Smithology: The flame fuel was fun

Unsplash/Vitor Camilo

A Conversation With the Author’s Great-Granddaughter*, Wherein Your Narrator Considers His Life Among Internal Combustibles and Also Eats Too Many Snacks

*This great-granddaughter does not currently exist. My two children are now six and eight. The following conversation is set six or seven decades after present day and imagines this fictional descendant around high-school age.

Side note: Your narrator is currently in his early forties. Six decades from now, he will undoubtedly have lost much of his legendary intelligence and physical beauty, assets once described by the family doctor as, “Why would you want me to lie to you about that?” It should go without saying that none of this deterioration will have anything to do with a lifelong consumption of gummy candy and/or long decades spent inhaling the evaporatives of roughly three cans of Brakleen a week.




Sam Smith’s Great-Granddaughter, a.k.a. Great-Granddaughter Smith, Age Teen-Something, a Clever Individual of the Distant Future: So you’re saying you just, like, put the flame juice in the tank.

Sam Smith: Well, yes. But it wasn’t flame juice! Low flashpoint. Danger fumes. The vapors would get you.


GGS: I thought Mom told you to stop the fart jokes.

SS: I am a grown man! I do what I want!


GGS: You are also in rest home, in a wheelchair, with no teeth, wearing only boxer shorts and a “HONK IF YOU’RE HORNY” T-shirt. I am pushing you. You go where I want.

SS: Hush! I was hanging off motorcycles when your mother was still in diapers! I ate hot dogs before the FDA reclassified them as a carcinogen! I am a man! Rawr!

vending machines plain

GGS: [Pushes wheelchair across hallway to vending machine.] Good story. You want the Cheese Doodles or the Choco Bites?

SS: Gimme them Doodles. Love that cheese powder. Sticks to my teeth for later.


GGS: So cars burned, or something. Because they ran on flame juice. Which was made from oil or dinosaur bones, or whatever? Didn’t this stuff catch fire?

SS: The burning ones were mostly Ferraris. Nobody thought much of it at the time. We just wrote it off to Italy being bad at making stuff. Which made sense, for some reason? Also, no one actually drove a Ferrari. It was like fancy watches: You bought them to show people that you could. And because Chris Harris said they were great.


GGS: Who’s Chris Harris?

SS: This British guy who slid cars around on television. He was very good! Very famous!


GGS: Wait. Sir Chris Harris?

SS: No, that’s his son. Junior. The Nobel laureate. This one was a nice guy, though. Wore shorts.


GGS: Unlike other people, who do not… uh… wear shorts?

SS: Hush, you. Let’s roll over to that couch, so I can eat my Doodles.


GGS: I thought you used to be a writer? Weren’t words your job? [Pushes wheelchair to couch, sits down.]

SS: Child! You want me to share these Doodles or not?


GGS: [Rolls eyes, smiles.] Fiiiiine.

SS: Errbody loves Doodles.


GGS: So the flame juice went from the ground into the tank of the car, somehow, billions of gallons every year in this country, this incredibly dangerous refueling process performed by everybody from teenagers to grandmothers, only nobody died. And there was this big, cast-metal box in every car that burned it all, kept it all in and spit it out, making power and toxic fumes.

SS: It wasn’t that toxic! We cleaned it up over the years. Mostly. Sort of?


GGS: And then that smoke was just dumped out a pipe, into the atmosphere. The air we breathe and use for photosynthesis and stuff.

SS: It wasn’t smoke! I told you last time. Hydrocarbons and monoxides. Like smoke but not really. Anyway, it seemed like a good idea at the time?


GGS: To whom?

SS: A lot of people. Almost everybody, at one point! We didn’t get too worked up about it for maybe a hundred years or so. By the time all this seemed like maybe not the greatest idea, cleaner air somehow became a political cudgel, and people started arguing about facts and shared reality, and everyone split into camps, and—


GGS: What’s a cudgel?

SS: Five bees for a quarter! For Pete’s sake! You don’t know what a cudgel is? What do they teach you in that school of yours?


GGS: I told you, I don’t go to school. They boot-drop the knowledge into my implant.

SS: How do you find people to smooch on? I mostly went to school for the smoochin’.


GGS: Woo! You minx!

SS: And I went to read books about machines, and romance, and the romance of machines, and this one time where Brick Yates and Doug “DeMuro” Gurney did some stuff with the romance of machines or romanced each other in a Ferrari or machined some romance in Los Angeles? I forget. There was a cross-country race. It was a different time. I knew this driver-gadabout guy named Alex Roy. Looked like Ernst Blofeld, kept a stuffed bear in his Manhattan apartment. Lovely guy. Went on Letterman once. I made a TV show for NBC with some of his friends.


GGS: The bear?

SS: No, Alex.


GGS: Did you kiss on Gramma Adrienne at school?

SS: She and I met when we both worked at this magazine called Automobile. Around 2006. I used to go into her office and plant the ol’ smoochaloo when the boss wasn’t lookin’.

Automobile Magazine november 2006

GGS: Honk!

SS: Hey! Stop eatin’ my Doodles! You wanna hear about cars or not?


GGS: I guess? Why did you like these things, anyway?

SS: Cars? They took you places. State to state, no papers. You were free.


GGS: I meant the Doodles. Taste like cardboard.

SS: You try chewin’ filet mignon without teeth. And they don’t sell it in the hallway vender.


GGS: I still don’t see how these autocars you drove yourself were better than, you know, a train. I can sleep on a train.

SS: Choice and time and it was all yours. They were fast—faster than a bicycle! You ever just feel so free you want to scream? Point that stuff at the horizon, man, slide it through a corner, that was livin’. Plus, they looked great and were fun to fix. Until we made them all fat and complex and less great-looking. But then they got pretty again. And then ugly again after that. And then pretty again. It was kind of a cycle.

Caterham 7 rear view
Sam Smith

GGS: The Amrail Zephyr goes 250 on the commuter line from New York to DC.

SS: Different. And a car, you owned the thing! It was yours! You could get in that sucker, do what you wanted. Drive to Denny’s, wear a hat, whatever.


GGS: Isn’t that a Norm Macdonald joke?

SS: No. I wrote it. I’m a genius.


GGS: The nurse told me you got so excited about watching your cartoons this morning, you forgot to wear pants.

SS: Did I tell you about the time I invented Elon Musk?


GGS: This is fun, but Mom said I can only hang out here if you actually teach me something.

SS: Cars are neat.


GGS: [Laughs.] Elaborate or… I eat the rest of the Doodles?

SS: So, like, the fun part was how we got excited. The new ones were often better than the old ones! There was an entire industry devoted to telling people about the new stuff! Which was mostly just the old stuff but slightly less deadly every year, and faster, even though the speed limits never went up, and the computers in them got smarter, and also the Germans learned that we all need cupholders, but it took them 30 years to design one that didn’t break after five minutes, and…

I mean, people loved the old cars. But mostly because they were worse than the new ones.

Caterham 7 rear view
Sam Smith

GGS: That makes no sense.

SS: Reminder of a simpler time, I guess. They were flawed, made you pay more attention, stay involved. And you could fix them easier. A way to make a dent in the universe, just changing something tangible, as software eats the world. People built entire careers writing about that stuff, you know?


GGS: Is this gonna be like that joke you told last time, where you used to drink hot bean water every morning, and everyone felt better after they drank it, because the beans were a drug? And then the beans wouldn’t grow any more, or something, because the weather got too weird, and everyone stopped? And all this was legal?

SS: We did that! That’s not a joke!


GGS: Right.

SS: Look, I don’t make this stuff up.


GGS: Except the part where you invented Elon Musk.

SS: Everyone makes mistakes.


GGS: [Smiles.] So that was a lie!

SS: No, I meant Elon. Who knew the dude would go into genetic animal husbandry?

tesla interior screen
Unsplash/Bram van Oost

GGS: We had a drop-class about the Velocipigeon. Terrifying. Why would you gene-splice a carnivorous dinosaur with a really dumb floofy bird?

SS: At least… it stopped him from making cars?


GGS: International crises of flying bloodlust will do that. Wait. He made cars?

SS: Before the first prison sentence. Electric ones. They had giant screens. Really big. People bought them as status symbols.


GGS: Screens?

SS: I know. Gauche, right?


GGS: So tacky.

SS: Well, that’s who he was. That and a homicidal gene scientist, apparently.


GGS: Those were some of the first electrics, right? With batteries?

SS: When I was young, old people got cranky because those cars didn’t use the flame fuel! The flame fuel was fun. I was never biased, just loved wheels, period. People would get into fights online about how fast one car or another could turn that fuel into forward motion, and how, exactly, that process took place, the kind of mechanical complexity. Whether the machine was really loud, like a jungle cat, or maybe a rocket, or some kind of, I dunno, angry gorilla.

Journalists had so many ways to talk about noises! So many animals! I kept a list of adjectives and similies a mile long. There was understeer, so many kinds! Only most people didn’t know what that actually meant, they were just turning the wheel too much. We also got worked up when the plumbing broke.


GGS: Toilets?

SS: No. Engine plumbing. The hoses and bits that helped the metal box burn fuel, kept it cool and lubricated.

engine closeup pulleys hoses
Unsplash/Chad Kirchoff

GGS: So there was just a couple of hoses, dumping in coolant and oil and fuel.

SS: Sort of. It all got complex toward the end. Valves and sensors, compressors, multi-stage intercoolers. The Japanese were good at making the plumbing stay together, though.


GGS: So why didn’t everybody just buy Japanese cars?

SS: Feelings!


GGS: Like the Ferrari fires?

SS: No. Different feelings.


GGS: Awful lotta feelings with all this.

SS: So much! Some people didn’t like Japanese cars. Some didn’t like American cars. Others paid millions of dollars for special versions of ordinary cars because some famous person had put a butt in the seat. You made T-shirts with jokes on them and wore those shirts places so people would know what kind of cars you liked, and you would know that they knew. A sticker of Calvin pissing on a Chevy logo! Then somebody made a sticker of Calvin pissing on a sticker of Calvin pissing on a Chevy logo! I once bought a boring old 190,000-mile SUV because it had a small version of an engine that was also used in this faster and more interesting car, and because it had a pedal to disconnect the driveline. That was important to me. I made shirts.


GGS: Of Calvin?

SS: No. Mostly just jokes from the Internet.

oversteer-my-bagel t-shirt
Not the author, and a joke he made more than ten years ago while working for another website, but you can still buy the shirt. (Google is your friend.)

GGS: What’s the Internet?

SS: Are you kidding?


GGS: Gotcha! The world hasn’t changed that much.

SS: I loved the future but also the past. Every so often we had car shows where folks dressed up like their parents from 30 or 60 years ago. There was a lot going on. People got territorial about their car brands and eras. Like New York City—everyone thought it was best at the time they discovered it, that it had gone downhill ever since.


GGS: Nothing you just said made any sense.

SS: I guess you had to be there?


GGS: Kind of like senility.

SS: You are funny.


GGS: It’s mostly just self-loathing. Mom says it runs in the family. Hey, I gotta go here in a minute, but… before I do, you wanna split another bag of Doodles?

SS: Hm. [Pouts.]


GGS: There was a bag of extra-cheesy ones in the vender…

SS: [Raises eyebrow.] Push me over there, but do it really, really fast?


GGS: For the love of… What are you, a child?

SS: Thought you’d never ask.

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