Proof That A Muscle Car Doesn’t Make You Tough

The Dodge Charger Scat Pack is good drag, but not good enough.

Dodge Charger
Ben Keeshin

You walk into a dimly lit truck stop early on a Friday morning and the proprietor, a big guy, 250 pounds crammed into a camouflage tee shirt, gives you a look. It says, Hey, man, let’s go for a ride. I’ve got a rear bumper and a length of rope. So, you leave.

The thing is, he didn’t even see the sparkly Dodge Charger Scatpack painted in city-slicker Plum Crazy, and that day you wore a decent facsimile of an everyday-guy uniform: sweatshirt, dark khakis, and a pair of scuffed Nikes. In retrospect, the sweatshirt had the name of prominent Connecticut liberal arts college splashed across it in red letters, the shoes weren’t boots, and the khakis were a bit on the tight side. But still, it was a good effort.

Plus, it’s not like you're some flown-in anthropologist with a self-consciously draped dashiki during his first time in Burkina Faso. You grew up two towns over and went to high school with a dozen kids from here—no small fraction in a town of 2,000. You bought the same booze, avoided the same moose, and drove the same roads on the same kind of studded tires as the suspicious fellow behind the counter.

After two decades of local living you think you could gin up good-enough drag for one excursion, a single under-the-radar trip to an unnamed Morrisville truck stop to pick up four little cans of Heady Topper, Vermont’s most famous and elusive beer. But just a few years removed from living in the state, the chemistry of some unmissable pheromone has changed and, like a vigilant bear in a pair of worn Dickies, the surly gatekeeper has smelled you out. Too New York. Vaguely Jewish. Lightly gay.

Ben Keeshin

And all you wanted to do was pay for some beer.

The particular word the inhospitable shopkeep used to shut you down, the one that transformed a dim glow of menace into a flashing neon warning sign, was a countrified classic: “nosy.” As in, “you’re nosy.” 

Do you mind if I take a few pictures?

“Yes, I think I do. Don’t need that—not from you. You’re nosy.”

In the annals of coded language, describing a stranger as “nosy” falls far behind calling a black person “urban” or a woman “bossy,” but it still sings with distaste. You can’t quibble with it because you can’t quibble with subtext. When someone tells you you're nosy, even though you're objectively not nosy, arguing with them or defending yourself will only reinforce their point—which isn't actually that you're nosy, but that they don't like you, because you're Other.

It was a funny time for your casual disguise to have failed. The car you were driving, that brightest-purple Dodge Charger Scatpack, might be the country’s best decoy. It draws attention like a gunshot, even among the car-ambivalent. While refueling—the Charger is a hole-in-the-gas-tank car of the thirst degree—a woman in a beat-up, first-generation Subaru Forester pulled through the filling station just to shout “I love your purple Mustang!” as she rolled by. Back in Brooklyn, cruising around on the hunt for parking, two old men sang from a stoop, “Purple Rain! Purple Rain!” before handing off to a high school boy who yelled, “Squeal it, man. Squeal it!” (You did not squeal it.)

Though that is one of the car’s few tricks: there was very little to the Charger besides prodigious power. No sunroof, no heated seats, no leather, no adaptive cruise control. Like a canoe with twin Evinrudes out back, or a sleigh pulled by a team of juiced unicorns: few trinkets, surreal ride.

Ben Keeshin

The Charger is charmingly, honestly retro like that. Before the Viper had hand-stitched leather or the Camaro sported illuminated footwells, there was an economy to order sheets. Pick what you wanted—big engine, disc brakes, auto transmission—and leave whatever didn’t make the thing go faster, allowing for a reasonable tally at the pricing line. The Charger R/T Scat Pack, essentially the cloth-interiored R/T 5.7-liter with the SRT lump, keeps to tradition: Somehow, this 6.4-liter, 485-horsepower sedan that sounds like a sneezing dragon at start-up is for sale at $39,995. That’s a lightly-optioned BMW 328i, or a Honda Odyssey with leather and navigation—neither of which can hit 180 mph or provide enough smoke for a Whitesnake video.

Like those videos, for all its moments of tackiness, the Charger Scat Pack lends every drive an overweening sense of merriment. It’s literally cheap thrills, not a rarified prize for baby-boomers. (Personified, it would laugh at the word “overweening.”) It induced you, proud slosher of red wine and dirty martinis, to a beer run; it went for a high five, then punched you in the arm. Just joshing! Maybe you've never won a baseball game or kissed a queen of the Homecoming variety, but driving an excellent Mopar can’t be far off from that type of stereotypical, straight, all-American glory, right?

But play-acted ideas of oneself don't stand up to scrutiny—yours was punctured by a sidelong glance from Fat Man Smelling of Used Sawdust. You never played baseball! He seemed to sneer. I know you! You own two copies of Mariah Carey’s “Emancipation of Mimi,” and that cap has a leather bill. Of course, he’s right. You went elsewhere for the beer.

Ben Keeshin

Beyond the titans of our world—CEOs, pop stars, restauranteurs who own multiple houses, race car drivers, dads who played sports well in college and still have a full head of hair—everyone likes to play pretend. Slap on some boat shoes and a worn rugby shirt and, for the duration of a day you’re the WASPy heir to a tea-importation fortune; in a dark blue suit and clip-on shades, you’re a hard-driving rug merchant with a taste for cognac; in Vans and a holographic tee, you’re a seasoned skater even though you’ve never touched a board.

That’s a beauty of cars, too. They’re representations of who we might like to be, if only for a tank of gas. Yes, muscled guys drive muscle cars, but for those of us with pipe-cleaner arms, horsepower is a headier pleasure, a sensation of strength thousands of times greater than what we can muster with our own fibers. Doing a burnout as a jeggings-wearing urbanite is sacrificing a little Pirelli compound to the gods and asking to feel like the kind of guy who might go shirtless to a county fair. Your nips have never felt the late August sun as they simmered in an atmosphere of funnel cakes and cattle dung, but someday, they just might. You're allowed to dream.

Still, in certain places, folks are loathe to let you get away with any version of yourself that clashes with what they think they recognize. Yours was a skim-milk version of prejudice, but the issue of being seen as you’d like to be seen are creamy-thick for a great many people, especially right now in places like North Carolina. In a nation that sanctifies individual liberties, a person’s right to be known as they know themselves seems eminently reasonable. And yet, men (often men) in camo (so often camo) won’t play along with people’s proffered presentation, choosing instead to hibernate in some grouchy stew of insecurity, righteousness, and old-fashioned ignorance.

If a transgender woman wants to use a woman’s bathroom, trust her to comprehend herself, even if you don’t. And if a silly, urban homo wants to drive a thunder-clapping muscle car into the Vermont woods to buy beer, and pretend for a morning that that’s his vibe, let the guy do his thing.

In closing: Fuck macho bullshit. Except, of course, the Dodge Charger Scat Pack. That car rocks, brah.