Ralph Gardner Jr: The Charm Of A Sparkling Dashboard

May 18, 2019

There are two kinds of people in this world. I know, I know: those who don’t divide people into two groups and dorks who do.

Having stipulated that I’m one of the latter, I’d like to continue. The category of humanity I’m thinking of is proud car owners who enjoy -- no require -- a sparkling dashboard, as opposed to those who could care less. Who have no problem examining their speedometer, temperature and oil gauges through a thick layer of dust, pollen, spilled coffee and children’s dirty fingerprints.

Who don’t mind a sticky steering wheel glazed with the remnants of that morning’s jelly donut.

Who don't consider a clear, essentially transparent windshield a non-negotiable requirement before you shift the vehicle into drive or reverse? And speaking of reverse, now that our family has upgraded to a vehicle which projects a picture on our dashboard of what lurks behind, of the car or curb we’re about to crash into, a rearview camera lens unencumbered by caked mud, rain, etc.

I could go on. Indeed, I plan to because if cleanliness is next to godliness, then a dashboard and cabin that approximates the perfection of the one you drove off the lot is the highest order of divinity.

I asked my future son-in-law whether he shared my fetish, assuming he did – he seems to take care with his clothes and appearance – and he admitted that he did not. I posed this question while I was on my hands and knees polishing the handles that pop the gas door and the hood.

“Why bother?” he asked. “It’s just going to get dirty again.”

I’ll admit he makes a good point. Particularly since my wife was waiting for me to complete the chore so that she could load the car with trash and take it to the town dump.

But for those few days, hours, or even minutes that you sit behind the wheel and regard the majesty of your success, the blinding beauty of your instrument panel, that sense of pride and accomplishment defies the ability of language to express.

At the risk of tripping into political incorrectness, I think it may be a guy thing.

I trace my fascination with dashboards back to one of my favorite childhood toys. It was a 1960’s battery-powered Playmobile dash with chrome trim and busy instrumentation; the sense of command and control one felt employing the working windshield wipers, horn and directional signals has rarely, if ever, been exceeded.

In fact, I’d go so far as to speculate that a majority of today’s professional airline pilots took to the air -- because, when you think of it, what’s a cockpit with all its lights, switches, altimeter and airspeed instruments, radar, etc. but an elaborate car dashboard – to recreate the childhood fantasy of getting behind the wheel of your very own make-believe Caddy, or these days perhaps Tesla, and experiencing the imperial prerogatives of fully empowered adulthood?

I start by vacuuming the car’s interior, the carpet and upholstery. I could, of course, take it to one of those full service car washes that does it for you, or do it myself with their high-powered vacs but I hate the pressure of knowing my fifty cents or dollar is about to run out.

Besides, there’s no way I can extract every last pebble and dog hair that has accumulated and become embedded over the winter, and all the errant spare change that has fallen between the cracks, in less than a full half hour. Make that an hour.

But restoring the flooring and seats’ luster is merely stage setting, an amuse-bouche, this musical’s lyrical overture.

Once that’s accomplished I can get down to the serious business of attacking the dashboard with a pail filled with soap and water. It’s truly amazing how much dust can accumulate in things like air vents and in the intestacies on the directional signal or windshield wiper controls.

Cup holders probably present the mightiest challenge because spilled coffee and sugary soda have a way creating a sludge that requires determined, sustained scouring. And then there’s all that trim that gets scuffed by dirty shoes and boots.

Once the muck gets into the car’s speakers, with all their microscopic holes, you can forget about it.

I suppose it goes without saying that my wife doesn’t share my obsessiveness. Most people don’t. Judging by the state of their dashboards they don’t even notice the particulate matter that is blurring their vision and destroying the driving experience.

Perhaps that’s the problem. They take driving for granted. They see their car or truck as a mere tool, a convenience, rather than a portal to the sublime; one where, if you’re not quite the king or queen of the road you are, at a minimum, the exalted ruler of your car’s interior.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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