For someone who worked on Nissan, Mercedes, and pitched the Honda account, this is probably not the most re-assuring headline I could write. But even though I’m not a car guy, there were four car moments in my life that gave me at least a glimpse into why car guys (and any other genders) are car guys.
#1. 1965 Chevrolet Corviar.
My first car was a used 1965 Chevrolet Corvair. Consumer activist Ralph Nader wrote a whole book about it. The book was not as complimentary as the proud owner of a used Carvair might hope. The book was entitled Unsafe at Any Speed. Still, I believe Mr. Nader may have been a little over-zealous in his review.
Yes, the rear end was a tad unstable. When it rained I spun out more than once on I-85 and ended up in the center median. But looking at it from a different point of view, driving a Corvair was always an adventure–you never knew what to expect.
Then there was the matter of carbon monoxide. Yes, small amounts of carbon monoxide did leak into the passenger compartment, but, hey, that’s why car windows were invented. Just roll ’em down and you’re good to go. Including in January.
If I were forced to find one design flaw, my Corvair did have a small parking problem. Whenever my girlfriend and I parked and tried to make out, the four-on-the-floor manual stick-shift thwarted my every move. Who knew a 20th-century Corvair also functioned as a 15th-century chastity belt? It was a fact that I don’t believe Mr. Nader included in his book.
#2. 1985 Mazda Miata Convertible.
I went out to buy a second family car. I drove home in this, a 1985 Mazda Miata convertible. It had 40,000 miles on it. I couldn’t wait to add 100,000 more. Still, even as a second car, it was slightly impractical for a family of soon-to-be five.
People, often women, gave me strange looks as I crammed four bags of groceries into our baby’s car seat and buckled them in. I considered making a bumper sticker for my Miata. “I’m not a total asshole. My other car is a Volvo.”
When guys at the office said I was driving a girl’s car, I didn’t care.
When my wife’s Volvo broke down and I had to make four separate trips to rescue my family, I didn’t care.
And then there was that day in Texas when I picked up our poodle, Indy, from the groomers.
She was black, had a fresh poodle cut, and wore red ribbons in her hair. I put the top down on my Miata and we rode home together. Indy sat in the passenger seat. It didn’t hit me until the wind was blowing through both of our hairs that Indy’s black color and red ribbons matched the colors of my Miata exactly.
Inevitably I pulled up to a stoplight next to a pick-up truck with a rifle mounted in the rear window. I still didn’t care. Well, I did care a little bit. Nobody wants to get shot.
Sadly, neither the car nor the marriage made it to 100,000 miles. Go figure.
#3 Mercedes-Benz Test Track Stuttgart, Germany.
Obviously, this isn’t a car. It’s the Mercedes-Benz test track in Stuttgart, Germany. When our agency pitched the Mercedes-Benz account we were invited to tour the Mercedes plant and take a test drive in the latest Mercedes sport sedan.
Three things blew me away about the Mercedes tour.
One was the Mercedes museum at the manufacturing plant. Every wet dream you’ve ever had about a car was on display. It was like touring the Guggenheim, except the art wasn’t on the walls.
The second thing that blew me away was the manufacturing process. Yes, it was a car plant. But it wasn’t an assembly line. It was a line of crafts people obsessed, in a healthy way, over every part that went into a Mercedes-Benz. Back when I toured the plant, the interior wood trim? It was still made out of wood.
And the third thing that blew me away? The test track itself. It was designed to see just how far one could push the limits of German engineering. As it turned out, it was also designed to test the limits of Steve Bassett’s engineering.
First, they put me in the backseat of the new Mercedes sports sedan. Unfortunately, in the backseat of any car, I get carsick before the engine is even turned on.
Second, our test car driver wore a crash helmet. Why did he have one and I didn’t?
Finally, when taking the banked turns at 120 mph, the g-forces would not permit me to lift my cliched fists from my almost urine-stained lap.
When the test drive was finally over, I literally poured myself out of the latest feat of German engineering, got down on all fours, and literally kissed the test track. (I assume I have proven by now, I do not have a need for speed.)
No one was more surprised than I was when our agency won the Mercedes account. Could it have been the reverent, physical display of respect that one extremely pale American showed for hallowed German asphalt?
#4 1990 Nizzan Z.
Imagine you’re a 30 something copywriter working at Chiat-Day in LA. Imagine you’re put in charge of launching the next generation of the Nissan Z? What do you do?
Well, first, you take a tour of Nissan’s amazing design studio in San Diego. There you get a first-hand look at how the new Z was totally re-invented from the wheels up. You see the original sketches, lines of ink that seem themselves to be aerodynamic. You see life-sized clay sculptures of what the finished product might look like some day.
And then, some six months later, on a sunny spring day in Venice Beach, the only car of its kind in the world pulls up to your agency. “Are you ready for your test drive, Mr. Bassett.” As everybody knows, if there’s any place in the world where it’s hard to turn heads in a car, it’s Southern California. And here I was, driving a car nobody had ever seen before driving up and down the Pacific Coast Highway five more times that my signed release permitted.
I have to report, on my extended test drive, heads may have turned but I was too nervous to notice. What if I drove the only working model of the new Nissan Z directly into the Pacific Ocean? I regret to report to car guys everywhere, I never drove the Z over a CHIP’s-approved 60 mph.
When my creative partner and I started working on ads for the new Z, this is the photography style that inspired us.
The style was classic but somehow futuristic at the same time. Since I didn’t get paid by the word, I kept the copy on the outdoor boards to a minimum. However, please note I had to go through all 26 letters of the alphabet until I found the right one.
So there you have it. Proof, Steve Bassett is not a car guy. I’m just a guy who drives a car.
4 thoughts on “I’m not a car guy.”
Steve I have the same recollections of the Mercedes test track. What an incredible experience! I also was so impressed with the value the Germans place on technical training and the apprenticeship program at the factory. As you said, each area of the line represents true craftsmen, not just laborers!
Touring the Audi factory in Ingolstadt was a similar eye opener. As was driving new Audis on the autobahn… at silly speeds. But I was so taken with Audi’s dedication to safety that I boarded a TV spot where I would actually ride in the car for a crash test. A living crash test dummy, certain that I would be 100% safe. I thought that would be the ultimate testimonial. Then, of course, our lawyers and their lawyers laughed their asses off.
Hahahaha! Talk about a crash test dummy.
You’ve got to love the Miata high beams, though. I don’t know what your colleagues were thinking when they said it was a girl’s car. Such a nice design quirk.