The automobile as we know it — the thing with the internal-combustion engine that runs on gasoline, the machine we steer and brake ourselves, the vehicle whose pace and direction is for better or worse solely our own responsibility — is approaching its end days. While I accept change is coming, I intend to enjoy now what I know will be lost, and I mean to enjoy it as much as I can for as long as I can. For like the close of anything worthwhile — say, the last minutes in a hard-fought sporting contest, the final hours of a wild party, or a flower’s beauty before it begins to perish — the end is to be savored. It’s often that said thing’s greatest moment.
For a glimpse of the peak automobile, look no further than the Ford Focus RS. I recently toured Pennsylvania in one with my two sons. With 350 horsepower, big Brembos, and an all-wheel-drive chassis of unmistakable sporting intent, the RS offers so much performance and old-fashioned driving fun for $36,000 that it must signal the beginning of the end. Years from now I predict we will look back on such a remarkable machine as fondly as old-timers recall the muscle machines of the pre-emissions control 1960s — vehicles, I might add, that this modern car outruns every day in most every way. Is the Focus RS what they had in mind when they wrote of end times and the rapture? I wouldn’t say no, but an ecclesiastical scholar I am not.
Pennsylvania knows a thing or two about endings. Coal mining was big in the Keystone state once, as was steel. The first oil wells ever drilled in the U.S. were bored here, too. And from these businesses rose the railroads that once dominated state and national economies before withering to shadows of their former selves.
Stop in Scranton to the east to visit the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum and the Steamtown National Historic Site and be reminded at once of the wealth created by these old technologies as well as their enormous scale and the poverty left in the wakes of their demise. The Lackawanna Hotel, where we spent the night, occupies a grand old train station that used to bustle with passenger traffic but fell moribund when the city’s star faded along with Pennsylvania coal and oil production. The restored edifice is a charming timepiece that reminds us of what is gone and not coming back.
The Focus RS telegraphs the tradition of great sporting Fords and their tactility, rather than the dull reality of its down-market relations, squeezed out by the million like so many sardine cans.
Heading west on roads that traverse the vast Marcellus shale gas formation, we are confronted with the state’s new wealth generator — called fracking — as large trucks lumber by, loaded with high-pressure equipment, bizarre hoses, and all manner of curious, undisclosed chemicals. One day they’ll be in a museum, too, for every extractive industry is born with the seeds of its own destruction.
Feeling oily, about two hours north of Pittsburgh, we toured the Drake Well Museum. Few remember that the modern world’s oil economy got its start in this tiny rural outpost, where “Col.” Edwin Drake, a retired train conductor whose primary qualification was a lifetime rail pass, found himself sent by some Connecticut investment sharps to drill for this new thing called rock oil, or petroleum. An oil-drilling craze that began here in the 1850s created vast fortunes but would boom, bust, and eventually dry up in Pennsylvania, like coal and steel, leaving behind unemployment, a compromised ecology, and faded grandeur by the cubic foot.
More happily, another unintended consequence of time’s inexorable march toward the future and its battery-powered, self-driving fleet is the Focus RS we caned merrily down country lanes. Much as these roads carve through so much natural beauty, presenting such a better picture of rural Pennsylvania than the interstate highways most traffic plies, the RS speaks more eloquently than 10,000 words, telegraphing the tradition of great sporting Fords and their tactility, rather than the dull reality of its down-market relations, squeezed out by the million like so many sardine cans.
Some places change, yet don’t go away. At the Ace Hotel Pittsburgh, “Paris 1919,” a track from ex-Velvet Underground member/hipster icon John Cale, serenades patrons in the lobby of this converted YMCA in the city’s increasingly tony East Liberty district. A former colossus of the aforementioned steel, railroad, and shipping industries, Pittsburgh has been reinventing itself as a tech and services mecca, and the Ace’s ambitiously pierced and tattooed staff, busy preparing Intelligentsia coffees and polishing bottles of locally sourced rye whiskey, suggest the transformation is proceeding apace.
A couple of late September evenings spent watching the hometown baseball team put the cap on a flubbed and underwhelming season was excruciating for a family of longtime Pirates fans but was mitigated by two things. First, there is the beauty of PNC Park — our candidate for best of the retro-modern ballparks with its location on the river and its panoramic views of the city’s impressive skyline. Looking around, it seems as though there can’t be anything terminal about the situation in this old town.
The other uplifting thought came during our ride home. Blipping the RS’s throttle and downshifting in preparation for standing on it as we entered the highway out of Pittsburgh, it finally occurred how to express the sensation. It felt like we were controlling the thrusters of a pocket-size rocket ship. The RS is one of the ultimate forms of internal combustion, a bargain machine that will go anywhere and do anything you want, especially if you want to do it now.
So don’t despair, friend, even if the end of what we know is near. Chances are cars will be fast and plenty of fun in the all-electric, self-driving future. But for now, while what we once held dear collapses all around us and lies waiting to be carted off, we’ll take a Focus RS. And then groove euphorically on the rubble.