[As his 16th birthday approaches, my younger son has begun the driving lessons that will soon mean I have two youthful drivers in the family. To help me deal with that stunning reflection of the passage of time, this week I’ll blog about a handful of American car histories and cars. Share your thoughts on all things American cars for a crowd-sourced weekend post, please!]
On AmericanStudies lessons from three cars with minds of their own.
1) KITT: I’ve blogged about Baywatch in this space, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before I got around to David Hasselhoff’s other magnum opus, Knight Rider (1982-86). To be honest I don’t think I’ve ever watched an entire episode of Knight Rider, and I damn sure don’t remember a single thing about it other than the voice of KITT the artificially intelligent automobile (provided by an uncredited William Daniels). But I suppose that’s the point: with all apologies to the Hoff, there’s no doubt that the car was the star of the show—and also a reflection of one powerful myth of both cars and technology, that they are not just extensions of our human selves, but at their best can make us more impressive and heroic than we otherwise would be through their own characteristics. As the hyperlinked video above illustrates, Hasselhoff’s Michael Knight was a bit of an asshole, but working alongside (or rather inside) KITT he became an action hero.
2) Christine: That’s one myth of cars and technology, anyway, but there’s another equally persistent and potent type—stories that view these elements as potentially antagonistic to our human survival, if not indeed blatantly evil (certainly many stories of AI technology in particular present it through that latter lens). Christine, the titular vehicle in Stephen King’s 1983 novel (as well as John Carpenter’s 1983 film adaptation), isn’t an AI, but rather possessed by the evil spirit of a serial killer who gradually begins to take over the car’s nebbishy new owner. But I think King was nonetheless tapping into the same kinds of early 1980s fears of advancing, independent, potentially destructive technology that surfaced in another 1983 film, War Games—and by linking those fears to one of the technologies in which we most often find ourselves, and on which we so often rely for our everyday lives, he tapped into (as he so often has) a particularly potent version of these concerns.
3) Herbie: Somewhere in between the heroism of KITT and the horror of Christine lies Herbie, the supernaturally smart Volkswagen Beetle at the heart of the 1968 film The Love Bug and its five sequels (to date—the most recent appeared in 2005, so Herbie fans can take heart in the possibility of more to come). Herbie initially and understandably freaks out his new owner, race car driver Jim Douglas (Dean Jones), but he’s not the least bit scary; his intelligence allows him to win races he has no business winning, but he’s no action hero (he is a Bug, after all). No, Herbie’s just a car with a personality, a character in his own right who is equal parts sad and funny, frustrating and sympathetic, and ultimately an important sidekick for our protagonist as he navigates career, romance, and more. While there will always be a place for both action and horror stories, it seems to me that Herbie is by far the most recognizable and relatable of these supernatural smart cars, and definitely the one I’d most want to find in my own garage.
Last CarStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Car histories or stories you’d highlight?
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