We tend to take certain automotive standards for granted: Cars use pneumatic rubber tires. They're powered by internal-combustion engines (mostly, so far). Passenger cars have a steering wheel on either the left or the right side of the vehicle.
Now, you know why we use tires and internal-combustion engines - because we haven't managed to figure out anything better - but when you think about it, isn't that whole left-hand-drive/right-hand-drive setup sort of arbitrary? Why not sit in the middle? This is the question that led me to Aladdin Auto Service in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to talk to its proprietor, Mahmood Rezaei-Kamalabad. Mahmood has done more than just ponder this question. He's built a solution: the Celestial Driving System.
Until the Dalai Lama gets his ASE certification, Mahmood is probably the most spiritually aware mechanic you'll ever meet. His Web site, www.mrkart.com, proclaims that each body contains 1000 spirits, and thus his site's 10,000 or so visitors represent 10 million hits, spiritually speaking. (It's a good thing that Mahmood doesn't work for Nielsen, or Andy Barker, P.I. would still be on the air.) His garage is bisected by a line of metal sculptures, one of which is shaped like a giant lightbulb and contains silhouettes of a menorah, a cross, and the Arabic word for Allah. This symbolizes Mahmood's belief that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all parts of a greater religious whole.
There are two books in the shop's waiting area. One, displayed atop a large rock, is a hefty, red tome that combines the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Koran under one cover. Mahmood printed twelve copies of this book to underscore the commonalities among religions and shipped them off to libraries in Israel, Iran, and the Vatican in hopes of promoting theological unity and taking a step toward stanching centuries of bloodshed, particularly in the Middle East. The other book is a shop manual for the Porsche 924.
At the back of the garage is the car I've come to see, a 1989 Dodge Colt that Mahmood modified with a central steering position that he dubs the "Celestial Driving System." Whichever side of the car you enter, the driver's seat slides over to that side. As you shut the door, the seat moves to the middle of the car, where you'll find the steering wheel, pedals, and dash-mounted manual shifter. While this setup has some obvious practical advantages - in side impacts, for example - the impetus for the design was spiritual.
"In your living room, is there a main wall?" Mahmood asks. I reply that there is. "And, on that wall, do you have something?" Yes, a TV. "And where on the wall is it?" In the middle. Mahmood (who has a master's degree in fine arts) is making the point that we instinctively seem to seek balance in our surroundings. So why not in our cars?
Unfortunately, I don't get a look inside the Colt, let alone a stint at the wheel. The car is up on a lift and covered with dust, so I'm left to contemplate its custom steering rack and, of course, its hood ornament - an Aladdin lamp - while Mahmood holds court. As I sip tea of a proprietary brew, Mahmood touches on a range of topics, including the rise of Toyota ("Americans are no good at making small things - it's the culture"), his favorite cars ("I'm a Chevy guy - I've found that Chevys feed my spirit"), and the role of God in, say, Porsche 924 water-pump replacement ("If you learn how to appreciate what you're doing, your work, you're with God"). Mahmood realizes that many of his ideas, be they theological or automotive, aren't destined for acceptance anytime soon. "In twenty-five years, people will get it," he says.
In the meantime, there's a cherry red 924s that needs attention. Mahmood peers under the hood at the partially disassembled engine. He seems to have reached an impasse, one that probably would have me hurling wrenches and cursing the 924, Porsche, Volkswagen, Germany, and Germans in general. But Mahmood serenely proclaims, "As a mechanic, you spend a lot of time thinking about what someone else was thinking."
I leave Mahmood to his work and step out into the parking lot. I drove to Aladdin Auto Service in a Mazda Miata, and as I get behind the wheel to leave, I can't stop thinking about the imbalance of driving from the left or the right of the car. Now that I'm paying attention, this does seem all wrong. I'd rather sit in the middle.
Great. It figures that I'd have a spiritual epiphany, and it would make me want to buy a McLaren F1.