April 7, 2014

More than Just Old: Why Vintage Makes All the Difference

Written by Associate Professor Kimo Griggs


My 1973 BMW 2002 tii.

It is a truism that my generation grew up in the car. Flying was exotic and expensive. Driving seemed almost free, and it is how we made all but the longest of trips. Sitting in the back seat, often wondering out loud when the trip would be over. We stayed busy by counting license plates, putting our ear to a scratchy transistor radio, reading The Hobbit or Travels with Charley, fighting with my siblings over nothing or simply staring out the window at the landscape as it swept by. Behind the wheel is where a lot of us learned to think. Driving gave one the chance to become “interesting” – or really dull.

I have an old car that I drive during the summer months – a classic that I store in a barn during winter. One clear night last Fall I grabbed a flashlight, found my way to the barn, rolled open the door and plopped myself in the driver’s seat. I turned the key and the 40-year-old engine caught, idled roughly for a moment and then smoothed into the low, musical rumble that puts a smile on my face. Headlights on, clutch in rolling out the barn and onto the lawn and out onto the dirt road that leads away from my place. I was off into the night with no destination in mind. I just needed to knock out the cobwebs and a have a good think.

My old car sends me to Zen mode. I feel in tune with the machine, the mechanism, the steering responding just so. As I drive I think through complex issues, resolve conflicts, develop strategies and arrive at satisfying conclusions (many of which I later discover are unrealistic or, perhaps worse – I simply forget – until my next drive). I know that immersion in the non-verbal is part of it – everything about driving is a mix of physical both visual and haptic – and being in the seat of an older vehicle seems to help. Why?

Really good question. I think it has something to do with vintage.

My car is an antique, but it is more than old…it’s Vintage…which just may make all the difference.

Different thought: Last spring I attended Maker Faire in San Mateo, CA with my daughter – a large, raucous affair that ranged from quilting activities to demonstrations of fire-breathing robots and lobsters singing Beethoven’s 9th symphony. The roots of “Maker Culture” are healthy and good (let’s go make stuff!), but the quality of what one sees is surprisingly low. I am someone who likes to think they are invested in a fairly high-level of craft – in making things very well and in a lasting manner – however this version of “Making” seems to be very much in the realm of amateurs. I mean, how many ways does one really need to make a poor 3D-print of a Tardis? I get it, particularly in an age when lots of folks didn’t have shop class or home economics due to changing priorities in school people are connecting to one of the things that differentiates us from other living things – we make!

But, don’t we owe it to ourselves to reflect on how things have been made for a very long time so that we can build on existing traditions and knowledge? Is that not how we build well and authentically? I fear that vintage is on the way out – that we are creating a world full of poorly considered, badly-made stuff that will just get old, and will then (thankfully) go away. Authenticity wasn’t a term I considered as the Maker Faire booths drifted off behind me. Terms that did stick were fun, interesting, obsessive, controllable, electronic, individual, funky and democratic. I can’t be negative – it was pretty amazing – but I cannot see the values I care about being carried forward here either, not even remotely.

Being in the seat of an older classic, motoring through the night reminds me that I am surrounded by past perfection – my car (a ’73 BMW 2002tii) was the best that could be made for the price at the time. It inspired a cult and for good reason. It was (and is) quick, really well-made and completely authentic. It was produced from an enormous, rich, and deep well of engineering knowledge, and it was also simply a stop along the way to the car I could buy today.

Old or Vintage. There is a key difference there. I do drive old cars, but I won’t maintain them unless they are also vintage. I think our built environment might work that way. Can we design our built environment in terms that will allow our children and their children to experience a vintage world rather than an old one? Can Maker Culture help us to get there?