Smithology: Shigeru’s machine

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Yellow Acura Front Three-Quarter On Road In Foggy Hills
Sam Smith | Hagerty Media Site

Starting any car requires a series of events. In this case, the car in question is neither all that old nor all that new, so let’s just ballpark and say that those events number in the thousands, and not hundreds of thousands or millions.

Countless lines of code must be executed. Oil must be in certain places. Pistons and gears and shafts and bearings must either move or allow movement. Then there are the simpler variables—tire pressure and battery voltage, injectors flowing something like the proper amount of fuel, and so on.

When you own a car, you occasionally think on that list of events. Or maybe I’m the only one, and maybe most people don’t.

If all this stuff is right and happy, the engine lights off. You sit at the wheel for a moment, waiting. After that, the engine’s work — controlled fuel burn, the reciprocating motion of connecting rods, torque at an output shaft — is aimed at a task. You back out of the garage.

You place the car in gear and drive. Slowly, at first; oil must be warmed. There are also speed limits, of course, and generally they must be obeyed. You fudge them when you can. The fudging happens less as you age, except when it doesn’t.

All this time, the needles on the dash send messages. Some drivers notice these messages. Some ignore them and play with the radio or a phone. Every so often, the driver makes a choice: This road instead of that one. This left, that right, down into a valley and blasting out again.

Sam smith acura integra type r 2
Sam Smith

We live in a pretty part of the country, open and wide, so I tend to leave the windows down, to let the forest waft in. The car runs down a road bordered by trees, the leaves meeting above like the top of a tunnel, on its way to a mountain. A moment later, we run along the side of the mountain, climbing, and then we’re on the top.

“Mountain” is relative, of course. In Kansas, people would view that mountain as large. In Colorado, it would be laughed at. In Tennessee, where we are, it is a foothill for an extremely old range: the Appalachians in general, the Smokies in particular. That name comes from how the fog condenses in hollers and valleys, this woolen blanket of moisture that threads and wanders through the land, rarely able to climb much higher.

The car goes a little too fast. Then a little faster, and faster after that. The engine was designed to feel happiest up top, when it’s working hardest. So you work it a lot. The rest of the car is similar, as binary as a light switch. Below 80 percent of its potential, it feels half-dead. Above that, you wonder if your next mistake is going to make you full dead.

One man tuned the suspension on that car. At speed, you know what he was thinking.

I met Shigeru Uehara once; he told me that he wanted his work to feel a certain way. In the case of the 1997–2001 Honda/Acura Integra Type R, he said, he wanted the car to feel as if it were about to boil over. So you would feel alive. The Integra isn’t a race car, but it suggests the purpose. Or maybe, if you have driven actual, purpose-built race cars, and you know how they aim their engineering, it simply reminds you of the feeling. Most people don’t actually want a competition device for road use, in the way that no one wants to eat five pounds of chocolate for every meal or fly an F-16 from New York to Toyko instead of a wide-body airliner, although those acts occasionally sound appealing. You want a gloss of the idea, a simulacrum.

So the ITR is something like that. Call it espresso: best in small doses, applied with restraint. Passengers tend to grab the seat bolsters and go, Do we need to do this? Could you slow down? We could drive around in a McLaren at twice the speed and you wouldn’t half wonder as much about the crazy behind the wheel.

There’s something about that — how you feel, with a machine you like. How it’s more important than what the machine is actually doing.

***

And that is what I told her. A while back, earlier in quarantine, my older daughter, Marion, asked why I sometimes leave the house to drive in the hills by myself. I gave her those words above, almost verbatim. She nodded, her eyes six years old and looking no older — that thing where you’re not quite sure if the kid understands you, but it doesn’t really matter.

That’s what it feels like, I said, to hop into an automobile in the waning days of the glory years of one of the greatest and most culturally significant devices ever drawn up by the human mind. Especially in a pandemic. When you get less of something you like, I told her, each moment with it seems more valuable than the last.

Sam smith acura integra type r 3
Sam Smith

I wonder sometimes if cars are now widely viewed as a relic of a subjectively lesser era, a seemingly less enlightened time. If we might one day look back on this moment in history and see a culture caught between worlds — stuck between the obvious bad of the polluting, traffic-producing automobile, and the obvious good. For the meantime, however, we are still supposed to be doing this, on some level. Society has produced no better answer for the problem of transportation, and I like driving more than I like most things. The act is still a vital part of how the world goes ’round. Still lovely and wonderful and dangerous and happy and life-affirming. A quarantine can dim your frequency, and the government can advise against moving and going and doing, but nothing extinguishes the everyday joy of the machine.

I told Marion this, too. She nodded. She took a moment, then asked when we could go for a drive, just going nowhere, for no reason. Maybe in my truck, she said. Or the Acura.

“Soon,” I said. Then I thought for a moment myself, considering the options. “Very soon.”

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