It is as easy as hell to become ponderous and pedantic about the whole phenomenon of the imported car in America. I don't want to do that, and hope I won't. My experience with foreign cars goes back almost 10 years, to the day when I had my first ride in a TC-model MG. I was doing a late-night record show in Cincinnati that wound up at 2 in the morning. One night, about 15 minutes before the end of the show, a friend of mine whose profession was precision machine-tool designing and who was and is the commander of a naval fighter squadron - in short, the machine-oriented type with the addition of a fertile imagination - showed up for a late cup of coffee and a ride in his new car. The car turned out to be a black TC. From the first instant, I was gone. The sense of flight, escape, and the thrill of control, after driving spongy tubs for years, was a revelation. Within two weeks I owned my own MG, bright red and a beautiful thing to behold.
The first day I drove the car out on the streets of Cincinnati was the beginning of an education for me in the symbolism of the machine in twentieth-century America. At the time, imported cars were extremely rare in this country, so I was able to feel the full force of the biases and prejudices that had been created in the American citizen over the years by the advertising world. For the first time in my life I had the feeling of belonging to a genuine minority group, in the fullest sense of the phrase.
I remember an incident that occurred just a couple of days after I got the car. I was stopped for a light in a residential section of the city, when suddenly, as though they had sprung from the pavement, I was surrounded by 10 or 12 boys in their early teens. Believe it or not, I was actually stoned. Rocks and tin cans bounced off the shiny MG like hailstones while several adults in the neighborhood laughed and egged the kids on, as if I were fair game since I had come unequipped with a Chevy.
It was a golden moment in my life. I learned more in 30 seconds about my fellow American than I had in all my embryonic years at the Warren G. Harding School. My education has continued since that day. So has the public's. I have seen the change. It probably is much like the social change that is taking place in the country in the racial-segregation field. There is a close parallel, since the automobile is as much a way of life and a symbol of caste, Freud, and many intangibles, as the segregation of racial minorities.
Since those days I have owned several imported cars: an Austin-Jensen, a 2-1/2 liter Riley, another MG, a Peugeot 403, a Porsche 1300, and today I drove to the Voice office in a BMW Isetta, probably the supreme escape car of them all for the guy who can't pop for a sports because of cash but who has all the urges.
Today the average glance that is shot toward the driver of a foreign vehicle ranges all the way from indifferent acceptance to actual open delight. Even cab drivers, notorious for their intolerance toward anything that does not have a ticking meter on the dash, have grinned at me in the Isetta, not once, but time and time again. A few years ago the same guys were sneering at the first MG's and Jags as being ridiculous and more than a little silly. Owning a small foreign car is a way of life and a hobby just as much as the possession of a boat is to many these days. Even though they are now supremely practical, especially in city traffic, they should not be viewed as simply transportation, any more than a star-class sail boat is looked upon as a way of getting from place to place. The change has been good, but I can't forget the sound of those rocks bouncing off the red paint nor the snide laughter of those adult literate citizens of the twentieth century.
Jean Shepherd, WOR's commentator for Night People and a regular Village Voice contributor, was for two years the owner of a foreign car agency in Cincinnati, where he dispensed Austins, Triumphs, MG's and Volkswagons to the more daring of the local burghers.