Author’s Note: ‘”Weekend Short” is a weekly profile of a short story. Additional analysis by the readership is encouraged in the comment section.
Welcome to the weekend!
You’re reading the words of a fool (obviously), a man who only days ago bought an almost thirty-year-old European station wagon — a 1996 Volvo 850 Turbo. It’s an indefensible decision on the merits: just about any other car is more reliable and cost-effective as a mode of transport. But, they aren’t making more of the mid-’90s wagons lovingly referred to as the “Flying Bricks.”
So there I was, in a farmyard, shaking hands with the woman who’d owned ‘Beatriz’ for some 20 years. After some haggling, I was out a few thousand dollars and had the title to a car that needs a few thousand more. A well-used Chilton manual, a second ECU, and all sorts of receipts and Volvo paraphernalia (iPd catalogs and an owner’s manual) were exchanged with ceremonial sobriety. Rattles and tremors that I didn’t recall hearing or feeling on the test drive were my companions as “Beatriz the Brick” carried me northbound — and I couldn’t have been happier. Hearing a turbo effortlessly spool is a joy, especially in a vehicle that can fit a sheet of plywood in the boot.
It just so happens that today’s short, “A Nice Morning Drive,” published by Road & Track in 1973 and subsequently immortalized by the band Rush, explores the tension between a man’s desire to be free to drive what he wishes and the constant encroaching safetyism of a maternalistic state.
The tale’s protagonist “Buzz” owns an old roadster, an MGB — the British two-door well known for its frivolity (as well as the horde of mechanical and electrical gremlins that plague them). It’s a stupid car to own for transportation — MGBs are unsafe and have questionable build quality. But it’s not the government’s job to tell a man that — it’s his wife’s. But then again, she might be driving a rotary-engined Mazda RX-7 and have little room to criticize. Citizens driving for no other reason than because they like to? One can only shake his head at such a devil-may-care attitude and rampant anti-environmentalism.
It was a fine morning in March 1982. The warm weather and clear sky gave promise of an early spring. Buzz had arisen early that morning, impatiently eaten breakfast and gone to the garage. Opening the door, he saw the sunshine bounce off the gleaming hood of his 15-year-old MGB roadster. After carefully checking the fluid levels, tire pressures and ignition wires, Buzz slid behind the wheel and cranked the engine, which immediately fired to life. He thought happily of the next few hours he would spend with the car, but his happiness was clouded – it was not as easy as it used to be.
A dozen years ago things had begun changing. First there were a few modest safety and emission improvements required on new cars; gradually these became more comprehensive. The governmental requirements reached an adequate level, but they didn’t stop; they continued and became more and more stringent. Now there were very few of the older models left, through natural deterioration and… other reasons.
The MG was warmed up now and Buzz left the garage, hoping that this early in the morning there would be no trouble. He kept an eye on the instruments as he made his way down into the valley. The valley roads were no longer used very much: the small farms were all owned by doctors and the roads were somewhat narrow for the MSVs (Modern Safety Vehicles).
The safety crusade had been well done at first. The few harebrained schemes were quickly ruled out and a sense of rationality developed. But in the late Seventies, with no major wars, cancer cured and social welfare straightened out. the politicians needed a new cause and once again they turned toward the automobile. The regulations concerning safety became tougher. Cars became larger, heavier, less efficient. They consumed gasoline so voraciously that the United States had had to become a major ally with the Arabian countries. The new cars were hard to stop or maneuver quickly. but they would save your life (usually) in a 50-mph crash. With 200 million cars on the road, however, few people ever drove that fast anymore.
Buzz zipped quickly to the valley floor, dodging the frequent potholes which had developed from neglect of the seldom-used roads. The engine sounded spot-on and the entire car had a tight, good feeling about it. He negotiated several quick S-curves and reached 6000 in third gear before backing off for the next turn. He didn’t worry about the police down here. No, not the cops…
There are a thousand examples of the state telling us how we should live and conduct our lives — and to be fair, a few of them are even reasonable. But liberty allows for harmless stupidity, and the free market allows for oddity, because they are both an economic good — many technological advances come result from mucking about in a garage — as well as a spiritual one good. I sail not because it’s the best transportation, but because it’s the most beautiful — the central planners discussing public transit don’t think that way.
What I love about this story is its soul, the timeless American sentiment that says, “Back off. Let me live as I please.” Whether it’s forty years for two-hundred, the American people’s first response to soft tyrannies in the name of safety and structure has been, “Bugger off.” May that never change.
Here’s Rush performing “Red Barchetta” live (link to lyrics):
Thank you, Justin, for sending in the story. Thanks for stopping by, all.
Author’s note: If there’s a short story you’d like to see discussed in the coming weeks, please send your suggestion to email@example.com.