Want a job doing things with cars? In this series, we talk to people who have jobs doing things with cars, and ask ’em how they got those jobs, and if those jobs are as great as they look. The answer is generally, “yes.”
A Kind of Sentience: Jalopnik’s Jason Torchinsky on Scimitars, Steam Buses, and Autonomous Drift Dances
Jason Torchinsky got his start in the automotive industry instructing young people how to steal cars. “I used to work a lot with this art collective in L.A. called Machine Project,” Torchinsky tells RoadKill. “And one thing I did with them was a seminar teaching kids how to hotwire a car, and how to break out of a car trunk.” Ostensibly, this performance art piece could be viewed as an education in kidnapping prevention. In reality, it was not only decidedly unserious, but a perfect enunciation of Torchinsky’s spirit and mission, which seems to involve imbuing cars with, if not exactly life, than something approaching it. An aura of good, or evil, that can be engaged with, but never mastered. Kind of like The Force.
This is especially true of his relationship with weird outlier cars—vehicles made in small volumes, or by lesser-known manufacturers—as these seem to have an inherent advantage in his spectro-mechanical cosmos, since they were themselves often the product of visionaries and lunatics. In fact, Torchinsky’s entrée into automotive writing was when then-Jalopnik writer (and now Motor Trend video superstar) Jonny Lieberman wrote about one of these cars: Jason’s Reliant Scimtar GTE, a British-built, Ford-Engined, Fiberglas-bodied, shooting brake. “After Jonny wrote about it, I learned that there was this community of people who made a living writing about cars,” Torchinsky says. Though he’d always been interested in the subject he didn’t think it was possible to translate this obsession into money. “It seemed like such a cheat,” he says. Still, ditching his stable but vehicularly-unsatisfying job as a user interface designer, Torchinsky set out to chart a course as an automotive journalist. It worked. Brief tenures at Make magazine and Autoweek followed before he was invited in-house at Jalopnik in 2011, where he has remained ever since.
He has been the beneficiary of the site’s enormous editorial latitude, which allowed him to nurture his interests into a field of beats. In addition to strange and forgotten marques, Torchinsky’s is beloved of cars positioned at what he calls “the deep low-end,” those that exist at the very bottom of the market. He also delights in investigating the obscure world of mid-19th century vehicles. “I’ve always resented that Mercedes claimed to have invented the car in the 1880s, when it’s just not true. There were a good number of cars around before then. In the 1830s, for example, there was a whole boom of steam buses.”
Torchinsky comes by his affection naturally, since he imprinted in his 70s childhood on the car that most signifies a love of reprehensibly inexpensive and archaic oddball vehicles: his father’s 1968 VW Beetle. “I always thought of Beetles as the gateway drug—at least in America—to interesting cars, because it was one of the few that actually looked and felt different. The engine was in a different place, and it was shaped strangely, and it didn’t have that same kind of massive bulk and seriousness that so many cars had.” The Beetle was also the basis for another of his Malaise era influences, kit cars—along with their tinkerer, anything-is-possible aesthetic. “In my neighborhood growing up, there was always at least a few people in their backyards putting some kind of ridiculous fiberglass body on a Beetle pan,” he recalls. This access expanded and corrupted his sphere of inquiry, and he began seeking out other strange local vehicles, like Peugeots, MGs, and Renaults. But, in the pre-internet era, finding information on odd cars was not easy. The local public library in Greensboro, North Carolina became his refuge. “I would check out any book that had cars I hadn’t seen before,” he says. “I remember just being fascinated when I saw, in a book, my first Fiat 600. Or a Tatra.” All of this conspired to endow Torchinsky with something of an ideology when it comes to mechanical objects. “I always thought a lot about machines in the context of having a life of a sort,” he says. “Not like life-life, but something. A kind of sentience.”
He believes that this is born in part from our deep emotional, and often irrational, connection to vehicles. “We have a lot of complex machines that we buy, refrigerators and dishwashers and washing machines, but you don’t cry when you get rid of a refrigerator that you’ve had for fifteen years,” he says. “But most people I know would be upset if they had to get rid of a car that they’d held on to that long.” (Torchinsky still has the ‘73 Beetle he bought in 1989.) With the potential advent of autonomy, Torchinsky sees this delightful illogic playing out in fascinating ways. Interestingly enough, he imagines our relationship with the car coming full circle. When automobiles are disconnected from human control, he believes, they’ll cease acting as a prosthetic that extends the individual. Instead, they’ll become somewhat independent. Like an animal.
“If that happens, we’re going to start treating cars closer to the way people once treated a horse. We’ll imagine or perceive idiosyncrasies that they may have in their behavior. And I think our brains are going to want to superimpose personalities onto them. And we’ll have complicated relationships with these things. And I bet they’ll get kind of weird.” Weird relationships with cars not only enchant us, they are our very lifeblood. But even weirder, is the best possible sense, is Torchinsky’s vision of where car customization might head in the age of autonomy. With physical aspects like handling and performance holding diminished relevance, he anticipates deeper ties to the virtual and the synthetic, especially in terms of vehicle behavior.
“You might find customizers who are programming algorithms into their cars to make them do acrobatic moves. Or instead of conventional racing we’ll have odd autonomous car sumo fights they’re in a ring and they’re programmed to try to shove each other out,” he says. “Or even think about those old Busby Berkeley dance numbers. You could do that with cars. Imagine fifty cars programmed to move in these insane, synchronized ways. Like these controlled drifts of one group of cars while other cars are moving through them in a way you could only do with math and computers.” He becomes almost breathless. “It could be kind of exciting.”
Here, your interviewer must ask the important question whenever a discussion turns to autonomy.
BB: What does it mean for all our old cars, do you think?
JT: Well, I hope and I think there will always be a place for people who want old cars. And I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I have a very weird and close relationship to my old Beetle, for example, that I’ve had forever. And I don’t ever intend on not driving it. And I can picture a day when there’s autonomous cars all around me and then there’s me holding up traffic in this little, loud yellow Beetle. And I would be happy to do things like, I would install transponders on my car that relayed my speed, position, throttle input, whatever so the autonomous cars around me can anticipate the idiot amongst them. And I think solutions like that would be better than being legislated out of driving or the insurance going so crazy. Like, I’m willing to compromise. And I think compromise will have to happen, but I think we have to stick to our guns and maintain that there’s always going to be a place for people who want to drive themselves and who want to drive old, miserably unsafe things as well. I think that’s a right, in a weird way. It’s a right that we have to endanger ourselves. But we don’t have as much right to endanger other people so that’s why I think some compromise where we provide on old cars equipment or means to make them more safe, or at least make the autonomous cars around us aware of who we are. It’d be like a warning. So, when you came into the vicinity, your old car would be broadcasting information at the very minimum, “I’m old human-powered car. Be alert, robot.” And then the robots would send the information amongst themselves in the car-to-car communication crap they’re going to have and they would all just be ready. Maybe they would spread out of your way, you know. And it’d make you feel kind of cool and important because you’d drive down and all these other cars would cower in fear as to what the hell you might do, you loon in your manual car.
Read more Torch at Jalopnik.com