Gran Torino: Men and Cars

Sweetheart's last day before being towed away for scrap metalThere’s a moment in the making-of featurette on Warner Bros.’ Gran Torino DVD where several of the film’s producers, the writer, and car historians try to explain the relationship people (men, mainly) have with cars, and while their personal anecdotes and theories don’t address the film’s serious dramatic flaws, there is one scene where the quiet joy people have for their machines is totally true to life; it’s a feeling that goes beyond pride of ownership.

Gran Torino is not about the iconic 1972 Ford bagnole nor muscle cars, but there is that behaviour where characters are fixated by the big shiny green car that Walt Kowalski washes, dries, waxes, polishes, and watches over protectively with his rifle. It’s something that may well be unique to the suburban lifestyle because it’s part of the weekend chores, particularly for dads.

A family friend had a brown 4-door 1973 Gran Torino he bought during his years with Ford Canada, and while the front of the machine was somewhat modified in 1974, the back was thickened and made even more muscular; it’s that version best known over the 1972/1973 ‘pinched back end,’ because the huskier 1974 version was the co-star of TV’s Starsky & Hutch – a big red monster with a white stripe running over the roof, fat wheels, and a roaring engine ideal for chasing down street scum.

The family friend eventually replaced the Torino with a Mercury Marquis in the early eighties – a period in car design that didn’t exactly offer us the best-looking bodies, because things eighties were often characterized by hard geometric angles, silver painted plastic, and square, blocky lights.

Around 1977 or 1978 my dad decided to trade in the rusting burgundy Dodge Coronet for a used 1971 Ford Thunderbird – a big green beast with a three-pronged front, sequential rear signal lights, and the misfortune of running on premium gas – a petrolium mix carried by far less gas stations, which was a pain when we went on long highway trips.

The T-bird – a dreamy name to many car aficionados – one day met a Toyota head-on, and while the Japanese car was completely totalled, the T-Bird’s front was mashed up a bit; it was still driveable, but even after the costly repairs, it never was the same. The engine rattled and the whole car shook before the engine properly shut off, and my dad reluctantly parted with the beast only when he got a sweet deal on an Audio 5000 S in 1980.

For 9 years that car was his pride, and much in the way Walt Kowalski babied that car, so did my father and the neighbouring dads. “Washing the car” was a three and a half hour endeavour because once somebody rolled out their car, fired up the garden hose, and got the suds flowing, a neighbour followed suit, and an aerial view of the street probably resembled a synchronized Turtle Wax commercial.

For Walt Kowalski, car washing is a private chore – mostly because he hates the neighbours with differing ethnic make-ups – but for the dads on my street, it was an excuse to chat by the fence, swap beers, and admire the transition as several dirty cars became all shiny and gleamy.

“Washing the car” is both a social thing as well as moment of personal quiet time, because the only focus is The Car, and it’s a human-machine bonding thing that’ll never go away. There’s a similar relationship with motorcyclists and probably cyclists, and even if the world goes electric, whatever mode of upscale transportation is being used – electric, solar, vegetable oil or specially trained gerbils – the vehicle will always be an extension of the driver or rider, and will be doted upon like a family member.

An old friend’s family named their 1975 Monte Carlo Ben, and their talking Chrysler New Yorker (“the door is AJAR!”) Abercrombie, whereas a friend and his wife affectionately call their vehicle The Bitch.

My late 1991 Honda Civic SE (see top pix) was dubbed Sweetheart and lived longer than expected (almost 17 years). I still think saying “Good morning, Sweetheart,” and “Goodnight” or “Thank you, Sweetheart” made the car live into twilight years because she was rusting to pieces (largely due to the TTC’s massive parking lot salting), and when the car died in late January, it was at a point when the body was near its end; the heart and brain (the engine) were still rock solid (typical for an old Honda), but everything else was turning into paper-thin metal (very typical for an old Honda, with badly designed wheel wells).

Each car is an extension of its owner, and maybe a car can represent a theme to a person’s life. For Walt Kowalski, the Gran Torino was a machine he helped build at the Ford plant, and unlike his sons, it remained unspoiled by Walt’s own difficult personality.

The Gran Torino also reflected his muscular physicality, and perhaps the car’s immaculate state – near-mint – was a tied to Walt’s stubbornness in refusing to change. In passing the car on to a new owner, his spirit lives on.

There is poetry in that, because sitting in the beloved car of someone’s who’s passed on isn’t the same as sitting in a rental vehicle. It’s part of a person’s being, and whether it’s a car, motorcycle or bike, that thing you clean and maintain and lock up at night in the garage is symbolic of its owner – the one reality the filmmakers of Gran Torino got right in an otherwise overrated, mediocre teleplay.



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