How a Dead French Philosopher Taught Me to Love Small Cars

Photo:  Jalopnik / José Rodríguez Jr.
Photo: Jalopnik / José Rodríguez Jr.

The first time I ever saw a BMW 318ti in the wild, I nearly gagged. Same goes for the first Z3 M Coupe I came across. I’m not sure why, but BMW’s cult cars have a way of doing that. I’ll never forget seeing my first E36 compact and scowling as the truncated coupe drove past. It wasn’t until years later that I finally warmed to the hatchback. Oddly enough, it had more to do with a book by French philosopher Gaston Bachelard than with me buying my own 318ti.

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Bachelard’s Poetics of Space is recommended reading for budding architects and designers, but I like to tell people the book is just as compelling for car lovers… as long as they also happen to love poems and two-door cars. Because tucked into Bachelard’s treatise on poetry and phenomenology is the single best argument for the superiority of small cars.

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Photo:  Jalopnik / José Rodríguez Jr.
Photo: Jalopnik / José Rodríguez Jr.

Don’t let “phenomenology” put you off. It’s just the study of human experience as subjective or interpretive. It’s all very romantic, but it really is harder than it seems to isolate any given phenomenon into discrete bits. We’ll always resort to the filter of the self.

I suppose one way to think about it is to imagine yourself rowing gears in your car. It’s much more poetic (Bachelardian, even) to see all components of the car and driver in a holistic way: The thinking part of you is not locked in your skull, but is in your hands and feet, perfectly syncopated to the rhythm of the machine — and in that moment, you are as much a part of the machine as it is a part of you.

Whether you believe that or not doesn’t matter for Bachelard’s argument — or, more to the point, mine, which is that small cars are satisfying in ways that big SUVs and crossovers can never be. How could they be, with all that wasted space sucking up the air? No. What any one person needs is a cottage, a hermit’s hut, a nest or a warm corner to burrow into and be lost in thought. The smaller, the better.

Photo:  Jalopnik / José Rodríguez Jr.
Photo: Jalopnik / José Rodríguez Jr.

See, it’s in these intimate spaces that the imagination is free, that we feel safe to daydream. Like a child who digs under the covers, or a cat that melts into a box. Bachelard argues people are drawn to shelter in the smallest spaces. Now, as a small person, I could be biased. But regardless of size, we all long for the comfort of closeness, like a joey in mother kangaroo’s pouch.

The study of animals is a great source, per Bachelard, who writes,“Thus, well-being takes us back to the primitiveness of the refuge. Physically, the creature endowed with a sense of refuge, huddles up to itself, takes to cover, hides away, lies snug, concealed. If we were to look among the wealth of our vocabulary for verbs that express the dynamics of retreat, we should find images based on animal movements of withdrawal, movements that are engraved in our muscles.” Add to that movements that are engraved in our small cars.

Photo:  Bernard Pascucci (Getty Images)
Photo: Bernard Pascucci (Getty Images)

Indeed, it is the smallest house that shelters daydreaming and protects the dreamer. And what is a car if not a house that wished to be free? Shrink the car and you get that intimate yet immense site of reverie. Just don’t read too much into it, because it could mean that, as a millennial, I’ll never own a home and thus have stuck the label to the shelter I do own. Never mind that! Yes, I’ve slept in my 318ti, and eaten breakfast, lunch and dinner inside it when driving across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

I’ve even been stranded in hopeless places where I might as well have chocked the tires and settled down. But, mostly, my hatchback has been a cozy refuge sheltering me for years. A place where I was safe to remember, to think and dream. As if my memory itself were stretched over the shell of the car, pointing the hatchback this way or that way to journey down thoughts stuck to a compass. We could probably say the same about all cars, big or small, but only the smallest corners demand solitude and invite us to daydream. Only these will do for me, and for Bachelard, who says, “... miniature is one of the refuges of greatness.”

Photo:  Jalopnik / José Rodríguez Jr.
Photo: Jalopnik / José Rodríguez Jr.

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