Even though I was born, bred, and drilled in freeway tactics in Los Angeles--the city that owes its present-day topography to the automobile--I remain lukewarm about cars. For me, they're a necessary evil, not objects of lust, envy, or prestige; the phrase "road trip" evokes in me a mood of resignation rather than heart-lifting anticipation. Maybe it's because I never actually owned a car until I was 23 and living several hundred miles from L.A. Or maybe I've never gotten over my father's repeated admonitions that "the car is a deadly weapon."
So why do I get such a kick out of L.A. Times auto writer Dan Neil?
1. Because he understands that cars are as much about politics, sociology, and psychology as they are about high-performance turbo-whatever. In an October 2005 column about the Honda Civic hybrid (my new vehicle, ahem), he takes on the hybrid doubters (like these) and their "political animus," which he calls "a strange analog to the culture wars over abortion and gay marriage."
2. Because he can really, really, really write.
Take this July 12 column about driving a Mercedes-Benz CLK 63 AMG Cabriolet at 155 mph (250 kph) on a stretch of Autobahn between Stuttgart and Ulm. Here's the climax of the lede: "In the words of the Bhagavad-Gita, I am become death, destroyer of bugs. The early morning sky is gray, the traffic is light. I have the top down and it's rather windy in the cockpit. Actually, at a buck-55, it's like being inside God's own novelty whistle."
Neil can be lyrical: "The plastic-wrapped hay bales dotting the swales and valleys look like pearls scattered from a broken strand." He can be gonzo: "Pulling onto the Autobahn from — what else, a gas station — I mat the throttle. A meaty and invisible German hand swats me between the shoulder blades, and the car shudders a little. First gear, second gear … the car goes like the passions of hell are on its tail." And he can be very, very funny: "Because of the high speeds, the excellent road conditions and — it must be said — the superior skill and courtesy of European drivers, a driving tour of Germany is for passport-holding car guys what the Dublin pub crawl is for jet-setting alcoholics."
Every so often Neil gets out of the car and writes about something else, like KFC's new Famous Bowls, the consumption of which he succinctly summarizes as "throwing up in reverse." Or Garrison Keillor, host of NPR's A Prairie Home Companion (and star of the the movie of the same name, still playing in my local bijou); Neil, a longtime fan of the show, describes Keillor's face as "looking like was assembled from used tea bags."
Reading Neil, I'm reminded of another great Los Angeles Times writer, Jim Murray, whose sports columns for the paper (1961-1998) were so well crafted, so engaging, and so vivid that even I, a non-sports fan (to put it mildly), rarely missed reading them.
The Pulitzer Prize committee got it right when it awarded the 2004 prize for criticism to Dan Neil for his "one-of-a-kind reviews of automobiles, blending technical expertise with offbeat humor and astute cultural observations." Neil is the first and only automobile columnist to win a Pulitzer; with recognition like that, he hardly needs my own tiny addition to the admiring chorus. But here it is anyway.