My grandparents were married in Winnipeg on August 16, 1930. Not long after their wedding, they packed their belongings into a Model T Ford and drove to Ottawa. They were in their twenties and the trip was filled with flat tires, engine trouble and lost directions. It turned out to be a good start. They were married for 52 years.
Like the Model T they rode in, their ride was a product of its era, a time when youthful romance was embodied by the automobile, especially the long road trip; a sentiment articulated by F. Scott Fitzgerald 100 years ago this month in his 1924 essay, “Cruise of the Rolling Junk,” which was published in three parts in MOTORI: The National Motoring Magazine.
A road trip promised adventure and relief from the “disappointment of the whole stationary world.” Fitzgerald’s had begun in 1920. One morning, his new bride Zelda had a craving for peaches and cookies, and so, after breakfast, the pair set out to travel from Connecticut to her hometown in Alabama in a Marmon of 1918 (Junk Rolling). To navigate the country by automobile was “To be young, to be bound for distant hills, to go where happiness hung from a tree, a ring to bend, a crown bright to win.” .
Not many people would express such idealism now. With Valentine’s Day approaching, it’s hard to find hope or optimism related to the automobile. Driving means being stuck in traffic, thinking about the pointlessness of it all. However, there is little energy left in North America’s romance with the automobile. Tinder’s Year in Swipe reports that “car dating” is one of the most popular trends on TikTok.
According to Mashable, “You pick up your date in your car, drive somewhere remote with a nice view — or to a drive-thru — and have your date in the parked car. The rest is like any other date: Getting to know each other, bonding, rising tensions, you know how it goes. And car dates work for cohabiting couples too; beat the cabin fever and spend some bonding time by driving your car to a park for dinner instead of sitting in the kitchen.”
Modern car dates do not resemble the erotic exploits of the late twentieth century. I’ve written a lot about cars and body pursuits. Including a history of car sex, a treatise on why you should have sex in your car, and a report on the pandemic’s effect on car talk. The element that each article shares is that spontaneity is the foundation of passionate automotive interludes. If you’re an adult, you drive because you’re too passionate about going home. If you’re a teenager or in your twenties, you drive because you’re passionate and you can’t go home because it’s your parents.
Car dates described on TikTok are the opposite of spontaneous. Great care and attention is given to preparing the vehicle, adding cushions, pillows, snacks, cozy lights and blankets. The emphasis is on chivalrous love and not copulation. There’s no hint of Jazz Age pamper parties or 1970s dashboard light heaven. Mashable reports that car date enthusiasts say they’re “quintessential,” “unmatched,” and “the best kind of meetings”.
They may be on to something. Without giving too much away, I can confidently say that no one has ever referred to an intimate car date as “the best kind of date”. Cramped, poorly ventilated, the romance killer that is the bucket seats, car “dates” happen in less than ideal conditions. Adrenaline of Aphrodite compensates for these obstacles, but does not cancel them.
It may be that today’s fancy car meets are more about the wait than the act itself. If so, then they are consistent with the conclusion that Scott and Zelda reached, after a road trip consisting of “speeding, bribery, evading payment and obtaining assistance under false pretenses.”
“The joys of motoring are more or less imaginary,” Zelda assured a friend when they returned to their home in Westport, Conn.
In a 1974 essay, scholar Roderick S. Speer wrote that “although ‘Cruise’ is light and fluffy, we can see the ferment in the serious themes of Gatsby” – which is full of automotive symbolism. He noted that Fitzgerald considered the voyage a failure and would not undertake such a voyage again; all that remains of value seems to be the memory of the illusion that drove it in the first place.”
Car dates, with their emphasis on friendship and conversation rather than instant carnal gratification, aren’t reviving the romance of the automobile so much as honoring its restless illusion. This Valentine’s Day, as pillows are placed in the back seats and snacks placed in baskets, car lovers will not be celebrating the romance of the automobile, but rather marking its passing.
“My love goes with you, Rolling Junk,” Fitzgerald wrote at the conclusion of his essay. “With you and all the faded garments that have brightened my youth and glimmered with hope or promise on the roads I’ve traveled—roads that still lie, less white, less glamorous, under stars and thunder and repeated sun inevitable.”