Even bad people like good cars. Hitler rode in a Mercedes. One of the assistant football coaches at my high school, who had a penchant for humiliating adolescents, liked Ferraris. And Messala, the bad guy in Ben-Hur, fancied a chariot with four horsepower.
See? The art of dreaming about a hot set of wheels hasn't been limited to the 19th and 20th centuries. We've been wasting time for millennia.
A Brief History of Wasting Time
Since the dawn of the species, we've been dreaming about great transportation.
Those Neanderthal cave drawings in Europe? Came from guys sketching ideas for improvements on the four-cornered wheel.
The Sphinx? An early, albeit oversized, hood ornament for afterlife cruising.
And when Hannibal crossed the Alps with those elephants, he liked the big trunks but was really wishing he'd had something snazzier for his descent into Italy. Maybe a Jaguar.
Writers of the Bible referred to car-nal knowledge, and, of course, there were those chrome-loving knights in search of the Holy Grille.
The great explorers had their boats, but even Columbus was dreaming of a nice economy car when he named one of his three original ships -- you know, the Pinto.
And this next one is true: By 1770, some French fantasizers had already dreamed up and put into use a bulky, steam-powered contraption that was the world's first self-propelled road vehicle.
That was 229 years ago, and who then could have dreamed of the cars we have today? And who today can dream of the cars in 2228, another 229 years down the road?
Us, that's who.
Some of the original dreams were simple enough but took years to become standard equipment.
After extensive research (OK, I looked at pictures in about six illustrated histories of the automobile), I am concluding that the windshield was not an idea whose time had come until about 1900. Bugs with your fries, sir?
Headlights were also slow to arrive on the scene, and it wasn't until 1912 that Charles Kettering closed out the age of hand-cranking (cars, that is), when he perfected the electric self-starter.
Oh, and did you want some music for the trip? Get real. To buy a car with a radio, you had to wait until 1927, three years after Nash offered a car with a built-in electric clock, which, we'll grant, would let you know what time you weren't getting to listen to any music.
Are we spoiled or what?
When You Wish Upon a Car
But, actually, lots of people have already seen their futuristic automobile dreams come true, some more quickly than others.
As noted in America on Wheels: Tales and Trivia of the Automobile, "in 1948 a man wrote in to Popular Science magazine's 'I'd Like to See Them Make ...' column with his wish: He wanted to see cars with a wireless dashboard cigarette lighter -- a gadget with a hot element at the end of a cone, say -- so the driver could keep his eyes on the road when using it." Almost as quick as you can say "lung cancer," the cigarette lighter was standard in nearly all cars.
Then again, not everybody is willing to wait for their dream gadgets to become standard equipment.
For instance, how about if you're the despised leader of a Middle Eastern country that's about to throw you from power?
The Shah of Iran, no miser when it came to his personal expenses, in 1979 had a new Cadillac that, according to America on Wheels, "came equipped with front and rear machine-gun ports; an emission system that could spill oil on the road or spray tear gas or sleeping gas up to 50 feet; a hidden transmitter, so the car could be tracked anywhere; a hand-held bomb sniffer; an electronic watchdog that told if the auto had been tampered with; a remote control ignition device that would start the car a quarter-mile away; and infrared glasses for the driver, to be worn for getaways in fog, smoke, or total darkness."
Sounds swell, but the book doesn't answer this question: How many cup holders?
King of the Cup Holders, and Other 1990s Goodies
Somewhere along the line, perhaps during our 1904 World's Fair, when ice-cream from those newfangled cones was dripping on the insides of some fetching auto, somebody must have thought: "Where the hell can I set this stuff down?"
From such incisive thinking eventually sprang the cup holder, and the damn things have multiplied like rabbits.
Not that I'm complaining. Our 1995 Ford Windstar has five cup holders but is far behind the current cup-holder champs. According to Sandy Pochapin, an advertising manager for auto-show producer Reed Exhibition Companies, the new line of minivans from Chevrolet and Oldsmobile features 17 cup holders.
But cup holders are small potatoes compared to some of today's auto goodies, either already operational or in the development stage.
Can't find your way out of a paper bag? Try navigating with something called GPS (Global Positioning System), a military technology that uses satellites and computers to help you find your way anywhere -- perhaps to the nearest map store.
Think you're Tom Cruise in Top Gun? Try another military technology, the heads-up display, which projects an image of dashboard information onto the inside of the windshield near the edge of the hood. Down, boy! No shooting allowed.
Hate to drive in the dark? Cadillac's 2000 DeVille will have Night Vision, an infrared technology that allows drivers to see down the road three to five times farther than with headlights alone. Sorry, still no X-ray vision allowing you to see people naked.
Really lazy? Some manufacturers offer steering-wheel-mounted controls for audio and climate systems, cruise control, cellular telephones and even the transmission. Bound to turn you into a car potato.
Touchy about the temperature? The Rolls-Royce has a climate-control system that can produce one precise temperature at knee level and a totally separate precise temperature at face level. Cold nose, warm crotch?
So you've got to have your music just so? Some audiophile engineers have concocted a sound system that automatically adjusts the sound reproduction qualities depending on, for instance, whether the sunroof is open, or whether you've added an extra passenger or perhaps, even if someone is experiencing serial belching.
Want to stay out of a crash? First, stay away from aggressive and drunken drivers, but also think about availing yourself of technology that, for instance, automatically knows which wheel to brake more firmly during a skid. Watch out for those orange cones!
But you crashed anyway? Air bags, seat belts and even an inflatable curtain over the windows engulf you from all sides, but with a new sense of delicacy, no longer wanting to decapitate 4-foot-10 grannies.
Oh, there's probably a zillion other goodies on the market that most of us haven't even considered. But let's try to dream up some new ones.
Don't Forget the Orgasmatron
We asked around. If you had your own personal genie to put together titillating transportation, what would you wish for?
One of the more predictable responses was the car that drives itself. Tell it where you want to go, and it will get you there. This is known today as a chauffeur, but we appreciate the idea. Another popular response was a variety of voice-activated functions. Definitely on the way, if not already here.
One guy, who's been having trouble getting out of his driveway because of the recent descent of the Ice Age, suggested tires that automatically melt the ice underneath them. I suppose we'd call these hot wheels.
Still on the ice theme, another guy suggested tires that, by voice activation, equip themselves with studs. Mel Gibson in your treads? Oh, the other kind of stud.
Batmobile-like ideas surfaced. The Shah of Iran's car already seems to have covered a lot of that, but one youngster here at the office suggested spikes that come out of a middle axle and tear up other cars. Not a new theme: Check out the chariot-race scene in Ben-Hur.
My wife wants a beverage dispenser, including, perhaps, a nice chardonnay if she's not the driver. On the alcohol theme, I like the idea of a car equipped with its own Breathalyzer that won't let you drive if you're over the limit. I know -- boring.
But I'm not the fun police. I also like the idea of an Orgasmatron, reminiscent of Woody Allen's machine in Sleeper, in which one enters the Orgasmatron and automatically experiences sexual bliss. This could chill out a lot of guys at stoplights and in traffic jams.
Somewhat further down the creature-comfort list are the suggestions for devices that instantly heat or cool your beverage but would do this while you are still well away from your vehicle. Could come in handy when you hear that dreaded, "Step away from your vehicle, sir."
It's a new world of communication as well, and besides the expected built-in Internet-linked computers, satellite TVs, DVDs, nuclear missile-launching systems and whatever other Air-Force-One-sort-of electronic diversions that your normal narcissist can think of, one young woman here at work suggested the inclusion of signs that pop out of your car and tell other people what to do. This would be along the lines of: "Use your blinker, bub," or "Get off my ass, jerk." But, personally, I think the need for the verbal lashings could be eliminated by a pre-emptive use of the Orgasmatron.
May you all some day find the car that gets you off. Dream on.
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