
Chrysler Roachmaster and the Ford Vultura, the controls are almost identically
placed. This is courtesy of Hertz and Avis and all their little brethren. The
salesman driving away from the Cincinnatti air~ort in heavy traffic in the dark,
wants familiarity under his hand. And in general he can expect just about
the same performance he gets from his own car at home.
So, with increased purchase price and maintenance cost, with a look-alike
banality of handling and styling and performance, affection had begun to fade.
Other factors hastened the day of active dislike. The power of monopoly
attracted the glacial attention of the powers of regulation~ _
And for a time the thin electronic screeching of the fasten-belts ~t§nal was
heard through the land, more shrill even than the maledictions of Ralph Nader.
I had a friend who carried a cinder block around in his car. When he had no
passenger, he had to seat~5elt in into the seat beside him to still the nervetwanging
squalling~ We were told and told and told that our cars were poisoning
the sky, the grass and the trees. What was worse, they were. How can
you love something you have to own which poisons your world?
Big Daddy posted price sheets on the side windows, thus effectively
ending, for many people, the sweaty game of dicker, one of the few remaining
We were told of murderous steel-belted radials, frangible rear end gas
tanks, endemic brake failure.
States and municipalities, belatedly aware of the necessity of auto ownership,
began bumping the cost of tags, permits and licenses, and began overcharging
for vehicle inspection tags at authorized inspection stations where
mendacious inspectors sell you overpriced wiper blades you do not need.
The excessive costs of body and fender repair, and of replacement parts,
hastened the day when, if ten percent of the car is damaged, it is considered
totaled, not worth fixing. The total cost of all the parts for a $6000 Plymouth
has reached $27,000. The parts from "totaled" cars go back into the
parts market, a thriving industry interconnected by electronic miracles of com~'
munication. Thieves no longer steal cars to be sold as cars. They steal them
to be dismantled and sold as parts.
Insurance comoanies, made ever more jumpy by fat claims and fatter judgements
have bacome quick to cancel, on grounds increasingly slim. Victims of
cancellation , both just and unjust, can buy overprtced coverage with minimal
ceilings from something called the assigned risk pool, a device whereby all
the picky insurance companies operating in a given area share the risk of
covering the people none of them could touch.
So grow the accumulations of frustration and despair. The beloved machine
becomes a monster, impoverishing us, entangling us in bureaucratic idiocies,
belching blue fug from its ever-more-mysterious innards, while the television
ads go on and on, showing the smiling and envious neighbors coming over to
admire the glossy new steed -- a ceremony that Detroit does not seem to comprehend
disappeared about the same time as Norman Rockwell covers and the
Frustration erupts. Before we had the gas line wars, we had the Car Wars.
These were most prevalent in the fastest growing urban areas--Miami, Houston,
Dallas, San Diego. Insanities. A man who has come to hate automobiles, traffic
and himself takes affront at a piece of bad driving in heavy traffic, runs
the offender onto the median, trots back, yanks him out, hurls him out into
the lines of traffic, gets into the stranger's car and sees how many other cars
he can run into before the machine expires. There is a rash of rear end collisions
on purpose, of people in maniacal rage moving up beside a car and, from
~ their own vehicle, shooting the driver in the head. Neighbors complain to police
that a doctor in a quiet residential neighborhood is demolishing his car with
sledge, axe; hacksaw and pry bar. There is no ordinance against it. Hhen he
is quite finished, Breathing heavily, he hires someone to come in a truck and
take away the corpse.
Truck drivers, those erstwhile Knights of the Road, have become scofflaws
in convoy, demanding the right to thunder along at whatever speed they
wish, killing over three thousand of us a year in our smaller lighter Cars as
mtohreeirijnudgigseprennasuitbsle.get bigger and heavier, and, with the decay of the railroads,
In fairness, though, the highways are safer than they used to be. The
worst year insofar as deaths per passenger mile is concerned was 1942. Extrapolate
the data from that year and we'd be killing a quarter million a year.
The revolt is against a banality of uniformity, spiraling expense, increased
congestion and inconvenience. We see a plaintive striving for individuality
in the demand for vans, pickups, odd sports.,..utilityvehicles which defy
description, We see them leaping across wild country in the television ads,
in spite of the knowledge that one good big urban pot-hole can put them down
for three days and $400.
The young reckless freedom they promise is, for the most part, a freedom
to endure all of the other frustrations except the drabness of lookalike-runalike.
Where are we going then in our less-than-merry Oldsmobiles?
A couple of years ago there was an outdoor exhibition of antique automobiles
under the trees at St. Armands Circle in Sarasota. I wandered around
looking at all that gleaming burnished restored elegance of Hapmobile, Jordon,
Marmon, Stutz, Peerless, Nash, Elcar, Packard, and quite suddenly I came upon
a more recent restoration, a 1941 Ford Convertible, in precisely the same shade
of aqua-green ours had been, the one we had bought used from a draftee, the
one Dorothy had driven while I was overseas two and a half years, the one
we had driven to Texas in 1946, towing a jeep trailer, the one we had finally
traded when the speedometer was almost ready to start over again.
Seeing it was like a sudden blow under the heart~How staunch it had
been! How well it had served! In the modern world it looked oddly higher,
shorter, narrower than I remembered. Its tires looked slender and vulnerable,
its underparts too exposed,
It sat on grass agleaming, ready to go. I did not want to see any more
old cars that day. But r looked back from afar for a final glimpse, with an
unabashed sting in the eye,
Farewell, my lovely machine.
* * * * * * * *
ON VISITING FLORIDA
ON CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTORS: