The Wabi Sabi Motorcar
How Traditional Japanese Aesthetics Can Apply To Vehicles
Many years ago, when I was a rather young adult, I had the pleasure of attending the concours d’elegance at the Porsche Parade in San Diego. For a dyed-in-the-wool Porsche fanatic, it just doesn’t get much more thrilling than that, and I felt very much like Charlie wandering through my own personal Chocolate Factory. Row after row of legendary motorcars from Zuffenhausen and Gmünd, gleaming in the southern California sun… I could have stayed there forever.
While strolling I remember being drawn to all the cars that I have always been drawn to. The 911R’s, 910 Bergspyders, 917K’s, etc. At the time, it was very rare to see these types of limited production and competition Porsches all in one place, and that golf course in San Diego, to the eyes of this east-coast kid, brought out one of the most impressive collections, both in terms of quantity and quality, I have ever seen. That remains true to this day.
Although young, I was particularly enthralled by the cars with patina. Looking at the worn suede on the steering wheel of a 917 for example, made me think endlessly about whose hands had been there, sawing away through Eau Rouge. Seeing stone chips on the nose of a 936 made me wonder. "On which section of the Mulsanne straight did this happen? Did the driver hear the rock hit the nose? Did it cause concern, even for a fraction of a second?" There was a lot going on there in the imperfections. A lot to think about. History. Stories. Passion. Those are the things motorcars have always been for me, and I loved every bit of it. I stood for hours, drinking it all in.
After a time I kept wandering, and further along the rows of motorcars there was a section of more modern Porsches, with their owners fussing over them, many of whom were quite serious about winning the concours judging. Polishing this and that. Huge cases of specialized prep chemicals by their sides. Whereas most of the historic competition cars were there simply to be seen, most of the modern cars were there to win, and although far less common today, over-restoration was definitely the order of the day in the early 1990’s. I distinctly recall a particular 964 with only delivery mileage on the odometer. 9 miles, if I remember correctly. I spoke with the owner at length. He had purchased the car brand new a year or so earlier, collected it from the dealership in an enclosed trailer, and it had never been exposed to the outside air since (save when briefly on display), much less turned a wheel under its own power (save when necessary for judging.) Moreover, after purchasing the car, he delivered it directly to a specialist concours preparation facility, where the engine, transmission and suspension had been removed, stripped, “cleaned,” and reinstalled. During reassembly, he told me proudly, care had been taken to insure that every screw head was angled in the same direction, every hose clamp was situated in an identical orientation, and every nut tightened so that it revealed, through its center opening, the exactly same amount of associated bolt. The result, he said with deserved pride, was two national concours “best of show” trophies and numerous local awards. When not entered in a concours, the 964 was kept in a hermetically sealed room of his property, and transported to and from that room in a dedicated “clean truck” that was used for no other purpose.
“Appalled” might be too strong a word, but, although I wasn't exactly sure why, I definitely found all this over-restoration and over-preparation distasteful. I still do. Don’t get me wrong, I was pleased for his success, and I’m a firm believer in “different strokes for different folks,” but I found it epically tragic that a wonderful motorcar, which had been built to thrill its owner on the great roads and circuits of the world, would instead spend its life as a… statue. Worse than a statue, even. A kind of circus sideshow, ogled and judged for its obscene cleanliness, despite being “restored” to a state it had never, ever been in to begin with. What kind of life is that for a Porsche? What had this car ever seen? What had its owner ever experienced in it? It seemed a cruel fate for a car, but more to the point of this article, I found it aesthetically unappealing. This picture-perfect 911, polished to within an inch of its life, was actually less attractive to me than the more worn, used, slightly battered example that could be found just a few meters across the golf course.
As I grew older and spent time studying various types of design, I realized I wasn’t alone, and when I went though a phase of being rather obsessed with Japanese aesthetics I encountered actual terms that relate to this embrace of imperfection and appreciation of the physical manifestations of experience, most notably “wabi sabi” and “shibui.”
Wabi sabi and shibui are not always easily understood by westerners, including me, and are not always directly translatable, with the result that they can mean slightly different things to different people. Worse, they are complex ideas, with entire books written about what the terms really mean, and they do not lend themselves to one sentence definitions. But what the hell. We’re part of the microwave generation. Let’s give it a shot.
To me wabi sabi essentially means “a beauty that is derived from imperfection or impermanence,” and shibui essentially means “a beauty or elegance that derives from modesty and an acceptance of life as it is.”
Okay. So… what does this mean for motorcars?
It means that motorcars, like all things, are born from nothing and will eventually return to nothing. Our ownership of them, our stewardship, is merely a period in between those two absolutes. We are, as owners and drivers, a part of their history, and regardless of the vehicle in question, that history is an important one. Therefore the physical manifestations of that unique history - the scars and blemishes and imperfections - are fundamental to the singular beauty of the vehicle. They are not to be thoughtlessly eradicated. They do not detract from the aesthetics, but rather add to them. Each scar, each bit of wear, allows the imagination to become more involved with the motorcar and lets us contemplate more deeply its individual life.
That is the wabi sabi part. The shibui outlook is where we have the courage and humility to appreciate the state of the vehicle, find beauty in the way it is, and not pine endlessly for the way it once was or for the way it maybe could be again.
Which is kinda heavy stuff, and certainly has its limits. If someone backs into the driver’s door of my Lancia today, trust me, I’m not going to appreciate the glorious dent. I’m going to repair it. But in a broader sense wabi sabi and shibui can be powerful reminders to appreciate our vehicles more as they are, and to remember that each is unique, with a unique history and unique experiences.
By way of direct example, we imported a Land Rover recently, an old Series IIA 109, for a gentleman in the midwest named Zac. The bodywork was fairly battered and we discussed restoring it. Zac agreed to the repairs, but with the specific instructions to “not overdo it.”
“This thing has history,” he said, “and I don’t want it all wiped away. Anything you can maintain that connects the freshened vehicle to its past, to its experiences, is worth maintaining in my book. It’s not a brand new Defender. It’s an old, classic Series IIA, and I want it to look like one.”
That’s pretty much it in a nutshell as far as I’m concerned. That’s wabi sabi.
We all love beautiful cars, and I’m not arguing that all restorations are bad. Far from it. I believe motor vehicles are more than static pieces of art, and should be driven in order to truly be called motor vehicles. I believe this about ALL vehicles, no matter how rare or how valuable. So to me, restorations or repairs should be undertaken as necessary so the vehicle can do what it does - drive around and make its owner happy. Yet while we all have different standards for what we think makes a beautiful vehicle, I think the Japanese ancients can teach us a good bit about appreciating the inherent beauty of our vehicles in their naturally worn, evolving state.
Think about it that way and every car you own is kinda like your own personal, Le Mans winning Porsche 936. Except the stone chips came in different ways.
That's an idea I think we can all get behind.