In 1979, in the twilight of the Jimmy Carter presidency, Ferrari North America entrusted journalist P.J. O’Rourke, then with Car and Driver magazine, with a Ferrari 308GTS. His assignment was to drive the car from New York to Los Angeles, where it would be delivered to Hawaii for a television movie. (That TV movie, it turns out, was the pilot for the successful series Magnum, PI.)
The resulting article, “Ferrari Refutes the Decline of the West,” is not O’Rourke’s best work, but touches on plenty of themes we’re grappling with over three decades later:
[The car] reaffirmed my belief in America. It may sound strange to say that a $45,000 Italian sports car reaffirmed my belief in America, but, as I said, it’s all part of western civilization and here we were in America, the apogee of that fine trend in human affairs. And, after all, what have we been getting civilized for, all these centuries? . . . . Why, for this! For this perfection of knowledge and craft. For this conquest of physical elements. For this sense of mastery of man over nature. To be in control of our destinies—and there is no more profound feeling of control over one’s destiny that I have ever experienced than to drive a Ferrari down a public road at 130 miles an hour. . . . [I]f the lowly Italians, the lamest, silliest, least stable of our NATO allies, can build a machine like this, just think what it is that we can do.
(O’Rourke’s essay is reprinted in the collection Republican Party Reptile.)
This may seem a bit overoptimistic today, given our economy and government, but I believe it was at least as far out at the height of our previous great American malaise. Indeed, as the 2012 Presidential race heats up, there has already been some commentary comparing President Obama’s latest campaign advertisement to Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” advertisement. Evoking such a memory is a poor but understandable attempt on the President’s part; one would much rather plant one’s stake in 1984 than 1980, which were like day and night. Alas, it’s far more difficult to distinguish 2012 from 2008, despite the ad’s best efforts (unless you happen to own a solar company – and, on that note, check out the 13 minute mark of Carter’s speech).
But enough about political ads. O’Rourke’s piece comes to mind this week as Porsche, the formidable (some would say more mature, certainly practical) German alternative to Ferrari (full disclosure: O’Rourke’s piece refers to them as “ass-engined Nazi slot cars”), has an advertisement for the new Porsche 911 that evokes O’Rourke’s confident swagger:
The 911 is in its 50th year of production, proclaiming itself to be “forever … the future of driving passion.” I like that the ad shamelessly shows the awe of kids and adults over this iconic ride. But that’s just icing on the cake: what I love is that in a fledging economy–where, unlike 1979, we have a Chevy Volt paid for with tax subsidies–Porsche claims the future and “forever the sports car” with a car that boasts an MSRP starting at $82,000. We can all dare to dream, Porsche can dare to build and–whether it be autobahns, interstates, or somewhere in between–we can aspire to great destinies. Now this is the kind of attitude I can get behind!