5 Things Writers Get Wrong About Cars & Driving


5 Things Writers Get Wrong About Cars and Driving



When, as a pre-teen, I began reading books written for adults, one of the first things I noticed was that every author was a damn botanist.


Each descriptive passage, it seemed, lavished attention on Black-Eyed Susan, Pink Corydalis, Golden Jerusalem, Lamb’s Foot, Osage … you get the idea. These names meant nothing to me, and that’s still the case: I know roses, tulips, and nothing else about flora. Wait, I also know both types of trees: pine trees and not-pine trees.


I’m not proud of this ignorance; I’m merely confessing it, and hazarding a guess that I’m not alone.


By contrast, my pre-teen self knew everything there was to know about the cars of the day. I could tell a ’55 Chevy from a ’56 from 200 yards away, and I could explain what distinguished a ’68 Camaro from a ’69.


So imagine my puzzlement when all those detail-oriented authors writing 150 words about Queen Anne’s Lace had their characters hopping in dark-colored sedans.


Sedans? Really (thought pre-teen I)? With Furies and Galaxy 500s and Coronas and Impalas out there, why would anybody consign a character to a mere sedan? Outside of novels, does anybody even say “sedan”? I decided if I ever wrote books myself, there would be a lot more detail about cars and a lot less about plants.


Thirty-plus years later, with four Conway Sax novels under my belt (including the latest, Wolverine Bros. Freight & Storage), I hope I’ve pulled it off. I know I’ve tried. My love of cars hasn’t slackened a bit. I’m an amateur sports-car racer, and I co-own a company that builds, sells, and rents race cars. Maybe I’ve got some salient advice for fellow writers.


A pair of caveats: Don’t for an instant think I’m criticizing writers who take time to detail flowers, plants, or anything else. The fun of writing is that you create your own little universe, with characters who notice what you want them to notice. If your protagonist is a city-dweller who spends much of her day on the subway and knows nothing more about cars than how to hail a cab, fair enough: for her, a sedan is a sedan.


But my own main character is a former race driver and a mechanic, so it’s sensible for him to know the difference between a Legacy and a Camry, and to have thoughts on what each car says about its owner.


However great or small your interest in cars, there are some common errors in mystery novels and movies that may pull readers out of the story. Here are some of those mistakes, along with suggestions on addressing them.


  1. Carburetors are no more. Complete this sentence: “As Janet pulled up the driveway, she spotted Ed with his head under the hood of his slick BMW, tinkering with its …”


If you said “carburetor,” as so many writers do, there’s something you should know: carburetors are extinct. They haven’t been used in street cars since the early 1990s, when fuel injection (which does the same thing carburetors used to do, but much better) swept the automotive world. Ed is more likely to find a carb in a museum than under his hood.


I promised not to leave you high and dry, so here are some alternatives for Ed and other mechanically minded characters: he might be changing sparkplugs, his air filter, or a blown fuse. He might be topping off his brake or power-steering fluid. If you want to give him some serious shade-tree mechanic street cred, he could be adding an aftermarket air intake or replacing a head gasket.


  1. Hot-wiring a car? Good luck with that. We’ve all seen this scene a hundred times in TV and the movies, and (too) many of us have written it. Your character is on the run. She smashes a car window and hops in. She reaches below the dashboard, yanks a handful of wires, and touches two together. Presto! Car starts! Away she goes!


Unless the car is an antique, this is hogwash. Today’s vehicles, like so many mechanical devices, are more computer than machine. Their wiring harnesses are nightmares of complexity. As Conway Sax says in one of my books, he’s been a mechanic all his life, and he couldn’t hot-wire a car if you gave him all day and a factory manual.


Once again, you have alternatives. If you’ve ever watched COPS, you’ve seen how punks really steal cars these days: They simply jam a large screwdriver where the key is supposed to go, often whanging it with a hammer, and twist. (Many newer cars don’t even have keys or slots to put them in. Such cases call for a different approach—a car left running by a careless owner, perhaps, or a clever bit of pickpocketing that nets your hero the vehicle’s fob.)


  1. Sedan? Why not an Accord, Mirage, or Fusion? As noted above, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anybody outside a cop novel describe a car as a “sedan.” Affixing a brand name to a car is an economical way to say something about that car’s owner—why waste the opportunity? A Sentra or Corolla denotes bare-bones pragmatism. A Camry is the dullest vehicle on earth, but also extremely sensible. A Chevrolet Malibu is a traveling salesman’s car. A Subaru means quirks and all-wheel drive. A BMW, as most know, is expensive and zoomy, while a Mercedes or Lexus is expensive and not so zoomy.


  1. Skidding is nearly as dead as the carburetor. As with hot-wiring, TV and the movies are the worst offenders here; they can’t resist “sweetening” driving scenes with dramatic squealy sound effects, even on wet and dirt roads. But the whole idea behind anti-lock brakes, which are now standard on nearly every car, is to prevent lurid skids even during the famed panic stop. With ABS, computers and sensors release the brakes just before the skid commences. Before you write that exciting screeched-to-a-halt line, think about how old the car is. Chances are it couldn’t screech even if you wanted it to.


  1. Flashy driving is slow driving. There’s an adage in racing: Go slow to go fast. Sorry, Fast & Furious fans, but when race drivers watch or read about cars sliding dramatically around corners while Our Hero gains on the bad guys, we laugh. Fast driving is like an Elmore Leonard novel: all the craft and talent goes into creating something that’s effective rather than showy. Watch a NASCAR race sometime, paying special attention to the cameras mounted inside the cars. The driver sawing at the wheel and jabbing the brakes is mired in twentieth place, while the leader appears to be out for a Sunday drive, smoothly steering this way and that. In modern cars with modern tires, the amount of sliding needed for maximum speed is slight—invisible, really, to the untrained eye.


How can you work this into your writing? Well, if your character is a Regular Joe in a panicky position—chasing a car that holds his abducted son, say—it makes sense for him to slide and squeal and squall his way around. On the other hand, if your character has some high-performance driver training (let’s say she’s a former cop) and is, in general, cool under pressure, her driving will be clean, undramatic—and fast as blazes.


Steve Ulfelder

Steve is the Edgar finalist author of the Conway Sax series. He’s also founder and co-owner of Flatout Motorsports Inc. Find Steve at www.ulfelder.com or @SteveUlfelder.