Avoidable Contact #77: A simple twist of Phaet

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Jack Baruth

After signing his first seven-figure book deal, and having sold The Witches Of Eastwick to Hollywood, the late John Updike confessed that he quite enjoyed what he called “minor fame.” By that standard, I have micro-fame. Perhaps nano-fame. Femto-infamy, more like it. The only people who recognize me on the street are secondhand guitar dealers. Yet there was once a moment in which I felt the warm flow of authentic minor fame. It was the fall of 2006 and I was seated in the globe-shaped executive cafeteria high above the hardwood workfloor of Volkswagen’s Glaeserne Manufaktur in Dresden, attempting to scoop up a little bit of caviar from my plate with half a sourdough cracker, when the plant manager leaned across the table and said, in his clipped English-via-Saxony, “You are the young man who owns two Phaetons.”

“Yes!” I sputtered. “That’s who I am! The young man—34 years old, that seems young-ish, right?—who owns two Phaetons!” Several eyes turned my way, all of them approvingly, and why not? This, after all, was the factory in which the Phaeton was assembled. As the purchaser of a Phaeton pair, I was greasing the wheels of commerce in Dresden. A head or two nodded. This was minor fame! Quite enjoyable. Updike was right. The plant manager, impeccable in the sort of Hugo Boss suit expressly forbidden to American executives, touched two fingers to his mouth in a delicate and thoughtful gesture. Then he asked the next question:

“Why?”

Huh. Still thinking about the answer to that. At the time, it seemed natural. I’d been a VW owner for 16 years, starting with a Fox in 1990. I was a junior partner in a business where the money came easily, but it seemed wise to avoid too much attention. I’d driven a CL55 AMG for a while, a rip-snorter hardtop coupe with robotic seatbelt arms and an endless appetite for rear tires; the Ohio cops pulled me over, literally, for doing 56 in a 55. I knew the Phaeton would escape such scrutiny, and I was correct. The first one was an all-options 2005 model in light grey. My first wife idled her Miata and commandeered it for the winter of ’05–06, leaving me to drive an old ’82 Quantum Coupe with rotten window seals and a habit of not starting when it really mattered.

I ended up leasing one of the 300 cars VW imported for 2006 as my second big VW. I declared it off-limits to spouses and friends. Started fussing with it: paddle shifters and ebony steering wheel from a Continental GT, stereo upgrades, deep and illegal ceramic tint, European-market rear foglights that could blind anyone who put their high beams on my back bumper. In the previous year I’d run the grey Phaeton around a few racetracks, most notably Grattan where the intelligent air suspension went nuts over the back-straight jump, but the black car became my go-to vehicle for a time in my life where I would often coach other drivers for 40 or even 50 days per year. I won an F-Stock SCCA autocross with it, thanks to a little bit of bad weather.

My Phaeton and I were quite simpatico. Other cars, even the big Benzes and Bimmers, felt cheap and flimsy in comparison, probably because they were six- or seven-hundred pounds lighter. I never tired of driving it, although it occasionally got tired of being driven, at which point it would flash some lights and check itself into a dealer for mysterious repairs the same way one might book a spa vacation after a stressful month of work-related travel. The touch points of the interior appeared completely impervious to wear; this was a new thing to someone who’d owned a 1998 Passat and seen the rubbery paint disintegrate almost before my eyes.

It was nice to be young-ish and to be in command of such a vehicle. It felt like I was playing some sort of trick on all the respectable grown-ups around me in their Accords and A4s and front-wheel-drive Lexus sedans. I’d been a Porsche 911 owner for a few years, and I was used to the looks I got from people in my small Ohio town. This was different. Nobody knew what it was, except for the ones who did, and for them it was like seeing a Miura SV or something. I’d come out from a restaurant at lunch and see a MkIV Jetta next to it idling in unsteady, smoky fashion—cancel my two o’clock, why dontcha, I’m going to be talking to someone for a while.

Looking back, the Phaetons were a nice interlude between my youth, in which most of my adventures were bicycle-centric, and my middle age, in which most of my adventures were horrifyingly salacious. (Today, in late middle age, with a younger wife and even younger son, we are back to the bicycles.) I’d been looking for a distraction, a way to pass the time while I figured out the collapsing waveform of youthful-potential-into-aging-reality, and the big Volkswagens were just the ticket. To hammer down I-95 towards the Carolinas in the dead of night at private-plane velocities, the polished-ebony wheel motionless in my hands and the double glass of the doors blocking out even a whisper of wind noise … At a moment like that, a man might easily believe himself to be very special indeed, to be deserving of minor fame.

After two years, that placid satisfaction no longer satisfied, both with regards to my fleet of cars and my personal life. It was time to rev up the engines before it was too late. I ordered a custom Audi S5 coupe in a lurid one-off shade of lime green; once it arrived I forgot about the Phaetons except when it was time to make the payments. Sent them both back to the dealer by the three-year mark, at the edge of darkness where the oft-invoked bumper-to-bumper warranty would no longer protect me. With a redheaded former Vegas dancer by my side, I ran that Audi around the East Coast for a couple highly dissipated years, including one hilarious time where I forgot where the car was in New York and couldn’t find it for an entire weekend. (It was across the street from the Village Vanguard, for the record; I’d walked out of an Al Foster gig on a Thursday night too looped to drive and had prudently taken a taxi to my hotel. The Audi should have been towed a half-dozen times between Thursday and Sunday but the tow-truck drivers left it alone, perhaps because it looked like it must belong to someone special.)

The Phaeton owner community was small but quite close-knit. In 2006 we all went to Germany together, driving rented Phaetons to the Glass Factory and meeting the people who’d made our cars. I’m not sure what happened to most of my fellow owners between then and now. From time to time I’ll get a note from someone who thinks he has one of my old cars, or from someone who has questions about fixing a Phaeton. Most commonly I’ll get a link to an eBay auction for a $4999 Phaeton with the suggestion that I buy it. How can I explain to these people that owning a ragged-out 15-year-old example would in no way resemble having a pair of factory-new cars with the plastic still on the floormats? The appeal of the Phaetons was their utter perfection of execution. To quote the currently-fashionable rebuilder of old Porsches, everything is important in a Phaeton. Or was, anyway. There were no corners cut. It’s not the sort of perfection that can survive a decade of third and fourth owners.

These were special cars. We won’t see their like again. It took a single-minded fanaticism on the part of the most powerful man in the automotive world to make them happen. Those days are gone. We all play safer nowadays. Four-cylinder engines in luxury cars, not frantic 40-valve eights and puissant W-12s. We insist on the prophylactic application of meaningless upscale brands to everything we see, taste, or touch, lest we be mistaken for someone slightly poorer than ourselves. Instead of the Phaeton, we have the Arteon, an extended-wheelbase Golf with handsome styling to clothe unprepossessing underpinnings. Nobody buys it. And as for me, I no longer seek the exhilaration of minor fame. I stick to my knitting now. I drive a Honda Accord, tuck in early every night, and live in a small town where my second wife and I have gradually come to be accepted, in Updike’s infamous words, as just another couple.

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