By Iain Campbell

(Adapted from Brillat-Savarin)

The life of Spenser overlays an era in the real world when evolution in the World of Autos has seen a redefinition of "fitness to survive". To illustrate, just park, in imagination, Spenser's '68 red Chevy convertible beside his Subaru sport coupe. Similarly, when Hawk was a mere leg-breaker for King Powers[1], he drove a white Cadillac convertible. Now the leg-breakers drive up in a Lexus[2]. Evolution has occurred in size, fuel consumption, lines…extras, even. (Spenser now has a car phone!)[3] However, the psyche selects the car perhaps just as much as does the pocketbook. And the car speaks volumes about the psyche of the character, and perhaps of Parker too.

It is a North American cultural stereotype: wives complain that the romance between their husbands and their cars is more intense than that which they share as a couple. (Remember Spenser admiring Rita Fiore's "wheels", meaning her legs?)[4] Parker is himself such a North American male, able to select for his characters the vehicle that meets their needs and suggests the image of them that he wants us to perceive. Sort of military? Give him a Jeep. Sleezy pimp? White Cadillac. Powerful "capo"? black Lincoln Town Car. Playboy? Jensen-Healey convertible.[5] Hayseed? Pickup truck. Reliable neighborhood home-owner and family person? Volvo sedan or wagon. Honest (and thus impoverished) but solid American P.I.? big ol' Chevy convertible, though held together by duct tape.[6]

So let us look a little more closely at some of the choices that Parker makes for his characters.

Some choices are dictated by practicality (even though Spenser likes to fly in the face of practicality from time to time). If you are in the '70s and are going to have a car which can transport four large thugs in comfort, plus occasional weaponry, and permit of rapid and easy egress, you need to select a Buick Electra or similar model. It is worth noting that early Parker thugs are very much GM inclined, with the odd shift to Ford or Dodge. In addition, if you see a maroon car ahead, behind or beside you, whatever the brand, you know you have problems. (It is almost as revealing as the buggy whip antenna on police cars, even if they are unmarked.) Spenser even goes to the extent of spray painting maroon the heads of a couple of inept though professional thugs in Taming a Seahorse. There is only one maroon car owned by significant good guys: the MGB with the chrome luggage rack owned by Susan and sold to Spenser… and we already know that in the Spenser universe, Susan is above the rules, as is Spenser, though to a lesser extent. (The realtor who sells them the house in Concord[7] does indeed have a maroon car, but it is a Volvo wagon, and so clearly cannot be a "bad guy's" car.) This MGB is one of Spenser's conflicts with practicality, which Hawk points out to him several times as they squeeze themselves into its confines. Hawk also wonders as to the feasibility of sex in such limited space!

This practicality also dictates that the security forces Spenser encounters (Transpan[8] and Last Stand Systems[9]) should use Jeeps. They are all-terrain, and easy to leap from. However, the Jeep has a lurking love affair with generations of North Americans who served in the Forces. Spenser even mentions that the Jeep he drove in Korea would blush could it (she?) see his current Jeep Cherokee with all the accessories[10]. However, Jeep has carefully created models - e.g. the yuppy jeep - which have allowed it to reinsert itself into affluent civilian life, and the yuppies engaged in the gentrification of the Salem waterfront[11] happily park them beside their BMWs. Note that, for their sins, only once do non-security bad guys get to drive a Jeep, a faded blue one.[12] The thugs who drive it from the Dell into Potshot are obviously desert car aficionados, since they are also driving a museum piece International Harvester Scout! (Or maybe that's all they have… No road salt induced rust to worry about in the Sawtooth Mountains!)

Speaking of rust, Parker uses vehicles rusting away in driveways and yards to indicate an area of poverty and decay. An interesting find here is the Hudson Terraplane rusting in the yard of Vic Horroway's commune.[13] Shows how long it is since he cleaned out his yard! Otherwise, rust is not a big factor in Spenser's world, unlike mine.

Parker touches only lightly on the perennial manual vs. automatic debate. The only person who is clearly described as having a stick shift is preppy Patty Giacomin[14], in her Audi. Now, as Freud might have said, sometimes a stick shift is just a stick shift, but this is a woman who makes a monthly pilgrimage to New York for sex. I think Parker is playing with symbolism here. Interestingly, Susan's second car is an MGB[15]. It may indeed be possible to purchase a Japanese sports car today with an automatic shift, but I doubt that MG sold one back in the Seventies. I find it incongruous that Susan, whom Spenser even describes a couple of times[16] as "key-challenged", should do something as complex as drive a car with a manual gear shift. If her parallel parking is indicative of her driving skills[17], there is no way she could drive with a stick shift. Perhaps the persona that she exhibits when working on the house in Concord emerges when she drives? In Concord, she wears leather work gloves, handles an axe and wants to buy a chain saw![18]

Returning to practicality, vans are used only when needed, for example, to conceal a person being kidnapped and beaten[19], or to give elbow room and concealment to a shooter [20]. One van does reveal a little nostalgia: the Ceremony of Moloch weirdos use a hand-painted green VW van in 1984, clearly a hold-over from another era, as is also their fifteen year old Olds[21]. When fleeing with Susan from the battle at the Transpan plant near Peqod[22], Russell Costigan uses not a van, but a "big, gussied up Ford" which manages to hold the two of them, a driver, and six guards. Big indeed! So big, powerful and well sprung that no-one notices when two 200 lb men leap up onto the roof and hang on for dear life. Probably has heavy-duty shocks!

However, practicality isn't everything, especially in a fictional world where price is no object.

After his initial appearance with a white Cadillac[23], Hawk consistently drives a series of Jaguars. One is an XJ12[24]. The others, we can only guess at the model, though we may hope that he dropped back to a maximum of 8 cylinders out of deference to ecological concerns. They are black, white, silver, forest green, with leather upholstery for Spenser to bleed on[25]. They are powerful, exotic, expensive, silent. They "slide" away from the curb. Like sharks. Like Hawk. Hawk may at times "procure" another vehicle for specific purposes which might endanger the paintwork of his Jags, (e.g. he employs a stolen Ford wagon while rescuing Patty Giacomin from Buddy Hartman et al. in their black Oldsmobile sedan[26]) but he does display considerable brand loyalty.

Spenser, on the other hand, is all over the place. He owns the red '68 Chevy convertible, Susan's maroon ex-MGB, a Subaru hatchback and a Subaru turbo-coupe, a black Jeep Cherokee, and a red Ford Mustang convertible with a white roof. In many books, the car is actually not even identified. Frequently, he is out of town and uses rentals, (exclusively from Hertz[27] if the company is mentioned at all). What does this tell us about Spenser?

Well, as he himself mockingly comments in Walking Shadow, while he likes the thought of detecting with the wind blowing in his hair, he can't put the top down if Susan is there (it will muss her hair), if Pearl is there (she tries to leap out) or if it is raining (which it seems to do a lot). However, I do believe that convertible-desire is firmly implanted in the subconscious of the North American male of that era. Maybe Parker doesn't drive convertibles, but Spenser can! (I wonder what Parker has driven, over the years?). The Jeep, I have previously discussed. It too fosters the "wind in the hair" ideal. The Mustang? the dream ponycar, slim but American, fast and agile, sexy, but a little impractical to carry Spenser, Hawk, and Vinnie down to Port City[28]. Note that Henry Cimoli also drives a Mustang, a green one[29].

The Subarus might puzzle some drivers, but that is because they are thinking of the silver Subaru wagon driven by the "grannies" who attended the young Gerry Broz' orgies in Washington[30]. On the world market, cars like the Subaru Impreza are hot rally cars that lead world competition. They are intensely practical for a P.I. who may have to drive fast and evasively, though jostling a full-size Ford/Buick (Electra?) is unwise[31].

The thought does occur that his insurance rates must be fairly high: one car badly smashed[32], one burned out[33], one blown up at 3:35 AM[34]. Maybe Spenser and Stephanie Plum (Janet Evanovich's car annihilating bounty hunter) should get together!

Susan's choices of car are totally Susanesque: blue Nova, maroon MGB, two Japanese carrot (or parsnip) shaped sports cars, all engine, one green and one red, a silver Mercedes sport coupe… and a huge red Bronco that she can't parallel park. The Chevy Nova belonged to the pre-Spenser era, and matches the other ordinary person cars in the Smithfield High School parking lot: Chevettes and Datsuns. As her personality emerges, it expresses itself in her cars, and perhaps in her egocentric fast and erratic driving, which causes Spenser the Bold to close his eyes in terror. She drives her cars as she chooses her men: badly. Fortunately for her, Spenser did not turn out to be the thug she saw on the surface: Rachel Wallace's analysis in Sudden Mischief

Vehicular stereotypes abound in Spenser's world. As I mentioned before, beware maroon vehicles or those with maroon roofs etc. A classic stereotype is the car in which Alves Ellis is falsely accused of having abducted Melissa Henderson: a large pink Cadillac. Hawk drily comments: "Yeah, that's what we drive"![35] The luxury sedans, with or without chauffeur, also join the stereotype. Lincoln Town Car or Continental, stretch limo, Mercedes sedan, they belong to executive level professional criminals. (Note that in the post-Spenser books, Tony Marcus and Gino Fish both have Lexuses - Lexi?) Similarly, white-collar amateurs, bad guys all, drive Mercedes, Lincolns, Cadillacs, and recently, a Lexus and a Range Rover.

Pimps appear fairly frequently in Spenser's world. They drive, variously, a Pontiac Bonneville, a white Jag, a Firebird TransAm, a maroon Coupe de Ville with a white vinyl roof and a white limo. One unfortunate pimp, Leo, later known as the "preppy pimp", drove a silver gray Volvo sedan which Hawk and Spenser appropriated for their own use, after shooting him.[36] (It is true that Mitchell Poitras, senior "chicken hawk" and Executive Co-ordinator of the state Student Guidance and Counseling Administration, drives a Volvo, but only, in all probability, as protective coloration.[37])

Except for Leo's silver Volvo, these are all "appearance cars", cars upon which their owners rely to tell people how bad or how rich or how powerful they are. The nuance of difference between this and Hawk's Jag is that he is, in fact, that bad. As for his pink suit, his white leather suit, his white leather trench coat, or his all black cowboy outfit, Hawk is not posing, appearing, defining himself by his possessions, he is just being Hawk. The gang-bangers in Double Deuce may see his car, his huge .44 Magnum, his suits, "his" beautiful woman Jackie as the trappings of success. However, Hawk is the true existentialist, doing what seems right at the time, never defined by anything other than the present. His separation from ordinary emotion makes him very like Camus' Meursault, the "Outsider".[38]

The homeowners of suburbia do the same thing: announce their level of income. As Spenser drives into Smithfield, he comments that the pleas to "Buy American" have had little effect, and that the driveways are filled with Volvos, VW Rabbits and Mercedes, though there are a few Caprices and Skylarks too.[39] He laughs at the Harvard grads who (he claims) already at graduation are wondering where they can get a deal on a Volvo.[40] Volvo has for years stressed safety and security in their sales pitch. These family people, professionals, suburbans, are the car owners who value security above all else. (It is worth noting that Volvo first became known decades ago as a rally car!)

At one point, Spenser muses that Susan is indeed "sports car" (racy, beautiful, high-maintenance, expensive?) and that he is perhaps "old Chevy".[41] As they drive out of an attempted ambush, he comments to Rachel Wallace that one advantage of having a beat-up old Chevy is that a few more dints don't matter. It is interesting that Belson makes a similar remark about Spenser's oft battered face with the broken nose and the scar tissue at the eyes. A sports car is also what Bibi Anaheim[42] dreams about driving, until the kids start arriving, and the dream would then shift to a station wagon (Volvo, of course).

In their banter, Spenser and Costa, ex-TAC cop, gunsmith, good guy, two tours in Viet-Nam, built like a bear, who drinks Bud and drives a Chevy, reveal that they see guys like Costa as Chevies, as being "The heartbeat of America".[43] Spenser jokes about the stereotypes too with editor Garrett Kingsley[44] who wears a green and black plaid wool shirt, with leather vest, an untrimmed grey moustache and duck boots. He smokes a corncob pipe. Spenser quips that Garrett probably drives a Jeep Wagoneer or a Ford pickup, and the latter agrees, joking about his bourbon and his string tie. This would indicate that Parker is well aware of the stereotypical images that accompany vehicle selection.

"Tell me what you drive and I'll tell you what you are" appears to be a claim which works, by and large, in Spenser's world, and perhaps in ours (though cost is more relevant for us mere mortals!). Tell me, what do you drive?

[1] Promised Land

[2] Potshot

[3] Small Vices

[4] Small Vices

[5] A Catskill Eagle

[6] 1973-1981

[7] Walking Shadow

[8] Catskill Eagle

[9] Hush Money

[10] Crimson Joy

[11] Taming a Sea-horse

[12] Potshot

[13] God Save the Child

[14] Early Autumn

[15] Looking for Rachel Wallace

[16] Chance

[17] Ceremony

[18] Walking Shadow

[19] A Savage Place

[20] Double Deuce

[21] Godwulf Manuscript

[22] Catskills Eagle

[23] Promised Land

[24] Early Autumn

[25] Pastime

[26] Early Autumn

[27] Pale Kings and Princes

Taming a Sea-Horse

Catskill Eagle

A Savage Place

[28] Walking Shadow

[29] Sudden Mischief

[30] Widening Gyre

[31] Valediction

[32] Valediction

[33] Pale Kings and Princes

[34] Hush Money

[35] Small Vices

[36] A Catskills Eagle

[37] Ceremony

[38] l'Etranger: Albert Camus

[39] Ceremony

[40] Valediction

[41] Looking for Rachel Wallace

[42] Chance

[43] Crimson Joy

[44] Pale Kings and Princes

Go to Part 2: Cars in Non-Spenser Books