Sunday, August 5, 2007

The draw of the original

My dad bought a 1967 Buick Riviera when I was a baby, and he had it until I was 24 years old, when he sold it to me. I drove it daily for two years and had to sell it because it was costing me too much to keep it on the road. I had budgeted for the fuel mileage, which was abysmal, but I hadn't budgeted for a $200 thing here and a $300 thing there all the time. I was out of pocket a few hundred dollars every month above and beyond normal operating costs, and I just couldn't swing it.

Fortunately, it went to a good home. The guy who bought it pulled up in a '64 Wildcat, and from the way he was talking I knew he'd write me a check as soon as he got back from his drive in it. That's indeed what happened.

I'll talk about the Riviera at length sometime soon, but today I want to talk about a highly specific aspect of it: the left high-beam headlamp. It was original equipment. It had been on the car on the showroom floor, and there it still was. When I sold the car, that headlamp had soldiered on in its left inboard position, doing its job night after night, for 30 years.

There's no doubt the lamp's performance was subpar. It was yellow, noticeably weaker than the other side, and probably didn't do much for the driver to help spot a deer on a country road. Moreover, sealed-beam technology had come a long way in those 30 years. And yet, Dad wouldn't dream of replacing it, and neither would I. Why not? It was original.

What is the draw of the original? I mean, there's undeniably something special about a whole car that's 30 years old and still in operational condition, but what about a silly little thing like a headlamp? It's not like the Riv was all original. It had been painted, the engine had been rebuilt, the front seat had been replaced, and the like.

So why would we do that? I'm mostly about efficiency and effectiveness in the way I live my life, and there isn't a Luddite bone in my body. It wasn't pining for the "good old days," either; 1967 was a few years before I was born, so obviously I didn't have any corresponding memories. Yet I never had to explain to any car person why I left that headlamp in service. They just got it. It was the thing to do. I could have put a technically superior solution in easily, but it wouldn't have been as cool.

What is that coolness? Is it simply that it's a portable and easily applicable standard for comparing cars? Is it marveling at something so well-manufactured that it still performs acceptably? I don't know, but it's undeniable.