WHAT GIVES A CAR A SOUL?

Sometimes, when I lay awake in bed thinking about my car, I wonder if my car is laying awake in the garage thinking about me too. It's probably not, but I'd like to think that my car is more than just a rolling piece of steel, glass and rubber. A noisy Subaru is definitely not short of character, that's for sure, but can a car be some sort of transient being? Can my car, or any other car for that matter, become...alive....*cue creepy music and stormy sounds effects*

Some cars have more character than others the day they roll off the assembly line. An STi is going to have more spunk than say a Toyota Camry, but does that translate to it having an actual soul? When I sit and think about it, maybe it's not so much the car's character that give it a soul, but it's something that blossoms over time. Maybe it's a high millage machine that refuses to die. Maybe it's a car that's been beat up in an accident but still drives straight. Maybe it's a car that's been on the road for more than 40 years and you cherish it more than your wife, but you won't tell her that because you know that would mean you'd be sleeping in it. Maybe it's simply a car that brings you joy in some way that another car can't.

So after much deliberation, I came to a conclusion. I think the soul of the car is tied to two things:

1. The car's character, and the attachment that you as an owner have to it.

2. The life that the vehicle itself has lived, regardless of the owner.

As I said before, while each car is something unique by itself, the longer that you own your car, the more of an attachment that you form with it. You learn all of it's little secrets, and what it can and can't do. You know what feelings are normal when you're behind the wheel, and when something is wrong. You know what noises it makes, and which ones are worth listening to. Sometimes if you whisper sweet nothings to it, it listens and magically starts to run better. But more than all of that, you share moments with your car that nobody else can take away from you. Traveling to far away lands, sliding sideways through snowy roads, and making friends (both of the human type and the machine type) along the way. But like real people, cars have flaws too. A Toyota MR2 would love to kill you on a daily basis if you're not careful, but yet there's people that still love them for their faults. Hell, people even give their cars human names too. If that's not some form of attachment, then I don't know what is.

Some cars are more vocal than others...

Some cars are more vocal than others...

So through it all, a car begins to take on almost a life of its own. When I first bought my Subaru in 2009, I didn't know diddly squat about anything. I couldn't drive stick, I've never owned a turbocharged car, let alone any kind of foreign car. But not long after I bought it, we started to share moments. I got the hang of shifting down pretty quickly (after being honked at a lot), started leaning more about what makes these cars tick (and just cars in general), and because of the Subaru community on NASIOC, I met a lot of great people who would become equally great life-long friends. No matter what we did though, we did it with our cars. Cruises through the back roads of Wisconsin, weekend retreats in Michigan for Sno*Drift weekend, and taking turns going down the drag-strip for the Subaru Shootout. Next thing you know, I'm standing up in these people's weddings and I'm doing motor swaps in their garages for the first time. It doesn't take much for things to snow ball into something bigger, but I can trace everything back down to a single decision to buy my car, which is pretty remarkable.

The other aspect of a machine with a soul is the physical aspect of the car itself. While a new car is beautiful and pristine to look at with it's shiny paint and rust free body, it's almost a blank canvas in a way. The vehicle hasn't been used. It hasn't lived a car's life. There's something to be said about seeing a survivor classic car, or a 20 year old machine that's still chugging away on the road, caked in rust and dirt. A car like that earns my respect in my book, and all of the door dings and chipped paint along the way is just a way the car shares its life story with anyone that comes in contact with it.

For example, I'm pretty sure the hood of my car has more craters in it than the surface of the moon, but that's because I don't let it sit in my garage. My car sees a lot of highway miles because of my travels to work and other little road trips. I have door dings galore because the previous owner had kids and liked to ride their bicycles, and that just so happened to also be in the garage next to the car. You can do the math with how that worked out.

The dent in my front fender is from an accident I had when someone cut me off, just a few months after that exact same fender was repaired because I pulled a car out of snowbank and it wanted to thank me with a kiss. My roughed up front bumper is from hitting a snow bank while attempting to do a standing 180° turn at Sno*Drift last year - my bumper is evidence of how well I executed it.

The fact is that if you look at my car, you can see all of the imperfections, but they tell a story. While my car is no show car, and I still try my best to keep it nice, these things happen. But when it's all said and done, it's what makes my Subaru, my Subaru. And the best part of all of this is that when I decide to sell my car, those little imperfections stay with the car as if to say "This is what I've accomplished". The next owner will be able to make new memories with it, but it can't take away the moments I've already shared with it.

And it's the memories we share with our cars that leaves the most lasting impression. It's the stories you'll tell your friends or your kids someday. It's the reason why I've written about my beater car and why, despite its flaws, it was such a memorable vehicle to own. Because after you give up your keys to some new owner and say goodbye to your 4-wheeled friend for the last time, that's all that you'll be left with. So enjoy the moment, savor the memories, and drive it like you love it, because there isn't any shame in letting your car live a fun life too.

THE GRIDLIFE EXPERIENCE

As an avid racing fan and video game enthusiast, it should come as no surprise that I thoroughly enjoy playing the Forza Motorsports series. And while I enjoy hardcore racing games that offer as much simulation as you can get with a console game, the open word and more arcade-like Forza Horizon series holds a special place in my heart too. Horizon is a "racing game" that is centered around an ongoing car and music festival that has the player earning wristbands as you make your way to the top of the list of the festival's top drivers, and joining in after-parties when the sun goes down. If you've ever played the game, you know exactly what I'm talking about (and if you haven't you definitely owe it to yourself to check it out), but suffice to say, Gridlife is indeed a case of where life imitates art. A 3-day event that is focused on racing, dancing, and partying, and this year I was there in the midst of all of it.

This was my first Gridlife Midwest event (or any event ran by the Gridlife folks for that matter), and while I have the sunburn and stickers to prove I was there, the time spent at Gingerman Raceway left me with great memories, and it was definitely enough fun to make sure I come back next year. I was persuaded last minute to come and check the event out by a bunch of friends last week, and even though I didn't get to drive my car on the track, I had a great time just as a witness to the entire festival. The entire small town of South Haven is invaded with all sorts of cars for the weekend, and all you have to do is show up, get your wristbands, and have a good time. It was as simple as that.

Time attack runs, HPDE (High Performance Driving Events), and drifting sessions filled the track schedule up all 3 days. There were plenty of fast cars that made an appearance this year, and at least 4 different new class records we set for this event. Chitown Subarus members Graham Gaylord and Eric "Dewey" DeWitt both took home some hardware and raffle prizes for their accomplishments on track. Graham placed 1st in Time Attack AWD Street Mod, and Dewey placed 2nd in HPDE+ AWD Street, so score one for the good guys and making the rest of CTS proud!

Yes - Matt Farah was there too announcing and handing out awards

Yes - Matt Farah was there too announcing and handing out awards

But the real stars of the show had to be the drift cars. This was my first time witnessing a drift event, and oh my lordy I had no idea what I have been missing out on. There is something to be said about a car flying past you at speed, on the edge of control, and showering the entire track with smoke and occasional dirt. The drift cars always drew the largest crowds, and for good reason too. Ryan Tuerck and his infamous GT-4586 was there, as was Vaughn Gittin Jr with his RTR Mustang and some of the Hoonigan guys. All of their cars were all out on track to put on a show, and their cars were some of the most exciting to watch. Even the factory backed Falken Tire drivers impressed, going 4 cars in tandem at times in some corners! The "Drift Taxi" was a 4-seat Infinity M35 with a Nissan Titan V8 swap that offered some lucky raffle winners the chance to go door-to-door with these guys too, and it was incredible to watch it all unfold on the track.

The paddock and the festival camping area was also a sight to behold. Everyone was making mid-day changes and repairs to their cars, and finding ways to keep both their cars and themselves cool (heck, even I got under the hood of one for a bit). Everyone was like one big car family working side by side with one another. It didn’t matter what you drove or if you needed spare parts, there was a feeling of comradery and mutual respect that you should be able to find at any track day. Everyone was there to go fast and have a good time, and nobody wanted to impede anyone else’s opportunity of doing just that.

If you couldn’t find at least one car that caught your attention walking around the paddock or the camping area on track, I’d have to have you examined to make sure you’re not clinically dead. From a 4G63-swapped Volvo Amazon to a Chevy Cavalier on Hoosiers with a supercharged Cobalt motor I stumbled upon, if you could think it, it was probably there, and I think that was what really made this event special to me. Sure, you had your Miata’s and S2000’s aplenty, but it was the odd ball cars that made walking around enjoyable. Every day seemed to bring different cars into the event, so you almost always saw something new. In order to stand out amongst a crowd of highly modified track cars, you had to have something truly unique to make people go “woah”.

But for those of you who know, the real fun of Gridlife is what happens when the sun goes down. While there is late night wrenching going on all over the place in preparation for the next day of racing, everyone else is cracking open a cold one with the boys as the nightlife at the track comes into its own. Each night there was a tent with music that had everyone’s head banging into the midnight hours, alongside a ferris wheel and small carnival rides. There was even a "Silent Disco" with everyone dancing to the same music while wearing headphones if that was more of your style (and it was not mine). It was your typical EDM festival atmosphere, and going into the festival camping area (better known as Guam) opened your eyes to a whole other level of people consuming alcohol responsibly. If you ever wanted to party with some pro drivers, this my friends, is your opportunity. They go just as hard off the track as they do on the track, and as I found, it doesn't matter where you're from, nothing brings people closer together like cars do (and beer).

All and all, it was one hot, long and tiring weekend, but I’d do it all over again without hesisitation. And who knows, maybe I will when Gridlife visits Road Atlanta later this summer for the Gridlife South festival.


BONUS Pictures:

GETTING STRANDED IN A CAVALIER

A few years ago I owned a 1998 Chevy Cavalier, or at the very least, a pile of dirt, rust and faded white paint that resembled the shape of a Cavalier. This car was the true definition of a “beater with a heater”. When I bought it, it had about 140K miles on it, and had only 3 hubcaps, manual doors and windows, and a 2200 series 4-cylinder that was leaking oil badly out of the valve cover gaskets. The air condition system also had a leak that I never cared to get fixed, so it just never worked, and there was also a giant crack along the entire length of the windshield. One of the back door latches would also just refuse to unlock sometimes, and the driver seat was so worn out that I could feel the metal frame of the seat dig against my back regularly. At one point I was also starting the car by jumping the starter with a screwdriver (which secretly made me feel badass like Jason Statham stealing a car in a movie or something, even though it was my own car). But hey, when you need cheap work beater, beggars can’t be choosers. Amazingly, despite the sorry state of the vehicle, I kind of grew fond of this little car that just refused to die, and it only stranded me one memorable time over the course of almost 50k miles that I put on it.

One spring morning on my way into work, I found myself driving through what felt like a monsoon. Heavy rain had been ongoing on our area for the past few days, so there was water everywhere, and there was serious flooding that was beginning to occur. Roads were so bad that police were beginning to shut them down while in route to my office, so I left the main roads that were closed in an attempt to sneak down some side roads to escape the traffic jams and find higher ground.

Wrong move.

The side street that I turned down had transformed into a shallow stream, and I came across a part of the road where it was considerably deeper water. While I could see salvation on the other side of this deep portion of the street, I had a brief Oregon Trail flashback about trying to either ford the river, or caulk the wagon and float it across. You gotta risk it for the biscut I always say, so I chose to ford my car down this street. I put the Cavalier dead center of the road where it was at its highest point (and I could still see a little bit of the pavement) and hoped for the best. At worst, I’d drown my beater car and get my feet wet waiting for the tow truck to drag me out, and at best, I might still be able to make it to work on time. I hit the water with speed and kept the gas pedal down. With the engine revving hard and water splashing everywhere, I held my breath as I felt the steering wheel go light for a brief moment. “Shit, I’m floating!” I thought to myself, but just as the quickly as I thought my downstream tour was over, my car found just pavement again to pull me out of the abyss. I had made to the other side.

My plan to find higher ground was going well. Turns out a lot of other drivers also had the same idea, and as I navigated through residential neighborhoods to get to the nearest major street, I started to realize that I had another problem. My brake pedal began to get softer and softer until suddenly, my brakes were simply gone altogether. Relying on my still functioning parking brake, I was able to maneuver my car to safety, but I needed to find a safe place to park. With the water still rising, I was concerned that leaving it on the side of the street would result in my car either being swept away, or serious flood damage. After my last fording attempt, I wasn’t feeling confident in going double or nothing with my bet against Mother Nature, so again, I had to find higher ground. Thankfully, I came across an elementary school that had a pitched driveway. It would actually turn out to be a walkway, but at this point, I took anything that I could get. I parked the car, hunkered down, and decided that there was no way I would be getting into work now.

I made a phone call to AAA for a tow and stewed about what could have happened. The only logical conclusion that I could draw was that somewhere on car, one of the rusted out brake lines must have snapped while I was pretending that my Cavalier was a jet ski. The pressure of the deep and fast moving water must have been too much, but there wasn’t anything that I could do about it now but wait.

Seeing has how I wasn’t going to be going anywhere for the foreseeable future, and the coffee I had drank earlier was reminding my bladder about what time it was, I got out of my car and started walking around the outside of the school to try and find someone who might be able to let me in and use their restroom. I found a custodian who let me in the building. I told him my situation and he didn’t seem to care that my car was parked where it was, and that the school wasn’t open that day (probably due to the flooding).

While I was waiting for my tow, I ate the lunch that I packed for myself in my car and just browsed the internet on my phone while I was waiting for the tow to arrive. Hourly check-ins with AAA was useless at this point since they continued to give me the same spiel every time I called them that someone would be out to assist me “soon”, and it was well into the afternoon by now. The rain was long gone by now and all of the flooding was rapidly subsiding. It was actually turning out to be a pretty nice and sunny day. Over the course of my waiting, I took a few more bathroom breaks in the school since I knew it was open, and just continued to camp out in my car.

Then the police arrived.

I was questioned what I was doing parked illegally on the walking path and told them the situation with my car and what happened. Apparently some of the parents that lived nearby didn’t like the fact that some older looking man in a beat up car was walking in and out of the elementary school and wanted them to investigate. The thought of that had not even occurred to me while I was waiting for the tow, so I apologized to the officers, moved the car onto the street where there was no longer any water, and continued to play the waiting game for another few hours. Thankfully, there was no further police intervention for the rest of the day.

All in all, I waited about 8 hours for my tow truck to arrive. The driver of the tow truck had been having himself a busy day with a lot of other cars downed in other various streets. It was one of the most memorable moments that I’ve ever been stranded by any car I’ve ever owned, and not one that I’d like to repeat any time soon.

WHY DO YOU LOVE THAT HEAP?

I've been asked this question a couple of times while owning my Subaru. People have asked me what is so special about my car, and why I enjoy driving my old WRX. Every time someone asks me, the answer is the same - because I love how analog it is.

Now, a lot of what I do in my life revolves around doing it in the digital world. Without computers and the devices that people use on a daily basis, I honestly wouldn't have much of a real career, but when you live in a world of virtualized everything, it's easy to get lost in what's absolute. Emails, social media, and even this website puts up a vale of digitialism that surrounds everything that we seemingly do today. You're more likely to meet and interact with someone online before you meet someone in person and shake their hand. You're more likely to drive a new car that's now partially controlled by computers than you are by one that is not. And that's not too say that is necessarily a bad thing, but me personally? I like to step away from the keyboard from time to time (looking at memes all day gets tiring).

That leads me to my car. I like my 2004 WRX for the reason that it is pretty much entirely an analog experience, and it's also not overly complicated. When I'm behind the wheel of it, there's very little electronics that gets in the way of enjoying the one thing that I love doing most - driving. And while I'm thankful for a lot car related electronic advancements over the years, I simply don't want too much of it in my car where it doesn't matter. I like that my car is an escape from the digital life that I live most of the time, and it's one thing that I own that I can't simply control with just a mouse, or a few taps of my fingers. It's a reminder that every day when I turn the key, that there is more to this world than just starting at a phone or a computer screen.

The beauty of having an older car is that it still has a lot of components that are connected mechanically, rather than electronically. For example, the throttle linkage is an actual steel cable instead of a sensor and some extra wiring. My steering wheel is connected to an actual shaft, and subsequently the steering rack, so I feel every little vibration and movement in the wheel. Mechanical differentials are used instead of an electronic torque vectoring system, and analog vacuum gauges are present instead of flashy digital screens. All of these things give you minute feedback that I think is paramount in knowing what the car is doing too, especially when the car is being driven at it's limit. My car has my full attention when I'm driving it, and I don't just get a feeling of blah and numbness when I'm driving around. It's loud. It vibrates. It gives me tingles in my pants. In a way, it makes me feel alive. A car is a machine, not a computer. Shouldn't it be put together like one?

The mechanical aspect of the car adds to the driving experience in a way that I can only describe with this analogy. When you go into a casino and sit down at a slot machine, how many people opt to pull down on the big red lever to spin the wheel instead of aimlessly pushing a button? I think a lot of people want that physical connection, that subconscious attachment and fulfillment from physically yanking down on that sucker and hoping you hit it big. Sure the light up button is easier and probably faster to press, but I'll be dammed if isn't more gratifying than getting your whole arm into it. Same thing applies when I'm shifting gears with my manual transmission. Each gear change is a physical operation that I do with pretty much my entire body, and it's way more involved that just flipping a paddle or slapping a stick. Subconsciously, I'm in that casino winning big, even if does mean that I'll get there slower (queue the money shift jokes).

I think all of this also offers a more rewarding experience too. There's this physical connection that you get with the machine as you're rowing through the gears, taking turns, and listening to Sammy Hagar singing about how he can't drive 55. Sitting in an appliance disguised as a car has no reward, and it has no excitement. I'll get into what gives a car a soul another time, but to me, these are things that gives a car character, and I think that's important. It's what separates a race car from a Camry, and it's what terrifies me about the future of cars.

Cars today are different because they have to be different. Safety regulations and fuel economy restrictions mostly dictate that, and all of these things add weight and force manufactures to design a car around them. Subaru won't ever be able to make another car like mine again because of that, and I think that also makes it kind of special. Does that mean that today's cars are shit? I'd argue no (some of them are actually kind of nice), but I'd also argue that the feelings and the experience that a 2004 WRX and a 2017 WRX give you would be different. I just happen to prefer the flavor of the older models. Regular Car Reviews pretty much covers my feelings and opinions about this sort of thing in one of their latest reviews about the Honda Civic EH2. If you haven't had a chance to view it yet, I'd highly encourage it:

We're at a point now where there aren't a lot of cars left that still offer that simplistic and analog element to it anymore. The Toyobaru twins and the Miata are probably one of the last shining examples of simplicity and creating a raw driving experience, but that is why I think older Subarus (and maybe just older cars in general) are still quite popular. In my opinion, they're also easier to work on too. Usually parts are cheaper, and the car community knows of all of a vehicle's pitfalls, and how to address them. After doing a motor swap in my car last year, and then helping do one in a 2009 WRX a few months later, it really opened my eyes to just how much more wiring and what I call "unnecessary parts" (air pumps for example) have made their way into cars now. It was in that moment that I realized that I am slowly becoming Walt Kowalski hoarding a Grand Torino because they "don't make 'em like they used to".

People expect more from their cars now, and electronics have been able to give it to them in a cheaper and easier way than ever before. More functionality, more comfort, and less headaches - you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who wouldn't want that in their car. Whether or not it's what you want out of a vehicle though, is entirely up to you. Me personally, I own two cars so that I can enjoy the best of both worlds. Yes, I know that's cheating, but I never said you couldn't!

IT STARTED WITH DAD

I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that the love and fascination for the automobile started with my dad. Well, not my dad, but a father figure of your own. My dad has been a GM mechanic for almost the past 30 years, and it'd be near impossible to avoid feeling some sort of way about cars when it's been a part of my entire life. Spending time with him in the shop is like a normal occurrence, just like if you'd go out and get lunch with a friend.

Having a mechanic that you know and trust is one of those people in your life that you should just have in your phone book. Right up there with a good doctor, lawyer, and a handyman of some kind. Needless to say, I have been very fortunate that my dad has filled that role for me. From helping me find my first car, to doing maintenance and some modifications, and even helping me again when it came time to selling them, dad has always been there helping guide the way. The older I get, the more I look back and realize how much he has done for me too, and it's something that I don't take for granted, nor can I thank him enough for.

That being said, I think my dad enjoys all of it. Not just because I'm his son and there's kind of this moral obligation to love me and make sure that I turn out OK, but because working on his own car (or one of the other family cars) allows him to "loosen up". What I mean by that is instead of following endless amounts of procedures and legwork that GM mandates to diagnose and fix a car, all options to fix something are usually on the table when he knows belongs to me . We don't have to worry about warranty work, making sure it's perfect for the customer, or using brand new parts every time. It just needs to be functional, and much like myself (and my hero Clark Griswold), my dad hates spending money on something that he doesn't have to, so he sure as hell isn't going to let my own car nickel and dime me either. With his vast knowledge of practically every GM vehicle made in the last 40+ years, it's a way for him to get creative and break away from the book time for a little bit too.

A great example of this is my 2004 Chevrolet Impala. Before it was my car, it was a customer's car that my dad knew the owner of and worked on whenever it came into the shop. When the owner of the car traded it in, my dad was certain to take it off his hands and my brother bought it. It was a good running car for him, and my brother sold it to me two years ago after he moved into the city and no longer needed it. Once I bought it, the usual used car maintenance items started. New tires all around were put on (for a nice discount too thanks to my dad), new brakes were fitted, and fluids were changed. The car was 10 years old, but it had less than 100k miles, and I had every intention of driving this Impala until the car get totaled some day.

Except, that actually happened.

Last year I was rear ended so hard that the frame was bent from the impact. The Impala was written off by my insurance, but there was so much life still left in it that my dad couldn't see it go to a junkyard, and neither could I. It took some convincing on his part, but I bought the car back for less than $200 and repair work started. After-hours in his shop became a game of "how cheaply can we fix this?". From taking a sawzall to cut up the rear bumper so that it wouldn't rub up against the rear tires, to using a jack and a hoist together to try and bend the frame back into position, we did what we could to get the car road worthy again, regardless of how bad it looked. Kicking the fenders back out from the trunk to hide some of the ugliness, gluing the gas filler neck in place, and torching and bending the exhaust to make it sit right was just part of a usual Tuesday fix. We'd laugh at our craftsmanship not because it was ugly (we knew it was), but because it worked, and most of the time it was a free fix! Working in the industry for so long, my dad has also accumulated a large collection (actually an entire toolbox full) of used, but still good parts. We make fun of my dad's used parts emporium, but we've raided this parts bin on multiple occasions - spare horns, switches, and even wheel bearings. His toolbox of parts is so well known that even some of the other mechanics in the shop ask him for some spare parts for their own personal cars when they need something.

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I still own the Impala, and now the car runs and drives perfectly. I wouldn't hesitate to drive it across the country today if you asked me to. When it comes to stuff like this, my dad enjoys spending the time doing things himself. Sure, spending 10 hours on a car that is essentially worth $200 might not make financial sense, but for him it makes him happy, and what else would he spend his time doing? Sitting at home watching TV? He'd rather mend something, have a sense of personal accomplishment, and spend some time with his son and shoot the breeze. I can't say that I'd do it any differently.

When I bought my Subaru, he was upset because for the first time, there was a car in his driveway that he didn't know how to fix, and in some way, I think it marked the start of my independence too. I chose my WRX because GM didn't offer anything comparable, and for me, it was one of those cars that I just had to have. I don't regret my decision, and over my time, I think my dad has warmed up a little bit to the idea of me owning it too. A man who would rather have a big block under the hood instead of a turbocharged two liter, he's loaned me a hand when I asked him for it, even if it looks like he's doing long division in his head anytime he looks at how my car is laid out and put together. In the end, cars are still all nuts and bolts regardless of who makes it, and I know my dad's love for me and the automobile transcends make and model too. I've been incredibly fortunate to have my old man show me the ropes when it comes to cars, and without him, I probably wouldn't be the person that I am today.