Cars are cool, but they don’t make you cool. Think of every paunchy retiree you see in a Corvette, every divorce attorney driving a Lamborghini, or every 18-year-old in a ratty Civic. To gearheads, our cars are an extension of ourselves — a means of expression that separates us from the beige mass of crossovers clogging our roadways. At best, our cars represent pure, unapologetic freedom. At worst — and more often than not to the outside world — they’re id unchained. Loud (literally and aesthetically), ostentatious, and maybe even •gasp• old, they’re stubborn obstacles on the path to a safer, cleaner, quieter, anonymous, and probably autonomous future.
Tommy’s Hamburgers on West Beverly at 2 a.m. It’s a 24 hour burger shack that makes some of the best burgers, hots, and chili in LA. There’s an open spot in the lot between between a first-generation Bronco and a Hilux from the ‘70s — West Coast car culture just isn’t fair. From a group of kids at least 10 years younger than you, someone shouts “Whoa, cool car!” They’re right, it is.
So is there a middle ground? One machine that can span the entire spectrum of automotive culture and unite legions of car junkies in these culturally fractured times? The jury may still be out on a heady question like this, but if there’s a shortlist out there, the Dodge Challenger Hellcat would surely be at the top.
South of Galena on the 1, with nothing around but the mountains and the Pacific. A breeze comes through the massive windows as David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” comes on the radio. All the cars on the road have surfboards on their roofs except yours, but they blur and disappear as you press hard on the go pedal, and Bowie disappears under the whine of the supercharger.
Because the Hellcat is easy to love — after all, it is about as hopeless a romantic as cars get. In more ways than one, it feels like the culmination of America’s century-plus affair with speed. And in the 24 months since its introduction, it’s already inspired enough prose to fill a library — and left Dodge flooded with orders. It’s the 200 mile per hour supercar for the masses, the one with the 707 horsepower supercharged V8 crammed into what looks like a classic muscle car on steroids. It can all be yours for the price of a midrange Chevy Suburban. And in the grandest romantic tradition of Dodge’s performance cars: If you don’t respect the hell out of it, it will try to kill you. To date, close to 20,000 people have plunked down their hard-earned cash for the privilege.
The Arts District is a misnomer. It’s full of warehouses, factories, and traffic-free (at least for LA) four lane roads that snake along the empty LA river. Stomp on it and let the supercharger and exhaust echo off the buildings as they fight to drown each other out. You blink and double the speed limit in first gear before better judgement wins the day. Jesus. Could this be love?
I spent a little over a week with the Hellcat — a TorRed one with faux-carbon fiber racing stripes — in Southern California, the beating heart of American car culture. Birthplace of Hot Rods, Kustoms, drag raging, sport trucks, dune buggies, and the little old lady from Pasadena, it’s automotive paradise, especially to those of us who live in rust country. And for those 192 hours, we had six forward gears, tires begging to be roasted, and the heaviest goddamn clutch west of the Pomona drag strip at our disposal.
So does the coolest American car on the road (c’mon, you know it is) in the coolest car community in the country make you cool? Can it really be that easy, or was I just another yahoo turning fuel into noise on the 101?
Who cares. I had a Hellcat.