The world's oldest car is about to be auctioned off to the highest bidder — which may or may not be of consequence. Many Americans already believe they own the world's oldest car, which is either a beige 1972 Dodge Dart with black-and-tan plaid seat covers, a Buick Roadmaster with 631,000 miles on it or some indestructible Cadillac Eldorado that once was mistaken for a B-52.
Ah, yes. Old cars. All hail the old cars, and we don't mean those svelte vehicles that have been restored down to the last cylindrical chrome taillight. Nah. We're talking the old beaters and bombs that keep running out of sheer spite. They roll on — and on and on — their drive shafts forged in Valhalla by trolls, their demeanor decidedly baleful, but canny.
Some $300 in small change is hidden in and under their seats, along with a Hamburglar key chain, nine lost earrings, a Perry Como cassette tape, a dozen derelict pens, two school programs and a petrified Hostess Twinkie. There are sand and soil, spilled ketchup, nameless splotches, hair-raising coffee cups, plastic forks and at least one tube of mascara. The old car is proof that automobiles actually are important archaeological finds, each layer of crud reflecting a certain driving era.
There are battle scars — like the time the dog managed to regurgitate on everyone during a drive up the New Jersey Turnpike as Great Aunt Madge screamed, "Oh, oh. He must have got into the Oscar Mayer again."
There is mystery, too. Old cars can be haunted; they can be both blessed and cursed. If they are in the mood, an old bomb will run on gas fumes for miles even as the fuel gauge slips from E to sub-E and beyond. They also are quite capable of intimidating other cars. A big, smelly, noisy Hulkmobile will successfully impinge on the personal space of a virtuous Prius or a high-rolling Murano every time.
Personal relationships between humans and Hulkmobiles are complex. We give them names, affectionate and otherwise, and know instinctively if they are male or female. Every so often, owners develop a specific kind of guilt. They want to do something nice for the car. After all, it probably saw duty during the Civil War and is entitled to something. So the owners wash the Hulkmobile and vacuum it out; they buy the Hulkmobile a new set of floor mats or hang a special cherry-vanilla-scented deodorizer shaped like Betty Boop on the rearview mirror.
"See, Hulkmobile? You get the best. No pine-tree deodorizer for you."
Of course, Hulkmobile — in a fit of pique — will refuse to start, though smelling very good in the process.
But hey. Old cars are old cars. They roll with the punches and roll when they want to. They're similar to those legendary old uncles who still smoke unfiltered Camels, eat fried eggs and mow their lawns at age 96 — ready to outlive everyone and everything. Old cars are privy to longevity techniques that ensure they will be here. Forever. Think of it. In some distant era, only the cockroaches and old cars will survive, dominating the earth in the dreaded new Cockro-Vehicular Age.
We must return now to the world's oldest car, the real one. It will edge slowly onto the auction block Aug. 19 in Pebble Beach, Calif., perched on tires made of solid rubber stretched over galvanized iron.
The most venerable automobile on the planet has a name to match. Its full, formal name is the poetic De Dion-Bouton et Trepardoux, but it's affectionately known as La Marquise. The auto was built in 1884 by a French count named De Dion and runs on steam and maybe escargot. It can make a top speed of 38 mph once the tinder and coal has been lit and the water is a-boil inside. It's expected to fetch up to $2 million. And yes, it still runs.
La Marquise is, perhaps, the original alternative-fuel vehicle, having been confabulated a full year before German engineers Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz built the first gasoline-powered car — a fact that should prompt Al Gore to blame Germany for global warming rather than SUV-driving Republicans.
Yet one wonders. Did La Marquise ever have its official crabby-old-car-moments during its 121 years? Did it refuse to start for Count Oolala on the night they invented champagne? Is there a 1,000-franc note stuck under the front seat or maybe some French child's homework? Only the auctioneers know for sure.
Meanwhile, Americans continue to have complex relationships with their cars, at least according to a survey of 1,000 car owners by the International Carwash Association. The poll revealed that 84 percent get "emotional" with their autos, 60 percent talk to them, and one out of three name the vehicle. We're not alone. A survey of 4,000 British drivers conducted by a national insurance agency found that half the population thinks of their car as either male or female.
"People think their cars are human," notes Paul Purdy, spokesman for Yes Insurance, which conducted the poll last year.
But the million-dollar question: Do cars think their humans are automotive? Only La Marquise knows for sure.
Jennifer Harper covers media, politics and 1972 Dodge Darts for The Washington Times' national desk. Reach her at jharper@ washingtontimes .com or 202/636-3085.