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Mary Robinette Kowal – Christine’s a Moody Plymouth; Herbie’s a Loyal Love Bug


It’s hardly a secret that America has a fascination with automobiles. The freedom they offer, the open road… it’s all part of our popular culture. My first car was a Dodge Aspen — hardly the most romantic of models, I know — but like many drivers, I named him (“The Tank”) and gave him a personality. Sure, he was a crotchety old man, but I always knew how to coax him to start, and he always got me home. It’s hard for me not to imagine that the cars I drive have distinct personalities — a malady I share with many Americans, I think. The magic of fantasy, however, allows this small indulgence to come to life with autos that have personalities all their own. So today I thought we’d take a quick spin through the personalities of fantasy cars, and the people who drive them.

Chitty Chitty Bang-Bang (1968) introduces us to the titular car at the end of it’s life — in a junkyard. A rusted out heap that used to be a racecar, it isn’t suitable for much except as a vehicle for childrens’ imagination. But that first moment in the movie when Jeremy and Jemima Potts (Adrian Hall and Heather Ripley) are playing in the wreck sums up one of the key elements of Chitty and our car fascination — the potential to go anywhere. And the man who rescues the car matches its run down but spunky personality perfectly. Dick van Dyke plays an inventor who’s a little odd, a little crotchety, but full of excitment about the possibilities in the world, just like the car. Chitty is for the driver who likes classic cars, but still needs that little extra touch to make them magic.

Herbie, The Love Bug (1968) captures our imagination more than just about any other cinematic vehicle. Since his first appearance in this 1969 flick, he’s gotten sequels, television spinoffs and a Lindsay Lohan remake . So, why is the little Volkswagen so popular? Because he’s feisty, fiercely loyal and determined to succeed. In the movie, he’s partnered with Jim Douglas (Dean Jones) who matches the Beetle’s determination but is also willing to let Herbie contribute to the overall goal. Herbie is the ideal car for someone with a drive to win, but willing to let someone else do the steering.

Transformers (2007) proves that when you need a car to fend off the forces of darkness, it’s best to turn to an Autobot. What better first car could a teenager ask for than Bumblebee, a 1976 Chevrolet Camero by day and a crime-fighting robot by night. Highly trained, this benevolent giant is both cautious and brave — everything you could want from a big brother. If you have a teenager, you don’t have to worry about him coming to any harm inside a car like Bumblebee. Collateral property damage, however, could push your insurance premiums through the roof.

And then, of course, there’s the car most people should avoid. If someone offers you a red 1958 Plymouth Fury, speak very gently to the car and run as fast a you can. That’s Christine (1983). When the movie begins Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) is a fairly nerdy guy — but as he restores Christine, he becomes more cocky and aggressive. And then the car starts killing people. The term “road rage” might not have been around when this movie premiered, but Christine has it in spades and — encourages it in her drivers. Don’t take this car on unless you too are prone to bipolar, violent mood swings, or unless you have the mental constitution to withstand her evil peer pressure.

Now you tell me: What type of personality are you looking for in your fantasy automobile?

Mary Robinette Kowal is the winner of the 2008 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and a professional puppeteer. Her first novel Shades of Milk and Honey is being published by Tor in 2010.

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