1984 BMW 325e (Carroll Gardens)
The Cold War wasn’t all sobriety and existential fear. After all, the West Germans had those wunderbar autobahns to put to use.
In America the E30 3 Series became to yuppies what Swatch watches were to pre-teen girls. The fruits of that are with us today when affluence is the new middle class aspiration. BMW reportedly sold nearly 120,000 of them in 2013. No wonder picking off its buyers is job 1 for Audi, Lexus, and practically everybody else.
The 3 Series remains legendary but we prefer the E30 and the earlier E21.
1967 Austin Mini (Windsor Terrace)
We Americans pride ourselves on our diversity and hospitality. Unlike the homogeneous societies of the old world, ours is a melting pot. Indeed, it is easy to think we invented assimilation.
We didn’t of course. Britain, for example, despite its reputation as a conservative, class-obsessed society, does it quite well on occasion. Try to imagine British history and culture without the contributions of “outsiders” such as George Frederic Handel (German-born composer of coronation anthems), Benjamin Disraeli (descendant of Italian Jews who was twice Prime Minister), and Alec Issigonis (born in Ottoman Turkey to Greek parents, who went on to design the quintessential English car — the Mini). It isn’t easy.
1983 Mercedes-Benz 300TD (Washington Square)
In Kazuo Ishiguro’s tragic novel The Remains of the Day, Stevens, is butler to an English lord, and he strives to maintain a “dignity in keeping with his position”. If you have read the book – or seen the splendid film adaptation starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson – you will know that Stevens pays a great personal price for his slavish dedication to this ideal.
Nevertheless, dignity remains a noble attribute, and one missing in many of today’s “premium” automobiles. And unlike Stevens, autos are not flesh and blood. They have no souls to lose by blind loyalty. So why not insist that premium cars be more dignified – or even just a little dignified? Why not insist they be more like the Mercedes-Benz W123?
1988 Volkswagen Jetta (Fort Greene)
By the nineteen-eighties Wolfsburg had all but abandoned the rear-mounted, air-cooled engine layout it had built its reputation on, and become a more sober automaker on its way upmarket.
West Germany prospered in the decades following World War II, as it rebuilt and markets for its exports grew. But the GDR was relegated by Constitution and treaty to second-tier status in geopolitics, and the German nation itself remained divided between a modern, affluent and liberal West, and a stunted, repressed, Moscow-oriented East. It is hardly surprising that the whimsy of the Beetle, and Karmann Ghia would give way under such circumstances to the more mature Golf and Jetta. Or it could just be ein Zufall.