The Sprawl

Trawling the suburbs requires a soundtrack.

Image: arcadefirestore

The Pet Shop Boys considered them hell, Chevrolet named a vehicle after them eighty years ago. The award winning band Arcade Fire devoted an entire album towards them in 2010. According to lead singer, Win Butler, the album “is neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs – it’s a letter from the suburbs.” The Canadian band’s genre has proved difficult to pin down; journalists having dubbed them indie or art rock – one amongst them resorting to baroque pop. Today, let’s go for a drive and search for vehicular connections though a typical suburban environ. Bring some popcorn and your favourite CD’s.

Baroque: As a parting shot prior to his year 2000 retirement, the Tom Gilles (along with Freeman Thomas and Tom Gale) Chrysler 300c design retained many of its Chronos concept car features – plenty of chrome, tortoiseshell finishes, rear wheel drive chassis set up. At a shade over five metres in length and weighing upwards of 1700Kgs, power was derived from in petrol form by a 2.7 litre V6 making 190bhp.

Parkers

A Touring version gained a 3.5 V6 for 250bhp. Should you wish to buy shares in petroleum markets, a V8 Hemi weighing in at 5.7 litres pushed you lustfully along the suburban strip with 340 bhp. The rare SRT-8 upped the ante to a 6.1 litre, 425 bhp and sub five second zero to sixty. Britain’s share of engines (mainly) drank from the black pump. Mercedes, then snugly with Chrysler provided the OM642 3-litre managing almost 27 mpg circulating the ‘burbs. 

Costing £25k when new in 2005, shiny and black, one could easily misjudge this car to bear the Flying B – many the time has this author been hoodwinked as such. The car bestowed status, driven by discerning professionals or savvy entrepreneurs, maybe even the occasional company car. By the time of track one, The Suburbs, these cars were onto their second MOT but still regarded as an left-field, baroque choice. By mimicking Bentley, the Chrysler carried its hulk with some cachet – mean n’ moody in darker colours, quite elegant in silver. White could be something refrigerated. 

HonestJohn informed those interested that the 300c was no German autobahn-stormer but more than up to the job of providing decent service and with diesel power, manageable fuel bills. Come the end of the sixty-four minute long album however, and the c began to look a little dog-eared.

Blinged up or slammed down, as time went by the first generation big Chrysler took on a more nocturnal role. Often to be found in the murkier areas of town, the car appeared settled there. The responsibly owned diesel can still be had for around £10,000 with pristine V8’s considerably more. And remember this car (in second-generation form) came as a Lancia Thema for Europeans. Good Lord.

johncraddockltd

Art rock: Revealed in Detroit 2005, Land Rover’s Range Rover L320 Sport wore a different dress over its Discovery 3 chassis. Solihull rather confusingly called the car “a new sports tourer SUV”, which hampered sales not one jot. Lavishly equipped, petrol (rarely) or 3.6 twin turbo diesels (and big wheeled), the Sport would practically take over in real estate terms.

Barely troubling anything other than gravel driveways – this behemoth could touch 150mph – the RR Sport gained, then maintained significant presence in and around the suburban environment. From football player (or partners) to supporter, gymnasium to office car park or terrifying the white lines and speed humped shopping centre, Richard Wooley’s design bolstered Gaydon’s coffers massively. 

Losing the split tailgate of its larger brother gave the Sport a more compact, almost lithe appearance. But again, by the release of Arcade Fire’s album, the first generation had been superseded leaving the Sport to the mercies of the used car market. A favourite for customisation, L320’s can often be found monstering kerbs or squeezing under Drive-thru barriers wearing badges other than the green oval or painted to within an inch of their former grandeur.

More forlorn examples adorn driveways or concourses, troubled by suspension or electrical glitches. After-market wheels seem attracted to this car. LR service depots unvisited in the suburban sprawl. The descent of the L320 matches a once high performing team now relegated, rudderless, face lost. As the full-fat Range Rover and sibling Sport grew with the next generation, the initial Sport, itself toned down from the wild Gullwing doored concept Stormer, has become as bored as the teenagers in Win Butler’s lyrics. 

A sad looking 2011 version sat beneath a large tree on a local suburban driveway for years. I never knew of this car moving. Originally Santorini Black, the tree sap and dripping slime had rendered that shade to green. Sometime last year I realised this arboreal depositary had suddenly been changed to a vehicle wearing a different L badge – Lexus. A modern take (that does move regularly) upon our final suburban soapbox.

1998 Lexus IS200: Lexus UK

Indie Rock: Known in its homeland as the Altezza (Italian for highness) Lexus brought the IS200 to the suburbs of the UK in 1999. Chief Engineer Nobauki Katayama (he of AE86, Rally and Le Mans fame), with design work by Tomoyasu Nishi, gave this handsome saloon a petrol powered straight six. Praised for its dynamics and smooth power delivery, time was not kind to this Japanese sharp suited German sub-compact rival.

This car also brought about a new craze – multi-circular rear lamps – which for a time became all one could see, slumped in the suburban traffic jam. Initially mesmeric, copied by many aftermarket types but also by rival manufacturers, they all too soon became irredeemably dated. 

The craze of altering this car’s looks soon took hold, gratifying only those pursuing a certain lifestyle choice. Exterior garnishes of madness could be had with what would become indicative of life in and around suburbia – the massive (-ly pointless) rear spoiler, the side skirt, the rally sounding exhaust. Should such organ pipes fail to drone its way into your eardrums, the aftermarket stereo system should do the trick. The deeper the chest and feet pounding bass, the better.

Come Arcade Fire’s now eleven year-old release, the IS200’s shine was probably due to excessive metal flake paint rather than a fastidious owner. Tatty in demeanour, obtuse in sounds, a gamekeeper turned poacher. Unsullied IS200 examples prove rare beasts to find now (remaining pleasing to see) and, like our other two protagonists here were rated rather highly by your correspondent when they first surfaced. Something perhaps to aspire to back in the early part of the new century. At least the Lexus bore no malice in that first flush of youth but even Audi’s were less yobbish then. But no less disposable.

For that is a suburban trait from Florence to Friedrichshain, Gothenburg to Granada, Hull to Houston; it takes but one to begin a following and in such detract from what set out as an individual statement, a diluting of the automobile in surroundings less salubrious than first conceived. 

Oh my old friends, they don’t know me now.” Is a line from the track, Suburban War. Whilst these words ring true to what these three cars have become now, how your author wishes the cars of today could retain the air of free indifference, a frisson of modernity without aggression, a drive without meaning. 

Perhaps then grab a sandwich, turn up the streaming, and drown out the suburban sprawl? 

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

19 thoughts on “The Sprawl”

  1. I suppose it would be hard to find a suitable Strich acht to cruise the ‘burbs now, as per the album cover…

    1. Damn, gooddog, I was sure it was a W115! That’ll larn me, as they say in certain parts of rural Ireland… Seriously, thanks for digging that up, it’s very interesting to see the studio setup for the cover.

    2. Had I been tied to a chair and tortured over a period of hours I would have sworn blind upon it being a W123, so you’re not alone Michael. I must also add a lone voice – apart from that of the author’s – in praise of Arcade Fire’s 2010 release. It’s a superb piece of work; to my ears a plangent and at times, heartrending evocation of memory and loss. But then the Canadian band are not in the business of making duff records – anyone who can claim to have David Bowie on backing vocals (because he was a fan) on their follow-up – 2013’s Reflecktor has to have something going for them.

    3. I only know “Intervention” from that album, and that only from Renée Fleming’s cover – which I thought was wonderful, although I suspect it upset rock purists…

  2. I agree about the propinquity between the Chrysler and a four-door Bentley. I’ve seen the Chrysler referred to as the “split-second Bentley”, and have been caught out myself.

  3. Ood morning Andrew. I’m afraid my (embarrassingly naff) taste in music doesn’t extend as far as Arcade Fire, so your clever references are lost on me. I did however have the pleasure of driving a Mk2 300C around New England for three weeks back in 2015, thanks to Alamo’s largesse. I loved it! It must have had a 3.6 litre V6 and that was enough to give it ample reserves of power for lazy and very comfortable progress. It also had a glass roof, the front half of which opened, which made the cabin delightfully airy and light.

    In the UK there is a undercurrent of snobbery that regards suburban living as rather infra dig, whereas in the US, they celebrate it to the extent that they designed and named a car specifically for it:

    Talk about suburban sprawl…in the UK, that monster would need its own postcode!

  4. Great article. How those luxury cars have fallen from grace. The Pet Shop Boys song ‘Suburbia’ you mention is a particular favourite of mine. As a suburban dweller my entire life I am always excited to visit a city. Any city. (I avoided writing The City as I am constantly reminded by my financial services friends that this refers to only London apparently). The song ‘In The City’ strikes a chord with me by The Jam as does ‘Smithers Jones’ much to the chagrin of my friends with real career trajectory. Perhaps one day I will live in and experience real city life. The sights, smells and sounds. Until then back to the suburbs for me.

    Growing up in the green green countryside of Wales and Yorkshire I long for dry dusty deserts and the highways of California, Nevada and Arizona. It seems you can’t always get what you want. 🌵

  5. Good afternoon, everyone. I grew up in the country and lived in cities for all of my adult life, so I have very little experience with suburbia other than visiting people, which again isn’t often. I hate that pet shop boys song, BTW.

    As for the cars: When my dad was still alive he and I went to a Chrysler showroom to sample the 300C. The salesperson was very busy on the phone and pretended not to notice us. Until we left and went for my dads E39. I never seen a man turn so quickly from disinterest to action. What it’s like to drive the 300C I can’t say. We were already off when he made it past the showroom floor to the parking lot. And you thought Alfa dealers were bad.

    I’ve driven the Range Rover Sport once and consider it the worst car I’ve ever driven. The less said the better.

    My Lexus experience is limited to the LS 430, ES300h and IS300h. Good cars, all of them, if a bit soulless, especially the IS. Something I can’t put my finger on. Lexus’ center screen is a nightmare, though.

    1. Hi Freerk. Wasn’t the first generation Range Rover Sport built on the Discovery’s chassis? I recall reading at the time that it might have looked nice but it was pretty unsophisticated compared with the ‘proper’ Range Rover

    2. Hi Daniel. I’m not really sure. The Range Rover Sport made me car sick while driving it. No other car has ever had that effect, so that’s why for me it’s the worst. If I had an opportunity to try a first generation Range Rover Sport again I can confirm or falsify that, but I hardly ever see one these days, let alone get the opportunity to climb behind the wheel.

  6. I still carry a torch for the baby Lexus, particularly in four-pot “BEAMS” Toyota guise, but in reality I’m getting too old for high revving semi-race motors ( and my pension probably wouldn’t cover the insurance premiums….)

  7. In addition to the Chevrolet “Suburban Carryall” (as it was originally named), “Suburban” was at one time a generic US/Canada term for a station wagon, sometimes appearing as the body style on registration documents or on license plates. The name was used by other manufacturers as well, most notably Plymouth, whose wagons carried the Suburban name through 1978. GM did not get a trademark on it until some time in the 1980s or ’90s.

  8. Another excellent piece Andrew although some of the reference are lost on me too. I have lived in Suburbia for quite a while now but regularly visit “the smoke” as London is known, just to replenish my enjoyment of city life.
    Daniel I do like your comment “In the UK there is an undercurrent of snobbery that regards suburban living as rather infra dig”. I didn’t appreciate where the term originated from but do now – early 19th century: abbreviation of Latin infra dignitatem ‘beneath (one’s) dignity’.
    DTW – always more to learn!

  9. Only now I remember that the police force in Rotterdam used Suburbans. Both the C10 (rwd) and K10 (4wd) versions. They ran on LPG to keep the fuel costs down and were very popular with the coppers. The size and V8 rumble gave them so much authority. The vinyl seat upholstery came in handy when a criminal in the back was being annoying. They just braked very hard, which caused the guy to slide of the seat in a painful manner.

    I just read in article that the cops were very sad to see the Suburbans go and have them replaced with VW vans. One of the coppers restored the last C10 used. The car was used as a wedding car by a couple of cops. They probably didn’t slam on the brake hard on that particular occasion.

  10. Isn’t there an aftermarket mesh grill available for the 300 to make it more Crewe-like ?

  11. Indeed there is, Mervyn:

    And a rather questionable Rolls-Royce effort:

    1. I agree the second variation isn’t great, but then the Goodwood Royces are not exactly beautiful if viewed from the front….

  12. I don’t think I’ve ever mistaken the 300 for a Bentley. It’s a brutish car, at first in a good way, then as time went on, increasingly seedy. Someone in my neighbourhood ran one as a taxi, but that didn’t last long. Now there’s a Citroën DS5 with taxi plates around the neighbourhood. If it’s the same guy, he’s certainly adventurous.

    Daniel: when will you learn to put disclaimers before posting pictures of automotive horrors? 😜

    I’ve always liked the first gen IS, I think it’s a very neat design that got diluted in subsequent generations. Many Japanes cars attract a very tuner-minded crowd (older Civics particularly, but there’s a pearlescent purple third generation Micra that positively hugs the ground around where I live as well). Mind you, tuning culture is Big in Japan: https://jalopnik.com/come-for-the-tokyo-auto-salon-stay-for-the-crazy-car-m-1822505329

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