A case study in cars (and people) that aren’t great to look at but love to drive

Ever since the 1980s, when you drove a Mercedes SL on the highway, the television show Miami Vice could be heard thumping in the background. Whenever a speeding chase took place, the cameras cut…

A case study in cars (and people) that aren’t great to look at but love to drive

Ever since the 1980s, when you drove a Mercedes SL on the highway, the television show Miami Vice could be heard thumping in the background. Whenever a speeding chase took place, the cameras cut to the Mercedes’s tag line, “Verve & Vigor.” For the people of America, that was a jingle to remember. The joyriding, the speed, the sweeping curves — it was everything they dreamed of about great cars.

But for all their splendors, great cars are simple things. People who want great cars have to know a great deal about cars, and it can be a bit of a needle-in-a-haystack endeavor when it comes to tailoring your own vehicle to your preferences. They’re easy to confuse, even with the few tiny known rules and touches that anyone can manipulate with a bit of extra elbow grease and attention to detail. Or they may be all that is required to make the vehicle your “thing.”

You might like a different color of paint, for example, or a different sound or feel. Or the color in its exact opposite is exactly what you want. Or, you’d like a whiter or cream interior. Or, maybe, something quirky. Or something you like about your favorite car but aren’t totally sure why. You might want a hardtop, for example, but the convertible does the job, or you might like the feel of leather upholstery, but the soft top is better. But rather than worry about which bits of which car you can live with — on what sort of occasion, and on what sort of road — you can all throw money at your desire without being lost in the quagmire of mechanical fault and outsized complexity that most purchases within this category of brand-oriented marketing conjure up. The flip side of the coin is the question of whether your body type can actually ride comfortably in a motor vehicle with so many mind-blowing array of options.

After seeing several Mercedes SL owners come through my window this summer — mostly millennials on vacation, but one man who is a New York-based fashion designer, and one with whom I shared the anticipation of photographing his car — I had a vested interest in knowing what they like and feel. But I also wanted to find out how they determine the value of their cars, and whether I could value it in terms of something other than life’s short-term bottom line. The answer to that last question — whether you can afford such a flashy model without losing your mind — is available online in a sense, but the price comparisons of brands are of scant use. For the purposes of this project, a 48-year-old Jewish Italian musician, who has five kids and lives in a small apartment in New York City, is the test subject. And what I found fascinating was that when it came to his 16-year-old son, Ricky, we had almost exactly the same response: The front seats are too small, and the back is practically useless. That’s because the child seat design is, as is so typical in car seats, a compromise between the need to maximize space and the insistence that no back is better than two.

Ricky wasn’t asking for much: a coupe that is still comparatively spacious for a boy; side-view mirrors that are useful instead of gross-looking; color that takes up a little less room than the regular car in which he is parking. Yes, he was asking for a lot — price, style, environmental stance, transmission; but still, he was asking for what he sees as a reasonable compromise. The SL is more than twice as expensive as any car the designer drives. But it is lighter than any car he owns, and as a result, less of a drag on the fuel economy and air quality of the city he lives in. The SL is a lap around the track, more than an on-the-road trip. And, ultimately, the design elements the designer admires in the SL reflect the design touches he admires in himself.

The City Editor / Brooklyn, New York

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