You could call it soul, or personality. Either is absurd, because cars are no more capable of having a personality than a lettuce. But there is something alluring about the process of bringing an old machine to life.
A rather lovely classic car website called Petrolicious recently filmed a Ferrari 250 GT Lusso. Its owner spoke of how he has to turn on the ignition, pull a toggle in the cabin and wait for the fuel pump’s ticking to subside before he can fire the engine. He described it, very aptly, as “a ritual”.
It isn’t just million-quid sports cars that need rituals. My knackered kart’s Honda engine’s carburettor needs priming, the piston wants pulling to the right point in the combustion cycle, and the throttle must be held open just-so before the start cord is given a hefty pull. Whereupon the motor might (probably won’t) chug into life. Rituals like this bring you closer to the machine.
Car manufacturers know this, but they also know that such rituals bring oily fingers and skinned knuckles, and that nobody wants that in a new car.
So they have taken to contriving them. The modern start button is an unnecessary ritual. A twisting, rising gear selector in the centre console is the same. Each pointless, neighbour-unfriendly exhaust yelp from a sports car, each sweep of a needle around a rev counter, each dial that turns red when a ‘sport’ button is pressed is the same. They are tacit admissions that there are no longer necessary tasks to bring us emotionally closer to our cars.
We should not like these things. They are false, contrived and cynical. They are meant to trick us into imagining a mechanical and emotional connection that no longer exists.
However, in a moment, I will leave my house and climb into a Jaguar whose exhaust will growl needlessly when I push a pointless start button. And, yet again, I will smile.