Driving as Zen Kōan

My car is, to most people, senselessly overpriced. It’s not fancy, it’s tactile. It’s a rear wheel drive BMW 335i. In my 20 years of driving, I’ve averaged a new car every 2 years. I’ve been conflicted about why this is so. Why do I serially abandon cars?

For years, I chalked it up to a deep seated and shameful materialism. The idea that on a reptile brain level, I was attracted to the flashiness, newness, and status that a newer, better car gave me. I rewarded myself for advances in my career with a new car — it was the odd goal I came to strive for. To my liberal way of thinking, this materialism was shameful.

I’ve reached a second adolescence — a yearning for irresponsibility in my trek to middle age. I like to think this means a bit of added maturity in the understanding of parts of myself I don’t think I’ve understood well before. I’m examining parts of my life that I felt were important in the past, questioning their importance, and asking “why?” — including why the car fetish? It’s embarrassing, and if my original narrative is to be believed, it’s a position I’ve put myself into as a way to achieve things in life.

I’m beginning to realize that narrative is false. Sure, I’m materialistic. I’ve been trained to be so by years of advertising, culture awash in symbols of success, and the odd American puritanical dream of increasing hard work and responsibility, with a reward in the form of a stable life. Instead, what is true is that I do not play sports, I do not take part in many types of normal team-based physical interaction that lots of people value. I never have. In elementary school, when playing soccer with my team, my dad recalls fondly how I would always play defense, and typically when the action was not near me, I could be found sitting down on the ground, playing with dandelions.

Instead, the physical activity I have always truly connected with has been the art of the skillful manipulation of tactile machines. Some of my fondest childhood memories are when my grandmother let me pilot her fiberglass water skiing boat across the lake and up the channel. That was my first experience with this connection to transport. When I was old enough to get my drivers’ license, I did so with more excitement and engagement than I can recall ever putting into any other course at school. I’ve driven increasingly fun and rewarding machines, including getting my private pilot’s license. I have driven, in chronological order:

  1. 1989 Dodge Shadow — terribly underpowered front wheel drive 2.5l I4 with no torque and a bulletproof but joyless three speed automatic
  2. 1986 Mazda 626 Turbo — very fun sporty front wheel drive car that was on its last legs. Five speed manual with a nearly burned out clutch. The beginning of my love of the turbocharger.
  3. 1982 Volvo 245 GLT wagon — a beautiful, luxurious, wonderful to drive beast of a car with a terribly underpowered 2.1l turbocharged tractor engine with mechanical fuel injection and a bulletproof Borg Warner three speed auto transmission with external overdrive.
  4. 2000 Honda Civic DX — a base, 1.6l, underpowered Civic with a four speed automatic. My first understanding of how well built foreign cars are.
  5. 2001 Honda Accord EX V6 coupe — a 3.0l V6 with leather seats and climate control. A wonderful car, too bad about the torque steer that plagues Hondas.
  6. 2005 Volkswagen Passat TDI — 2.0l Pumpe Duse (camshaft-driven direct injection) turbodiesel that got 40MPG and made 250lb*ft of torque. Torquey and awesome engine, nice five speed auto transmission, too bad about the mushy suspension with torsion bar rear and squishy tall 15″ tires. I learned how to make biodiesel during this time and this car ran on that biodiesel.
  7. 2006 Volkswagen Jetta TDI — 2.0l PD TDI with a five speed manual. Nice car, kind of annoying dual-mass flywheel. I put more than 50,000 miles on this car in a couple of years.
  8. 2007 Audi A3 — 2.0l FSI turbocharged gasoline engine and six speed dual-clutch gearbox. A joy to drive, I should have kept this car longer.
  9. 2009 Audi A4 — 3.2l V6 — a very comfortable, all wheel drive luxo cruiser. Terrible steering feel and somewhat numb suspension.
  10. 2012 BMW 335i — 3.0l turbocharged gasoline I-6, rear-wheel drive, eight speed Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen automatic. Silky, nearly instantaneously responsive automatic, rear-wheel-drive, torquey fighter jet of a four door sedan with a deep connection to the road via the steering and suspension. Every surface inside the car meant to instill a deep connectedness with the driver through touch.

I found, when flying light aircraft, the connection to nature via a light touch of the yoke was the most in touch with the “driving” experience I have experienced. You’re taught to hold the controls gently, with two fingers of one hand, like holding an egg. This makes flying much smoother, you feel directly connected to the flight surfaces.

The author holding his newly minted pilot’s license, with his favorite vehicle

I learned to fly in a 1975 Cessna 150 — the least shiny, least flashy vehicle you can imagine. A good one with a fresh engine goes for less than a new midsize sedan. You do not need an expensive new vehicle to experience a deep connection with an airplane. It’s also true that you don’t need a new car to experience connected driving. You just need the right car.

When I focus on driving, in the truest, most connected moment, I think of nothing else but driving. It is a zen koan, an unsolvable problem, the art of which is simply the pursuit. I still struggle with guilty materialism, but maybe now I understand a bit more of what is truly important.

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