David Dudley is the executive editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.
There’s an awful logic to the American muscle car that served as a weapon of hate in Charlottesville.
If you wanted a car that could hurt people, you can do a lot worse than a Dodge Challenger. Blunt of prow, two tons, often wildly overpowered, it’s a model that has a well-deserved reputation for vehicular mayhem even when operated by drivers who weren’t actively trying to kill and injure others.
So when the first images emerged of the vehicle that plowed into a crowd of anti-fascist protesters in downtown Charlottesville on Saturday, I thought, Yep, that makes sense. The photos are remarkable: the silver-grey muscle car bearing down on a knot of people, then a terrifying shot of bodies flying over the vehicle. In videos of the incident, you see the car collide with the rear of a Toyota, then reverse away across the city’s brick-paved pedestrian mall, with front-end damage that seems to accentuate the car’s natural scowl.
The Challenger is among the most retrograde of machines, a scrupulously literal homage to the brand’s 1970 model, except bulked up. You can drive one off the dealer lot with more than 800 horsepower, an absurd figure for a civilian-operated vehicle.
That wasn’t exactly the car in Charlottesville—James A. Fields Jr. of Maumee, Ohio, was driving a 2010 model with a base V6. His hood scoops and stripes were just for show: The car makes a mere 250 horsepower and, as Edmunds noted in a road test, can be outraced by a Honda minivan. Still, that was sufficiently lethal. A 32-year old woman, Heather Heyer, was killed in the attack, which may be classified as a hate crime. Many others have serious injuries; Fields has been charged with second-degree murder, among other counts of malice.
The use of vehicles as weapons of political terror is cribbed right from the Al-Qaida playbook, and it’s a tactic that has become familiar in recent European attacks by jihadists driving big, anonymous commercial vans. But there’s a kind of awful logic in seeing a huge American muscle car as the killing machine of choice for the Nazis and white supremacists that besieged Charlottesville. The Dodge Challenger—even more so than its two rivals, the Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro—is a kind of mechanical embodiment of Making America Great Again, a dinosaur car utterly shameless in its evocation of a never-was national past. “It’s a rolling relic of a time that’s slowly vanishing before our eyes,” as Jalopnik’s William Clavey recently concluded in a terrific review of a 2017 model. In a passage that effectively captures the essential screw-you qualities embedded into this particular model, Clavey effectively describes how the machine’s personality manifested in his driving style:
Suddenly, I had become the douchebag. I was revving the shit out of its engine the moment I’d encounter a Prius or a Leaf, blipping the throttle when approaching intersections just to spawn a reaction. People despised me. Planet Earth wanted me gone. And I didn’t give one flying fuck.
To be clear, brands don’t always bear responsibility for the ideologies that adopt their products. (Though Dodge might want to ease off on playing up the car’s fast-and-furious image.) And physics is physics: A Honda minivan driven in anger would likely have exacted the same toll. Fate has cast the Dodge Challenger in a very minor villain role in a much larger national tragedy; those who drive these cars, or just dig them, are not enemies of democracy and decency.
But it must be said that this is a car that is practically engineered to make you drive like an asshole. You can barely see out of the thing—front and rear visibility is seriously hampered by the small gun-slit windows. Even the base model with the V6 manages to get circa-1970 gas mileage. Its styling is both a slavish reproduction of the infinitely cooler Nixon-era model (made famous in the 1971 film Vanishing Point) and a bloated parody of it. Like many modern retro-muscle cars, it’s an archetypal midlife-crisis toy marketed heavily at male Boomers who recall the glory days of Detroit iron. The kids who are doing burn-outs in the parking lot or sliding into trees with Challengers now probably picked them up after those first owners have moved on: 20-year-old James Fields got his hands on his in June 2015, when it was a five-year-old used car.
In the toxic stew of racial resentments and masculine anxieties we saw in the young white mobs of Charlottesville, the weaponized nostalgia that helped fuel the killer’s car is a small ingredient—but an ingredient nonetheless. The oft-chanted alt-right terror of “being replaced” comes from a similar place: an awareness that the currents of history are not in their favor. This kind of car may be a “Middle Finger to the Future of Cars,” as Jalopnik said in their review headline, but that future is coming anyway.
Urbanists and drivers alike often invoke the notion of a metaphorical “war on cars” that is currently being waged. Depending on your perspective, this is either a long-overdue effort to reclaim car-centric spaces for people, or a sustained nanny-state assault on the freedoms that the private automobile granted. Central to that debate is the idea that costs of these machines to society are increasingly unacceptable, and that the days of their reign must end.
Those who push for the adoption of self-driving technology often cite the numbers of those killed on American roads—more than 40,000 last year, a sharp escalation—and the promise that technology would save the vast majority of those lives. Autonomy would also save the lives of those who might be intentionally targeted by drivers intent on using cars as weapons.
A muscle car—piloted by an actual Nazi—intentionally ramming people on a pedestrian mall is perhaps the least subtle imaginable way to see the war-on-cars metaphor come to cartoonish life. It’s also a powerful reminder that even cars that aren’t being driven to kill are potentially lethal; for most of us, driving is the most dangerous thing we do every day. There’s a lot of evidence that we’re getting too dumb and too distracted to be allowed to do it much longer. To this debate now comes a fresh argument: Some of us are also too evil.