Maxim: Flaw Theory

I’ve recently added this third Maxim to the Maxims page on the site. Please feel free to peruse, discuss and/or disagree.

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The Maxim:

A car can be engaging, beautiful, powerful, and otherwise incredibly competent and at most it will be widely respected and admired. For a car to be one that you will truly love, it has to have at least one fundamental flaw.

An alternative might be:

A car only needs to do one thing that matters as long as it’s done exceedingly well. That one exceptional quality will more than compensate for the flaws that expose its weaknesses.

SwadeSaab9-3ViggenI first formed this theory when I bought my Saab 9-3 Viggen back in 2005. The Viggen was a car that had way too much engine for the chassis. It could kill you if weren’t concentrating when you planted your right foot as the car’s suspension struggled to cope with the momentous torque the engine could deliver.

The 9-3 Viggen was a wonderful car to look at it. It had a magnificent interior with amazing seats and a high fruit content. It was amazingly practical for a performance car, too, with a rear hatch that could swallow a small whale. All that plus Saab’s impeccable safety credentials.

Then there’s the engine: that B235R high output four-pot. It’s incredibly smooth and punchy. It builds power beautifully and has a character all of its own. I made my B204R 9-3 Monte Carlo more powerful than my Viggen with chips, exhaust, etc, but it never felt as enjoyable to drive as the Viggen with it’s 2.3T. To this day, I still wonder why.

The Viggen’s flaw – its old and compromised chassis – was the ying to the engine’s yang and it’s the constant battle between the two that makes you engage so much with the car, to the point that you end up loving it.

Maybe that’s the basic truth about fundamental flaws: you spend so much time learning to overcome them that you can’t help but become more engaged with the car and love it more as a result. Maybe it’s the flaws that make you think about and appreciate the one thing (at least) that the car does exceedingly well.

My Alfa 33 16V, for example, had tinny construction and an interior that was far below the level of style and execution you’d expect from an Italian car. The engine was such a pearl, however, that you’d learn to love the car despite its flaws.

It’s a bit like family, I guess. Everyone’s got flaws, but you love your family despite those flaws because of the wonderful things they contribute to your life.

Cars can be the same way.

The longer you live with a car, the more you learn to appreciate its good points and it’s the flaws in the car that make these good points stand out even more. Alfa Romeo might have lost their way with build quality in the 1980’s and 90’s, but they could still make one hell of an engaging engine.

porsche-911-27-rs-driftThe Porsche 911 is loved for its timeless styling, its reputation for reliability and it’s amazing capability on the road. This is despite the classic 911 having poor (read: uncomfortable) interior ventilation and a habit of violently kicking its backside out if you lose lateral control.

Many would say that the 911’s tendency to want to kill you is what makes the driver lift his/her game. The rewards for those who nail the technique of driving a 911 are so rewarding that people overlook the flaw and steel themselves to learn the car’s foibles and overcome them.

I’m sure there are cars that contradict this rule. Carmakers are getting so good at designing and building vehicles that there are a large number of all-rounders that can do a remarkable job across a number of criteria.

What’s more interesting to me, however, is the struggle an owner faces with a flawed car that makes them smile time after time, after time. If you think cars can have character, which I do, then flaws are a part of that character and getting beyond simple admiration for a car’s capabilities is a matter of accepting and looking beyond those flaws.

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12 Comments

  1. Swade,
    While I agree with your maxim, it implies that somewhere there must be a perfect, yet unloved car. I’ve driven a lot of cars, but I’ve never found one totally with a flaw. I think that to make a loveable car, the flaw must somehow be clever or otherwise endearing. The car with the door opening that catches the top of your scalp every time you enter/exit is just a pain (are you listening, Lotus Elise?) The old Valiant that I once owned that failed to proceed about eight times out of every ten attempts is just a liability.
    The car that emits a funny noise on the overrun (‘Sud). The car that will roll oversteer predictable (1973 99ems). The car that you need to work the gears just so in order to change down without graunching (BMW 320i) are all examples of flaws that endear the car to you. It’s those damnable seatbelts in the 1970-74 96s and 99s).
    Once you know how, it confirms your connection.
    Your Viggen had that kill me if you weren’t paying attention flaw, so you paid attention.
    I guess it’s a flaw that you are able to overcome through skill or technique that creates that bond that makes you fonder for the Honda.

  2. Yes this is a truism I have a list of car over time have owned that fall under that maxim. When I was younger I wanted a Corvette so I was able to pick up a used 1958 Corvette and was disappointed in its suspension the car went fast in a straight line until you reached high speeds the I could feel the front start to float. Also handling on tight mountain roads was not as I thought it needed to be.
    Entered my 1965 Austin Healey Disk brakes on the front 150HP. 4speed with overdrive wow this is the car! Well the car I must say I loved it handed much better but the back end would slip out at the worst times. Also the same parts always needed to be replaced and the electrical was always a problem. But I always enjoyed driving the car at night at a good clip with the top down and the tonneau cover on and the heater on high.
    Next 1968 Camero RS lots of power but the brake sucked and her again with lots of power the back would loose traction. Take you life in your hands when it rained but it was still alot of fun to drive.
    So now both my cars are X wheel drive with stiff suspension and Turbos. Alot of cars in between these
    lots of Saabs I loved.

    1. Petrolicious was a prompt to finally put this on paper (as you could no doubt tell). Nearly referenced it, but this has been in my head for years now.

  3. Swade,

    I think that I know where you are going with this, but I don’t 100% agree. You may be putting the cart in front of the horse, so to speak. There are lots of bad cars with flaws. I’m not convinced that the 911 would have been less loved if Porsche had installed a decent gearshift twenty years earlier.
    Marilyn Monroe would have been less attractive without the mole, so there is that.

    I lean more towards the idea that truly great cars challenge you. A Camry has nothing left to show you after the first drive, but a good car will.

    What would you say were the flaws of your “iconic cars of the world” winners?

    1. Hi Bernard,

      Yeah, it’s quite possible – likely, even – that I haven’t nailed the wording of this one completely. I do like your challenge idea but I guess I’ve written this based on my own experience, where my budget has limited me to cars with flaws rather than exemplary cars that challenge. The 968 I’ve just bought is presenting as one such car and it’s an interesting experience for me.

      IIRC, I tackled this idea back in the TS/SU days under the heading of “Do one thing well”. It looked at the maxim from the other side, similar to the second wording I’ve presented here: that a car has to do only one thing (that you value) extremely well for you to overlook a multitude of flaws. That doesn’t necessarily explain why we come to love flawed cars, though. Not fully, at least.

      Bottom line – it’s all subjective anyway and no one rule will apply equally to every person or every car.

      The icons? I don’t have enough personal experience with the cars voted on to say. I think the French winner’s flaw is fairly obvious though as it’s also one of its strengths, which is why I posted the picture at the top of the post.

      I still need to finish that icons series, too, but I’ve been too scared to take on the mother of all iconic car-making countries: Italy.

  4. If you were looking for a modern car that could be loved with a minor flaw, I’d say it was the Caddy CTS-V wagon. Having a Corvette engine in it is insane.

    I really liked the Saab 9-2X Aero we had. Its biggest flaw (apart from bits falling off) was the automatic gearbox which would crawl along when you first started it up, then deliver massive torque when you weren’t expecting it. It was particularly lethal in that regard when it snowed (as the tires couldn’t cope with all the power). I almost miss it as much as my Sportcombi (almost, but I loved the combo more).

    I suppose Mini is the only modern day manufacturer that deliberately builds a flaw into its cars. i.e. The dashboard.

  5. I, like you, have always had something for cars that weren’t perfect (I drive a C900 for crying out loud).

    To me it’s inevitable: For what I am able/willing to pay for a car, there will be compromises. I’ve thus seen this maxim in your second version (a corollary if you will): I rejoice in the pure genius of the few features that wow despite the car’s otherwise compromised design.

  6. Cars without endearing flaws are like that really beautiful girl that has nothing to say. They are just plain boring. I love my c900 cv even if the interior is in shreds, because that is not important to what that car does for me. But when my ’59 Saab 93b is parked next to a beautifully restored Porsche, and my Saab is just a beater with a rotten floor, why does everyone comment on the Saab and ignore the Porsche? Because my Saab has character, it’s the most intelligent car ever built.

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