San Marcos, Texas
Don’t believe what you’ve been reading. Natural causes didn’t kill actor James Garner, the Google Driverless Car did.
To older Americans, the affable Oklahoma actor is probably best remembered as “Bret Maverick.” To me and my high school buddies, he’ll always be “Rockford.” Not “Jim Rockford,” but simply “Rockford,” the main character in the 1970s television show, “The Rockford Files,” in which he played likable but flawed private eye Jim Rockford.
Before we graduated in 1981, my friend Ed Shill, now a successful money manager and the only guy to beat The Wall Street Journal’s dartboard contest two quarters in a row, and I bombed around in his 1974 gold Plymouth Duster. Shill liked to drive fast and throw the Duster into corners and slide around the icy back roads of Upstate New York, all the time screaming “Rockford!” as we skidded toward a tree or a ditch. (Yes, there was usually alcohol involved.)
When I was a reporter for the Dow Jones Newswires in Detroit in the late 1990s, I went on a media junket to the Indy 500. Garner was one of the ceremonial pace car drivers. When all the reporters got a chance to ride around the track, I didn’t flock to Anthony Edwards, another Hollywood car guy, or any of the other celebrity drivers the track brought in. I made a B-line for Rockford.
I told him about our high school exploits. He flashed that grin that got him past the first screen test and made for a pretty good career. He even signed a hat to Shill and below his signature penned “Rockford!”
When the talk turned to cars, it was obvious that the man who did most of his own driving in Rockford’s gold Pontiac Firebird had already soured on what was coming out of Detroit. He told me, “When I was a kid growing up in Oklahoma, I would sit out in front of my house and I could tell what kind of car was coming up the road just by the headlights.” Then he frowned and said, “Nowadays, all the cars look the same.”
So Rockford was very much on my mind when I went to Dick’s Classic Garage last Saturday night, about the time police were called to Garner’s Brentwood, Calif., home. I came to the small museum full of distinctive cars from the 1950s – Chevy Bel Airs, Oldsmobile 98 Starfires, Cadillac Coupe de Villes – to talk to the dwindling American demographic known simply as “car guys.”
1955 Chevy Bel Air at Dick’s Classic Garage.
Once a month, Dick’s hosts an open house. Admission to the museum is free and the parking lot fills up with regulars who bring their own classic cars, from ’34 Fords to late-1960s and early ‘70s Camaros and Trans Ams, cousins to Rockford’s Firebird. I wanted to know what they thought about the Google Driverless Car, now approved in three U.S. states, as well as several European countries. Not surprisingly, I didn’t find many fans.
“That car is how I get off the grid,” said Tom Fortney, 42, who owns a classic 1954 Chevy Bel Air and spoke for most everyone here. “I get in that car and I just forget about everything.”
Indeed, but I think the Google Driverless Car is a bigger development than most Americans realize. Yes it’s cool and marks another technological milestone in a century filled with them. But it also marks the end of an era that began shortly after World War II, when the automobile became a symbol of America’s postwar prosperity and freedom. We’d defeated the Axis powers, made the world (mostly) free, and all got to drive these big wonderful cars with gold-plated grills, twin hood ornaments, wraparound windshields, sweeping lines, and huge tailfins that seemed to go on forever. These cars defined the America of the 1950s and ‘60s and, in many ways, they defined us.
Now, just two generations later, the car, something we once loved and cherished, has become nothing more than another commoditized item in an increasingly commoditized world. Instead of driving around in cars that said something about who we are, in the not-too-distant future we’ll be driven around in Google’s nondescript ovoid bubble, the open road replaced by a grid controlled by servers in a basement in a suburb of San Francisco. And I doubt that in 50 years, visitors will flock to Google’s corporate headquarters (since moved to Shanghai for tax reasons) and ogle the first driverless car the way the folks were ogling each other’s cars in the parking lot of Dick’s.
Now, having driven on the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn and the 405 in L.A. at rush hour, I can certainly see the advantages of a car controlled by a computer and not a guy jacked up on caffeine who’s late for work. The driverless car – in theory – would mean no more tailgating, no more speeding, and, barring a hiccup in the system, no more accidents. The driverless car could potentially do more for world peace than a settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians and keeping nuclear weapons away from the mullahs in Iran.
But the driverless car falls short here, as well. Because I think Google’s burgeoning invention is also symbolic of a post-9/11 era in which many Americans have been willing to trade freedom for (a false sense of) security. Now, instead of deciding where we go and how we get there, we’re going to outsource it to a computer.
The driverless car marks a fundamental shift in American life, attitudes and culture. I don’t doubt that it’s a development that James Garner – “Rockford!” – found disappointing. So do a lot of us.
So rest in peace, my friend. As one of the last of the car guys’ car guys, you’ve gone on to a far better place.
Mark Yost is a writer in Houston. In his latest noir novel, “Cooper’s Daughter,” private eye Rick Crane drives a 1987 Buick Grand National.