Tom Wolfe, "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby"

The notion of what it means to be obsessed with cars could only be vague unless one of the number-one chroniclers of the American society in the 1960ies was asked for help. Tom Wolfe saw them all, the vulgar, ludicrous, nutty, and yet ever so fascinating custom car artists roaring down Sunset Boulevard on their hotrods. Though trying desperately to make it sound like the artsy-fartsy East Coast intellectual (born in Virginia, Wolfe worked and lived in New York) gaping at a small people living in the Namib Desert, West Africa, Tom Wolfe succeeds in rendering the atmosphere of a scene that had previously been undiscovered.

In his 30-page piece "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby," which also gave the title to a compilation of articles originally written for Esquire magazine and the New York Herald Tribune, the author and reporter (or is it the other way around?) shows us around a "Teen Fair" in Burbank, CA. What those interested in American Studies have the opportunity to discover is entirely different to what others have written and sung about: the car as a piece of art—and the road as the gallery! Wolfe is not quite sure as to how to classify the sculptures he can see, but not really understand. Terms such as "Modern Baroque" (referring to the wings and colors) and "Renaissance" (referring to the apprentices coming to the feet of their master) are hovering in the air. And that's certainly not all there is to this scene.

The hype is catching on immensely and the big Detroit companies are lurking behind the facades. The customizers do not yet cooperate with Ford and the like, but the ethos of pure art is about to crumble. Hipsters and wanna-bes come to Los Angeles to hang out at hot-rod shows the same way people do at Greenwich village—and here it is again: the car as a symbol of freedom and an alternative life-style. The kids flee their homes in some Midwest small-towns and try to lead the kind of bohemian lives they read about in youth-magazines. The real thing, however, still is the designer in his studio, the king of the customizers, the real American hero. Guys like Ed Roth "carry on in the Dionysian loop-the-loop of streamlined baroque modern" (81)—and earn a lot of money. Nevertheless, they are "thorough-looking bohemians" (84) who insist on sleeping in their cars when they are on the road.


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