The Art Car Parade isn’t

…a parade of art cars, unless your definition of “art car” is broad enough to include such works as beaters festooned with plastic fruit and ersatz parade floats with mundane themes. Mine isn’t.

Maybe I’m misreading the title, but what’s missing from this annual Houston parade of the pointless and tacky is the “car” part. Notwithstanding a few I once owned, cars generally move under their own power, and should not require towing like a parade float (grounds for disqualification, in my view).

But that’s not my main gripe. This is: the application of the pretentious and grandiose label of “art car” to objects that mostly fall well short. “Goofy Car Parade” or Car-toon” would better meet truth-in-labeling guidelines.

Don’t get me wrong; the parade is great fun nonetheless, and a few diamonds in the stream of costume jewelry flowing by save it (barely). Anyway, part of the art car experience is watching authentic and would-be Art People leavening the crowd. People-watching is an area where the ACP delivers the goods, but if you came to see art cars, at least in some higher sense of the idea, you’re out of luck.

You’re out of luck at the ACP, at least. But if looking at art cars is your ambition, then I have good news: every year, starting on Thanksgiving Day, Autorama displays a stunning collection of custom cars, hot rods, race cars, classics, antiques, and other wheeled vehicles that far eclipses the Art Car Parade in every aspect, including sheer quantity.

What you see at Autorama are art cars that rate the label. Some are simply spectacular. These cars are examples of automotive-based creativity, style, and craftsmanship done at the world-class level, and some have to be seen to be believed. An element of humor is often present that’s as least as funny—and not nearly as slapstick—as anything I’ve ever seen at the ACP. Eyewitnesses will testify I have nothing against lowbrow humor, but that’s mostly where ACP’s wit dwells.

Another difference is this: almost all of Autorama’s cars can move under their own power. Boy, do they ever—no matter what else gets done, at the top of the to-do list for most of these projects is Make It Go Faster.

So… If these are art cars, then who are the artists? Good question. The custom car and hot rod world is dominated by some real celebrities. George Barris, Gene Winfield, and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth arguably are the three giants of what could be called the High Classical Period of custom cars. Tom Wolfe once called Roth the Salvador Dali of custom cars. If that’s the case, then George Barris is the Da Vinci, and Gene Winfield is the Michaelangelo.

Over years of attending Autorama I managed to meet all three. When I was a high school car junkie drooling over the magazines—Hot Rod, Rod & Custom, and Car Craft—I never imagined I would someday meet the guys celebrated in these pages. I later became a foreign car snob and eschewed the “dirty tee-shirt crowd,” as we called the hot rodders. This attitude was inflamed on a monthly basis by a new set of magazines: Road & Track, Car and Driver, and Sports Car Graphic. But I retained respect and admiration for what Barris, Winfield, and Roth—and many others—accomplished. It’s still a blast to see it now.

You may not know the artists, but it’s possible you know the art. Southern California-based Barris and Winfield created many cars for movies and television, including the Batmobile, Jed Clampett’s jalopy, the Back-to-the-Future De Lorean, and many more.

The custom car and hot rod “scene” has been a part of American life for many decades. Art cars as conceived by the Houston parade have a lot of catching up to do, and at the rate they’re going it’s not going to happen. At least not until art cars produce giants like the “Kings of the Kustomizers,” as they were called. Otherwise, they should be called what they are, not what they aren’t.

As the role of cars evolves and impressionable teenagers continue to retreat inside digital devices, it’s easy to imagine this world waning. But I wonder. At Autorama this year, Gene Winfield, in his 80s, could be seen performing a demonstration in his booth. As the Master effortlessly created a perfectly curved lip on a piece of sheet metal and fitted it precisely to a custom car in progress, a new generation of students watched in rapt attention.

What, me worry?

For equally persuasive reasons, life can make one either an optimist or a pessimist. Even if it’s true that when you’re a pessimist everything always comes out better than you expect, I’m generally on optimism’s side. Regarding energy in particular, I offer some reasons why in a January, 2008 column:

As his motto suggests, Alfred E. Neuman, cartoon icon of Mad, the legendary satirical humor magazine, didn’t sweat much. But unlike fictional dimwits, real people worry a lot.

There seems to be a lot to worry about these days, particularly in the energy department. The drumbeat in the “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” popular media is a relentless rhythm of high prices, dire predictions, corporate shenanigans, geopolitical machinations, and technology gone bonkers.

But there are eddies of optimism in the current, so to speak, of current events. One such is a certain magazine devoted to popularizing science. (You’ll never guess the title.) The magazine is as upbeat as the news media is not. And why not? It’s practically a technology party in there. A catalog of what’s new in just one recent issue would optimize anyone’s outlook. For example:

Imagine a solar panel made by coating a metal substrate about the thickness aluminum foil with a layer of “solar absorbing nano-ink” using what is essentially a printing process. Nanosolar, the company that developed the technology, says panels created with this process are about three times as efficient (on a cost per watt basis) as coal. The process does not use silicon, 70% of which is said to be wasted in manufacturing. The ability to print rolls of the material portends a ubiquity for solar panels not previously possible.

A plug-in hybrid automobile concept called the Volt (too bad General Motors passed on naming it the Voltswagen) is a twist on current hybrid thinking, where the electric motor assists the engine. In this case the engine assists the electric motor, the primary propulsion device. GM claims that the car will manage a 40-mile (64-km) round trip on electricity alone and says this will allow 78% of Americans to commute without burning a drop of gasoline. When parked, it can plug in anywhere and fully charge in about six hours.

It may seem like a parlor trick, but a microwave emitter that extracts oil and natural gas from anything made with hydrocarbons is getting serious notice. Frank Pringle, the inventor, has signed a research agreement with Penn State University to conduct research on commercializing its patent-pending microwave technology to extract hydrocarbons from oil shale. Meanwhile, Pringle says the first commercial application of this technology will extract 17 million BTUs worth of energy from ten tons of plastic, vinyl and rubber auto waste (while consuming 956,000 BTUs to run itself), in one hour.

How many of the tech tricks under development out there will achieve commercial success in a free market? It’s hard to say. While the ultimate destination of a lot of gadgeteering seems to be The Sharper Image catalog, the impact of other developments may be much more profound. The point here is not to handicap the race but to observe that a great deal of “energetic” creative thinking is going on. With this much swinging for the fences, there will certainly be a few out-of-the-park home runs.

And then we decided to go to Acapulco…

If you think air travel sucks, what follows is reassurance that it’s still not the worst way to get someplace.

This is a contemporaneous account, scribbled on the blank parts of a guidebook and lightly edited here for readability, of a trip a girlfriend and I made in the 70s, when rural Mexico didn’t seem to be so dangerous as the media portrays it now. The account is contemporaneous because shortly into it I realized I was never going to remember all the things thwarting our attempts to get to Acapulco from the Pacific-coast beach village of Puerto Angel, about 300 miles south. But as college-age, summer-vacation Bohemians (admit it—when you were in college you were either a Bohemian or wanted to be) we took it all in the spirit of adventure. That’s certainly what it was, as you will see…

After a week in Puerto Angel we decided to make our way to Taxco by way of Acapulco. We got up early one morning to be greeted by a pouring rain (the first since our arrival). We stumbled into town from our hotel through the rain and arrived at the Blue Restaurant in plenty of time for the bus. The minutes passed… Hour and a half later we were told that the bus had left for Pochutla from another spot today instead of the customary place opposite the B.R.

We finally score a ride to Pochutla from passing young Mexicans—so we arrive within minutes of the departure time for Puerto Escondito bus (we planned to stop in Puerto Escondito for a day or two on the way).

Now since Escondito is only 57 miles away from Pochutla we had high hopes of getting there in one day, for a change. We were also excited about the fact that the road was paved all the way, an unusual situation in Mexico. This further added to our hope of arriving before dark, since we left at noon.

The driver took one little detour off the main road as part of the regular schedule. It was on this road that he got the bus stuck in mud. Two hours later after we all helped extricate the bus we took off for Escondito muddy but relieved (the rain raged on). Got to Escondito just before dark and found a room. Fifty-seven miles in six hours.

Next day… waiting on the side of the road (in the rain) for the Acapulco bus. After being told by the hotel management that buses ran there on the hour, a passing truck tells us there are no buses today because the rain washed the bridge out. They offer us a ride, which we accept.

So off we go in the back of a stake-bodied truck, in the rain, getting soaked. We’re dropped off in some little town whose name I don’t remember. We then pay a local dude to take us to the river that lies between us and our objective (Acapulco). He tells us that once we’re there we might be able to take a boat across. As it happened, when we arrived a temporary bridge was erected (I suppose it was temporary, although I didn’t see anything around that looked like a permanent bridge). At any rate we walked across this 50 yd. long rapidly disintegrating pile of railroad ties and sand (you could see the river through the holes). There was a bus on the other side of the river, which incredibly enough was going to Acapulco—all the way—we truly had it made now, we thought.

We blast off for Acapulco soaked, and, after the driver ripped us off for the tickets, with no Mexican money either. One bit of good fortune though—the driver stops in this town, which has a bank in it, long enough for us to do some more traveler’s checks. We walk into the bank [five] minutes before closing. It’s Friday.

Driver blasts off again—to make a long story short, when I began to write this we were sitting on the side of the road after the bus engine quit running. They finally got it going again but as I write this we are stopped behind a pile of other buses with word of another washed out bridge drifting back—will continue after something happens—we still aren’t there yet. The total distance from Puerto Angel to Acapulco is less than 300 miles. We’ve been on the road two days now…

Five minutes later… the bridge looked okay—we heard someone remark that the last people to try to cross didn’t come back, but I optimistically took that to mean that they made it and continued on their way—we are now under way again… later… we get to the bridge and see a couple of buses stuck in water up to the tops of their wheels, as well as one leaning over at a precarious angle. Driver and several passengers on our bus take their clothes off and walk across the road, encountering water up to their chins—we decide not to walk across.

Return to the town (Marquelia) where we are told that the bus will be there all night and we can sleep in it. We got out to have supper (taking our gear) and as we are eating noticed that the bus had disappeared, along with it the 20 pesos they owed us for not taking us all the way. So we ask another bus driver if we can spend the night in his bus, which he allows us to do.

Now, this morning we are riding another bus to Ometepec (back in the direction from which we came) in order to get to the airport there to fly out. Houses this A.M. within two blocks of where the busses were parked were flooded by the water. We are now on our way to Ometepec…

Later… we got to the town and found out that “the guy sold the airplane”… We are going to stay in Ometepec till the weather clears… Miracle! The bus station says the weather is good enough to let buses go as far as Cortez, where we can walk across a bridge and catch a bus the rest of the way to Acapulco, which is only 25 miles away. We don’t even have to spend the night in this crummy town! We are now sitting on this bus, ready to split…

A few minutes later… We see the bus that we were supposed to sleep on last night drive up in front of us. The bus that also has the money we paid to get to Acapulco that we never got back. We hassle with driver, who grudgingly agrees to take us from Marquelia to Cortez free, although we still have to pay from here (Ometepec) to Marquelia.

Once again, we are sitting on the bus, waiting to split… well, we left and began traveling an uneventful ride, until we came across the bridge that was out. The bus stopped, and we walked across this makeshift bridge made of a huge pile of dirt stacked by bulldozers on top of what remained of the bridge. Of course the dirt was mud by now and it was also dark. There was, wondrously, a bus on the other side waiting to take us the rest of the way to Acapulco. However, it was turning around, getting ready to leave, and, since I had no desire to be stranded on this road in the middle of nowhere at night for I didn’t know how long, we made a hundred yard sprint with full packs and just barely caught it. This bus, I’m happy to announce, took us the rest of the way to Acapulco (25 miles) with no problems—we made it!