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“A brilliant red Barchetta . . .”

Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh



Summer after summer, I get deeply into the Rush song “Red Barchetta”. Maybe it’s because I do a lot of cycling in the warm months and on a favorite route of mine the bucolic country road narrows as it passes over an old one-lane stone and masonry bridge. And since I’m often riding my vintage steel-frame, fire engine-red Tourmalet, I  invariably think of those last lines from the second track on Rush’s 1981 album, Moving Pictures:


    At the one-lane bridge

    I leave the giants stranded

    At the riverside

    Race back to the farm

    To dream with my uncle

    At the fireside….


Neil Peart, Rush’s songwriter and nonpareil drummer-percussionist, based the song on a short story he read in a November 1973 issue of Road & Track. In Richard S. Foster’s “A Nice Morning Drive”, Buzz takes his 1967 MG roadster for a spin through the countryside in the far-off time of March 1982. We learn that mandatory safety and emissions regulations have rapidly changed automobiles, particularly a requirement that new cars be able to withstand 50mph collisions. The result? Hulking 3-ton MSVs—Modern Safety Vehicles—have made drivers reckless by a perceived lack of danger. One-sided crashes with conventional cars have quickly winnowed the older vehicles to near -extinction; some MSV drivers even hunt non-MSVs for sport, bouncing the old cars off the road.


Near the end of his drive, Buzz notices in his rear-view mirror an MSV with a suspicious antenna; very quickly he finds himself the quarry of two MSVs working in tandem via CB radio. Using his knowledge of the roads and topography, as well as exploiting the disadvantages of the lumbering MSVs, Buzz eludes his pursuers. The story concludes with a bleak afterword that Buzz stopped driving his MG when he read in the papers that the government would soon require cars to sustain 75mph head-on collisions.


As short stories go, “A Nice Morning Drive” barely transcends corporate ad copy, grinding its singular ax with as much subtlety as a sailor in a bordello. Peart transforms a middling exercise in libertarian bellyaching into a dystopian masterpiece. The future portrayed in “Red Barchetta” abounds with darkness. With just a few brushstrokes, Peart sketches a world in which the Motor Law, far from merely regulating automobile emissions and safety standards, has rendered farms a thing of the past. It’s a sinister police-state in which surveillance systems monitor people restricted in their travels to areas within an ominous boundary:


    My uncle has a country place, that no one knows about

    He says it used to be a farm, before the Motor Law.

    Sundays I elude the ‘Eyes’ and hop the turbine freight

    To far outside the Wire where my white-haired uncle waits.


    Jump to the ground

    As the Turbo slows to cross the borderline.

    Run like the wind

    As excitement shivers up and down my spine.

    Down in his barn

    My uncle preserved for me an old machine —

    For fifty-odd years

    To keep it as new has been his dearest dream.


    I strip away the old debris that hides the shining car,

    A brilliant red barchetta from a better, vanished time.

    Fire up the willing engine responding with a roar!

    Tires spitting gravel, I commit my weekly crime . . .


    Wind in my hair —

    Shifting and drifting —

    Mechanical music —

    Adrenaline surge —


    Well-weathered leather

    Hot metal and oil

    The scented country air

    Sunlight on chrome

    The blur of the landscape

    Every limb aware


    Suddenly ahead of me, across the mountainside

    A gleaming alloy air-car shoots toward me two lanes wide.

    I spin around with shrieking tires to run the deadly race,

    Go screaming through the valley as another joins the chase


    Drive like the wind

    Straining the limits of machine and man

    Laughing out loud

    With fear and hope, I’ve got a desperate plan


    At the one-lane bridge

    I leave the giants stranded

    At the riverside

    Race back to the farm

    To dream with my uncle

    At the fireside….


In a deft move at song's end, Peart injects a subtle note of narratorial
ambiguity: perhaps the whole adventure was merely a reverie of the narrator while sitting fireside with his uncle.


As you listen to “Red Barchetta” you immediately notice how perfectly cinematic it is. To riff off another Rush song, “Red Barchetta” achieves an ideal balance between the function and the form, its music so complementary to the story being told. As Neil Peart said in an interview, “it’s kind of like a little soundtrack for an imaginary movie.” In my current summertime obsession with the song I checked YouTube to see if there was in fact a video, but Rush never made an “official” one (though there are plenty of live performances worth watching.) What I found instead is a cottage industry of fan-generated videos using film, photos, and drawings. I’m partial to one with extended segments of professionally filmed footage of a young man driving an actual Barchetta along autumnal Pacific Northwest roads. Now about that Barchetta….


Among the many improvements Peart makes to the story, he upgrades the car. Buzz, you’ll recall, drives an MG roadster, one of those tiny, British 2-seaters which have always enjoyed a cult following—and you’d have to be a cult member to actually like an automobile so underpowered, not to mention bedeviled by mechanical and electrical problems. A “Barchetta”—now that sounds like some kind of Italian sports car, right? You bet!


Aficionados will recognize the reference to the legendary Ferrari 166 MM Barchetta. Some enthusiasts say it’s the most important car Ferrari ever made. In Italian, “barchetta” means “little boat” (to clarify, it’s pronounced “bar-ketta,” but Canadian-born Geddy Lee, Rush’s lead singer, didn’t know it at the time.) Manufactured between 1947 and 1949, this wee roadster won mightily at the Mille Miglia, the Targa Florio, the 24 Hours of Spa, and at the most celebrated of all 24-hour races, LeMans. A mere 1,430 pounds though hardly a dinghy with paddles, the magnificent “little boat” was powered by a V-12 engine which provided 166cc per cylinder, hence the “166” designation.




* * * * *


For decades, feather-light carbon-fiber frames have been de rigueur on the professional cycling circuit. You can understand the pros wanting to shave off weight over a 2,200 mile-long bike race like the Tour de France or the Giro d’Italia, but the weekend warriors have to ride them too—if only to show the world they can afford these exorbitant technological marvels.


When I get “Red Barchetta” playing in my head while I’m racing on my Tourmalet over country roads surrounding my home in Princeton, New Jersey, I’m often reminded of a line from Aragorn’s iconic identity poem in The Lord of the Rings: “The old that is strong does not wither.” Out on the road I also remember an instructive bon mot from the greatest cyclist of them all, Eddy Merckx: “Don’t buy upgrades, ride up grades.” And when I spot one of cycling’s
all-too-common effete elites on a $6,000 bicycle with a $20 set of lungs . . . ah, that’s when me and my Tourmalet—my two-wheeled red Barchetta—take savage pleasure in dusting them.




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Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet. After college, he served four years on active duty as an infantry officer in the 25th Infantry Division. He also holds a Master of Philosophy degree in Anglo-Irish literature from Ireland’s University of Dublin, Trinity College. His poems and freelance articles have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers in the U.S. and abroad. For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.


©2024 Patrick Walsh
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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