Vol. 6, No. 2, May 2005

Gearheads Among the Eggheads

Diane Barthel-Bouchier
Stony Brook University

The 2004 Pulitzer Prize for criticism went, not to an architecture, music, or film critic, as is usual, but to Dan Neil, an automobile critic for the Los Angeles Times. Some members of the Art Establishment howled with outrage, suggesting that cars were merely utilitarian objects that could be reviewed rather than "critiqued", and that they might as well give out Pulitzers for writing about kitchen utensils!

This award poses several interesting sociological questions. One concerns the difference, if there is any, between product reviews and "serious criticism." Sociologists of art recognize the role of criticism in establishing artistic reputations (Lang and Lang 1990): clearly, it also helps create reputations for products. Scholars still cite Roland Barthes 1957 essay in Mythologies in which he compared the Citroen DS 19 to "a great Gothic cathedral ... the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists"(1993(1957)). Great review, but wrong on one point: the designer of the DS 19 was Italian sculptor Flaminio Bertoni, assisted by Pierre Franchiset.

Art criticism varies across fields. Theatre critics tend to be more generous than film critics, perhaps because theatre critics are more likely to move in the same circles as Broadway playwrights and directors, while movie critics are less likely to hobnob with Hollywood producers and actors (Lang 1989). Different forms of criticism also tend to have distinguishing literary tropes. This essay aims to discover what are the characteristic literary devices used in car reviews, leaving it for the reader to decide if the criticism is serious.

In point of fact, Dan Neil must have been a very appealing choice for the Pulitzer Committee. Choosing an automotive critic allowed its members to make a statement that made news. Dan Neil proved that you could be both an English Major (from East Carolina University) and a certified "gearhead." His Pulitzer suggested that criticism was a manly effort that involved getting the right fix on things, be they cantatas or Cadillacs. His writing was and is full of "spin." Among the articles sent in by the Los Angeles Times for Pulitzer consideration was one which described the new nineteen foot long Rolls Royce as "possessing something of the visual grace of a container ship," while the Mini Cooper JCW was described as "more fun than a pants-full of ferrets." Cultural references abounded: it must have reassured the Pulitzer panel to come across references to Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise, Edmund Burke, Shelley's Frankenstein, and the Pre-Raphaelites, all tossed off with an irreverent insouciance. But there was also plenty of machismo. Regarding the new Bentley's powerful engine and "basso profundo" dual exhaust, Neil writes: "This is not Pierce Brosnan at the baccarat tables. This is Sean Connery with a hangover, a warm gun barrel, and a fresh clip."

In the internet discussion that followed Neil's Pulitzer announcement, one car buff suggested the Pulitzer board was impressed by Neil's writing partly because it was unfamiliar with the genre; i.e., that the board members did not routinely read Car and Driver or similar publications where his style of writing was not all that unusual or distinctive.

This is an interesting hypothesis. Is Neil truly a rare bird rising above mere product description into the heights of cultural criticism? Or is he simply the best of the bunch, the greatest of the literary gearheads? Great critics do more than present an opinion supported by evidence. They educate the reader. They provide some new perspective, be it historical, aesthetic, or technical. Great critics invite the reader to join them up on the balcony, for a more elevated view of the proceedings, even when the proceedings involve what's to be found under the hood.

Leading car magazines such as Car and Driver, Motor Trend, Automobile, and Road and Track publish many pedestrian reviews. Such reviews focus primarily on new car introductions. They offer an opinion supported by a slew of facts, and little more. Another common format is to pit a number of roughly similar vehicles against each other: three luxury imports, five minivans. They test them, they rank them, they proclaim a winner: deja lu all over again. Other reviews try to give you that bit of illuminating perspective, in amongst the product details. For example, they may provide some historical perspective on the development of Porsches, or discuss the impact of globalization on manufacturing processes

Car critics differ from art critics in several interesting ways. Both rely on expert knowledge and skills of assessment and interpretation. They both also reveal personal taste: one man's ugly SUV may be another man's "cute 'ute." In addition to these attributes, though, the car critic needs more highly developed physical skills. He literally has to make the car perform, to test it the way a musician might test the abilities of an instrument, to whose performance the music critic then intelligently listens. When Car and Driver's Larry Webster compares the Porsche Carrera's 0-60 mph acceleration to that of the Ferrari Enzo, he writes "Although we tried our best, the Carrera is extremely hard to get off the line clearly" (June 2004, p. 44). If he had trouble, we'll have trouble.

The car critic must become intimately and physically involved with the object of his criticism, not just intellectually and/or emotionally. The sense of touch, for example, is critical. Reviewing the Maserati Quattroporte, Aaron Robinson enthuses: "The V-8 explodes through its rev band, taking just a nanabreath while your fingertips toggle the suede-backed paddles on each blappa-blap upshift...Driving that's this addictive may be why God created Italy" (Car and Driver, June 2004, p. 60).

In addition to touch, the critic relies on his appreciation of sound: the muscular, masculine rumble of the Maserati is music to Robinson's ears and a hearty "blappa-blap" communicates the joy of full-throated engines. The Factory Five Racing Mark II Roadster wins critical points with its "outta-my-way exhaust note", while the Caterham Seven Superlight R, comparison-tested against the Mark II Roadster, gets downrated for giving "a new meaning to the concept of cacophony," (Tony Swan in Car and Driver, July 2004, p. 46-47).

The importance of the sense of sight is perhaps the most obvious. Whether or not they are art, cars are beautiful, at least in the eyes of the aficionado. Consider Peter Robinson's reaction to the Aston Martin DB 9: "It's achingly beautiful. Aston found no reason to start a styling revolution. The DB9 ... relies on classic proportions, long-established Aston styling cues, big 19 inch wheels, and simple sculptural forms to achieve its gorgeous looks." (Car and Driver July 2004, p. 64-65).

Gearheads also appreciate the smell of motor oil and leather seats. You can even buy an air freshener marketed as "new car smell" to recall the romantic time when your old banger was a new love. Still, that hardly prepares us for the fact that the outrageously expensive 2005 Bentley Arnage is described as smelling "like a field full of wildflowers" (Car and Driver July 2004, p. 81).

The only one of our senses car critics don't routinely rely on in passing judgment on new vehicles is the sense of taste. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe car critics sample the vinyl and ragtops, like the monkeys that land and snack on vinyl roofs in drive-through adventure parks. Maybe they fuel up along with their cars. Top GM designer Harley Earl used to say his stylists had "gasoline in their veins." How else would it get there?

Opera, by contrast, with its supposed sensory overload, relies primarily upon sight and sound. You don't touch the elephants in Aida; you don't smell Tosca, or, at least, you're not supposed to. Car criticism calls on four senses minimum, beating opera two to one.

Like all criticism, car criticism relies heavily on rhetorical devices. Dan Neil's rhetorical gimmick is culture, with his rarefied references tossed about with boyish glee. But cultural references can backfire like an old Chevy. For example, Car and Driver's Brock Yates used his April 2004 column to attack "Democratic Cassandras" whom he accused of foretelling economic disaster and advocating further (unnecessary) automotive regulation. A reader, one Bart Odom of Dallas, quickly wrote in to point out the obvious: Yates had confused Cassandra with Chicken Little. "Contrary to what the pseudo-erudite Yates seems to believe, Cassandra was not a panic-monger but a prophetress whose curse was that while she could accurately foretell the future, she was doomed to have no one believe her." Odom went on to comment, "That seems to me an apt description of Democrats relative to know-nothing ostriches like Yates." Such leveling of insults is typical of the letters' column in many car magazines, with editors responding in kind.

Most car critics leave the high culture to ex-English majors, and work instead on perfecting the homespun metaphor. Metaphors are useful because critics must do the impossible. They must communicate the feel of a car to someone who has his hands on a magazine. So they use images to which the reader can clearly relate. The O-Z Rally is "exactly as racy as a pound and a half of Velveeta." A Mustang Boss 202 sounds like "BBs bouncing inside an empty Folgers can." Some metaphors have a surprisingly long half-life. When Car and Driver's Tony Swan described the Caterman race car as having "all the handling stability of a hog on ice," one reader detected the distant echo of a 1940s critic's assessment of either a Packard or a Mercury as cornering "like a hippopotamus on wet clay" ( June 2004, p. 21).

Another literary trope is to cast women in the role of "Uncomprehending Other." Women are both ignoramuses and know-it-alls. They are alternatively demanding and easily fooled. "The wife" is someone best kept in the dark about all car matters, especially dubious deals. "Best to tell the wife later, I think, maybe in a few years. We'll laugh about it" (Aaron Robinson in Car and Driver July 2004, p. 30). The Factory Five Roadster lauded earlier for its commanding exhaust note is, in point of fact, "a primal brute that will confirm all your mother-in-law's worst suspicions" (Car and Driver July 2004 p. 46). It is the wife, on occasion "the significant other," who functions as reality principle when the (male) driver gets a sudden passion for a sports car. "Where are we going to put the kids?" she asks. "And how is that thing going to get up our snowy driveway?" (Car and Driver July 2004, p. 58).

All these rhetorical devices: the appeal to the senses, the art of the metaphor and of the insult, the female foil to the male driver, serve to shore up gearhead values. These values revolve around a chest-thumping display of fierce independence: the sort of display that people seldom get to make at work or at home. In the world of car magazines, women are kept at a distance or in their place. A long-running Subaru ad features "The Guy Who Loves His Car More Than His Girlfriend".

The media attention created by the Pulitzer award may encourage others to try their hand at car reviews/criticism. A recent editorial in Automobile magazine warned that over-the-transom submissions are routinely rejected. One such submission, however, did catch the editor's eye. Written by a young enthusiast, it contained the following sentence: "Justified or not, the general public associates (Camaro) IROC ownership with a vast panoply of unsavory behavioral traits, from storing leftover Spaghetti-Os in empty Cool Whip containers to passing out with a lip full of Skoal and waking up with tobacco juice in your mullet."

The author seemed to have the general idea. But we could do without the understatement.


Barthes, Roland. 1993 (1957). Mythologies. London: Vintage.

Lang, Kurt. 1989. "Mass, Class and the Reviewer." In Arnold W. Foster and Judith R. Blau (eds.), Art and Society: Readings in the Sociology of the Arts (pp. 191-204). Albany NY: SUNY Press.

Lang, Kurt and Gladys Engel Lang. 1990. Etched in Memory: The Building and Survival of Artistic Reputation. Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press.