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The Thrill of the Unmarked Car

SUV, pickup truck or sedan, hardtop or convertible, it doesn't matter. You're driving what is in effect a moving billboard, labeled front, side and rear with the manufacturer's name and distinctive logo.

Racing car drivers are paid plenty for plastering their vehicles with ads, but the rest of us get nothing for our efforts in behalf of American commerce.

We also should be paid plenty. But since we are not paid, vehicle makers surely should remove their names from vehicles once they are purchased. They do become our property, after all, or at least the property of the financial institutions of our choice.

Ah, but have you ever tried to get a dealer to remove the maker's name from the outside of a vehicle you wished to purchase? I have. It is virtually impossible.

You must shout. You must demand. You must fend off withering looks and harsh words that question your sanity. You must pay extra.

Only then will you have an ad-free vehicle. And that's assuming you also can avoid the surreptitious affixing of license plate holders advertising the dealer who sells such fine merchandise.

But great adventure awaits those who prevail. I know. I did it in buying the Triumph Spitfire that, for reasons only a psychiatrist could explain, I'm still driving 23 years later.

The thrills began almost immediately. My wife Gerry and I were purring along, a mild summer breeze blowing gently around us, brilliant sky above, and not a Highway Patrolman in sight. Sixty… seventy ....

Suddenly, a car roared up behind us and then pulled alongside. The driver waved, and shouted. What was he saying? “Flat? Flat?”

My God, and we were going close to 80! Gerry didn't panic. She never does. But me, well… “Look! Look! Which tire! Which tire! Find it! Watch out! Hang on!”

The car next to us slowed as we slowed, and the driver repeated his message. Only now I could see that he was smiling — and hear that he was not saying “flat” at all. The word was “Fiat,” as in, “Is that a Fiat, or what?”

Some people don't even bother asking the question. They think they already know the answer. The other day, for instance, there was this couple crossing the street in front of us, eyeing my magnificent unmarked machine.

“What?” asked the man, smirking almost knowledgeably. “A Fiat, of course.”

Imagine. My British beauty — pearl white, it is, with black trim — being taken for an Italian just because it doesn't have an identifying label on the front, side or rear.

And how about those kids staring intently from the rear of cars in front of us on freeways, demanding to know what they're looking at. It's not easy to concentrate on the road with two, three, maybe four kids mugging and waving and pointing as you roll full tilt down the road.

Coming upon suspicious characters hovering about your auto in darkened parking lots and alongside the curb on dark city streets is plenty exciting too. They always say things like, “Just trying to figure what make car you got here, mister.” But life in the big city being what it is, I'm never quite sure about that.

And men, the thrill of romance can be yours. You also can be approached in garages and parking lots by young women anxious to learn the identity of “that great looking car.”

I understand, though, that some people actually like those vehicular labels and emblems, particularly if the labels spell out such important words as “Mercedes-Benz” or “Porsche.” The emblems, especially, are attractive as well to people who don't have the cars that go with them. Dozens of the emblems are stolen every day in our big cities, but they invariably are replaced by the owners, and for as much as $150 or more apiece.

One Mercedes dealer reported that some of his customers have replaced as many as nine of the star ornaments on the hoods of their vehicles. That included one customer who came to the dealer “literally in tears” after losing his second hood ornament in as many days.

“A lot of our customers can't drive without those stars,” said the dealer. “Seriously. That's their guiding light.”

It's a pity so many with so much to spend are so lacking in the spirit of adventure. But though I'm sure I haven't lost the spirit, I admit to weakening a bit of late. The Spitfire is not getting any younger, and neither am I.

To be truthful, the car is going through an identity crisis. The trouble started after I came dashing out of a building in which I had been transacting some important business awhile back, quite aware that the time had expired on the parking meter. A meter maid in no-nonsense navy blue was slowly circling my pearl white British beauty, peering quizzically at the front, side and rear.

“Ah,” said I, “just in time.”

“No,” said she. “Ticket's written up. Just looking to see what make to put on it.”

“Oh, ho. And what happens if I don't tell you?”

“Nothing. I'll just write it up, 'Make unknown.' Actually, you know, it doesn't really matter to me or anybody else what it is.”

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