On the Christmas morning after I reached driving age, I was surprised to find that there was nothing for me under the tree. After all the gifts were opened, my father smiled and asked me to see if Santa had left anything in the garage.
There I found a turquoise Plymouth sedan — almost as old as I was, but with manual transmission, overdrive and, under the hood, a monster V-8. I was in teenage heaven.
That day was also my induction into the sacred brotherhood of the internal combustion engine. I was an eager postulant. I read the car magazines. Befriended the motorheads at school. Learned how to gap sparkplugs, adjust carburetors and, eventually, tune that V-8 until she purred like a tiger.
So imagine my shock the other day when the parent company of Mercedes Benz announced that it will abandon internal combustion engines by 2030. Like General Motors, Volkswagen and even Lamborghini (santo cielo!), Mercedes is going electric.
Can’t really blame them. Gas-guzzlers pollute the air, warm the planet and prolong humankind’s toxic dependence on fossil fuels. Electrics do too (their batteries are charged from the electrical grid), but not nearly as much. The average gas-powered car produces four tons of tailpipe emissions a year. The average all-electric, zero.
Electric cars also cost less to operate, offer faster acceleration and look really cool. As in Tesla, the best-selling electric vehicle line by far. Tesla this week announced record earnings and now has the biggest stock market capitalization of any auto company in the world. The future looks electric.
I, however, dwell in the past. As I learned in my car mags, the internal combustion engine (ICE) dates from the mid-1800s and the tinkerings of a German engineer aptly named Nicolaus Otto.
As I further learned, the ICE gets its name from the combustion of compressed gasoline and oxygen by a spark inside the engine’s cylinders, propelling pistons that turn the driveshaft that powers the wheels. Gasoline triumphed over steam and, yes, electricity as the dominant means of automotive propulsion, thanks to the ICE’s superior range and the genius of Henry Ford.
He deluged America with gas-powered automobiles, making the populace more mobile, prosperous and incurably car crazy than anyplace on Earth. He also gave us smog, traffic jams and suburban sprawl. For young people, Ford’s legacy included an unprecedented measure of freedom and privacy.
Which gave me an adolescence right out of “American Graffiti,” with a soundtrack by the Beach Boys. On weekend nights, I’d cruise our little town looking for girls, to little effect. But the guys were good company — looking under each other’s hoods at the drive-in burger joint; discussing the finer points of blowers, injectors, straight pipes, lake pipes and other aftermarket gifts to speed and, of course, sound. When you revved your engine, you wanted the world to notice.
That’s hard to do with electrics. They run so quietly that some governments require added noisemakers to warn pedestrians you’re coming. I prefer cars that announce themselves naturally. And don’t contain lots of rare-earth metals mined largely in China.
Still, I fight a losing battle. Electrics may comprise only 3 percent of the world’s passenger fleet, but they’re gaining fast. Lots of reasons why: cost, climate change, government mandates, government rebates (up to $7,500 per car, plus $2,500 in Massachusetts). Battery range is getting longer, charging stations more numerous (bravo, Town of Becket). Electric cars don’t need oil changes.
They also don’t have gears, crankshafts, alternators, mufflers, tailpipes, ignitions, fuel pumps, carburetors, catalytic converters, evaporative emission controls and other appendages that eventually wear out — always at a bad time.
Maybe that’s why my kids were not nearly as eager as I to get their driver’s licenses. They worry about climate change, rely heavily on Uber and Lyft. To many of their generation, owning a car is a needless, anti-social headache.
Not long after that first car-owning Christmas, I was zipping along in my turquoise dream boat when it threw a piston rod, right through the engine block. Had to be towed away. Not worth fixing. I was crushed.
Electric cars, of course, don’t have pistons, let alone rods. Even back then, I should have known that someday, somehow, I would realize the folly of my faith in these imperfect chariots of 19th century technology. That I would grow up.
The adult me knows that it’s time to go electric. But the young me sure does miss that Plymouth.