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Rumble Seat

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This, my 163rd column for The Independent, is my last. Yes, well, I know 163 isn't a round number. It's much more interesting: It's a prime number.

Why am I quitting? Since the Florida recount, I simply haven't had enough time, what with my medication and electroshock therapy.

Moreover, my freelance dance card is full. I'm on the masthead of four magazines--Car and Driver being the most prominent--and am a regular reviewer for The New York Times auto section. These clients are notable for the fact that when I write something, shortly thereafter a check arrives in the mail, whereas with The Independent, I am compensated with, um, good karma.

That's not quite true. I have been writing these columns in exchange for advertising for my wife's dental practice: Dr. Rebecca Schmorr, DDS--hers are the really funny ads with the Mick Jagger lips. You could say these columns have been a labor of love. And believe me, but for my intense love of Rebecca, and my desire to support her in her work, I'd have bagged the column a long time ago. A lot of people tell me I'm the luckiest guy on Earth to travel all these wonderful places and drive all these expensive cars. I never feel luckier than when I am home on the couch, my arms wrapped around Rebecca, watching Battlebots (you don't meet a woman who will help you build a killer robot every day).

Now her practice is going great guns and I have found it increasingly hard to keep up with the column, particularly from the road. For the next month, I am facing a travel schedule that looks like something from a Ken Follett novel--Stuttgart, Nice, Fez, Marrakech, and Istanbul. Filing a weekly column from the road means lugging around my laptop, the 21st century albatross, and sometimes e-mailing from places where I have to crawl up a pole to get to a phone line.

So, after 42 months, I'm quitting, which will upset, literally, tens of readers in the Triangle. To those who have found this column and read it regularly, thank you a thousand times over. In a paradoxical way, I am dropping the column to honor you and your expectations. No one knows better than I when I have been guilty of mailing it in because I was tired, dull, or uninspired. And that has happened more than I'd like to admit. If I can't write my best, I'd rather not write at all.

I am extending the same sort of courtesy to The Independent. The commitment and devotion of The Independent's staff requires no less from its contributors. And since I can't match their selfless verve, it's better for me to get out of their damn way.

Rumble Seat was always a peculiar fit, an automotive enthusiast's column in a progressive weekly serving an audience that in large part neither loves nor respects cars. The history was this: Three and a half years ago I was fired from The News & Observer for refusing to have my column vetted by the classified advertising department. At the time, my N&O column was pretty popular, and so it seemed to The Independent's then-publisher Steve Schewel that the column could be grafted to the back of the Indy.

It was paired with the work of another car columnist named Phil Ruth, who carved out a unique role for himself as an openly gay car critic. Phil now works for a car-related dot-com in the San Francisco area, where he is currently trying to keep his servers from crashing.

From the beginning, the Indy audience was somewhere between skeptical and openly hostile. Particularly in our area, where obscene land use, sprawl and open contempt for public transportation has left us gridlocked, gassed, and pissed off, the Automobile has made its share of enemies.

To the Earth-First'ers and EDF charter members out there, I can only point out that the car industry is a huge, stupid animal that responds only to the prod of increased sales. As a car critic, I have tried to encourage people to buy the right vehicles for their needs, thereby moving the market in a positive direction.

The classic example is the ignominious SUV. It has been my pleasant duty to point out to anyone who would listen that large SUVs are treacherously unstable in cornering, unmaneuverable (with stopping distances half those of normal cars, in most cases) and inefficient in both fuel and space. What people who buy SUVs might actually want--if their desires were better informed--are all-wheel-drive station wagons, like the Volvo V40, Saab 9-5 wagon, the Subaru Outback, the BMW 3-series wagon.

You will note that among the 2001 model year cars there are a host of new vehicles--Pontiac Aztec and the Audi Allroad, for example--that fit this description. Slowly we turn.

As for the petrochemical-greenhouse axis that pisses off so many car-haters, I assure you, the fault lies not with the car manufacturers--who would build solar-powered tricycles if there was a buck in it--but the oil and gas industry, which has got Congress by the balls.

Still, I'm optimistic. The Bush petrochemical cabinet is the most energizing thing to happen to environmentalism in 25 years. It looks like McCain-Feingold might have teeth this year. Once the iron grip of corporate patronage is loosened, the market will respond. Alt-fuel vehicles are closer than you might think.

I have seen my role as an enlightened lover of automobiles and have tried to convey the pleasure of it all. I know the pleasure of driving a jet-powered dragster, a rock-crawling Jeep, a 500-hp sports car, a 40-hp Volkswagen Beetle. They all seem to me the same sort of blissed-out experience. It's just fun to go.

And so I will.

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