She's driven to express her newfound auto ardor

Wise man's lessons convince glamorous writer that driving is really an art

Ideas: Car Talk

October 03, 2004|By Celia Wren | Celia Wren,NEWSDAY

NEW YORK - It's 11:30 a.m. on a sunny Thursday, and Amy Fine Collins, special correspondent for Vanity Fair, is nestled in a Bentley Continental GT that's cruising along Park Avenue at a leisurely pace.

This situation is an anomaly, and it's not just that the longtime New Yorker usually lives in the fast lane, lunching at Le Cirque, penning articles about Coco Chanel and Luchino Visconti and zipping off to California for the Vanity Fair Oscar party.

No, what's remarkable is that Collins is ensconced in the Bentley's back seat - even though she has recently surmounted a lifelong driving phobia, as chronicled in her new book, The God of Driving (Simon & Schuster, $24).

After decades of relying on taxis and her husband's chauffeuring, she's now a steering-wheel wiz, but proficiency has brought an awareness that driving is an art, not to be undertaken lightly.

"It's such an underrated skill, driving well," she says as the 2004 Bentley, on loan as a promotional tie-in for the book, pulls away from the curb and a flock of admiring passers-by.

Collins herself is equally dressed to impress: A tall, Audrey Hepburn-ish figure, she's decked out in a low-cut black jumpsuit by designer Geoffrey Beene, big pearl earrings and houndstooth Manolo Blahnik high heels that match her houndstooth handbag. For some 15 years, she has worn Geoffrey Beene clothing - and only Geoffrey Beene clothing. Since 1985, her shoes have been Manolos.

"There's a combination of discipline and obsession and loyalty and intensity that I bring to everything I do," she says, adding that the trait eventually helped her master driving.

Nevertheless, she never would have acquired her current confidence without the help of one particular instructor: Attila, a handsome, enigmatic Turkish immigrant who gradually became both her obsession and one of her closest friends - hence her book's subtitle: "How I overcame fear and put myself in the driver's seat with the help of a good and mysterious man."

After their October 2001 meeting during a lesson in a dual-brake Acura, Collins spent months ferreting out the secrets of this hyper-empathetic instructor whose charisma fuses the sageness of the Buddha with James Bond's cosmopolitan competence and sex appeal.

Meanwhile, on a level only slightly more practical, her relationship with cars metamorphosed into a love affair. No longer was it enough merely to merge safely onto a highway; she dabbled in motorcycling and racing and became a connoisseur of such ritzy vehicles as the Dodge Viper GTS, the Maserati Coupe Cambiocorsa and, of course, the Bentley (her favorite, she says).

But then, as she points out, the distance between cars and fashion is really not so great:

"Everything changes seasonally," she says. "Vintage and retro things are of interest; every year there's the equivalent of new collections; certain colors become trendy." A key difference may be that cars exert a wider appeal. "There are so many people that I can talk to now that I couldn't before," she says. "Just mention something on four wheels and you're off and running."

Automobiles, in other words, are "a great equalizer," Collins says, a fact in sync with the metaphysical resonance of cars in American culture. "The values of independence, freedom, autonomy, mobility - those are all American ideals," she says, and cars "are representative of all that."

The Bentley heads toward the Four Seasons restaurant, where Collins has a lunch date.

Before she goes, she expounds on a matter of particular concern: the need to improve the quality of driver training in America.

"Just because someone drives doesn't mean they drive well," she says, criticizing the perfunctory dollops of driver's ed and family coaching that most U.S. teens receive - a pattern at odds with the time parents devote to, say, their kids' music lessons or soccer games.

"With anything else, there's the sense of the necessity of training," Collins says. But when it comes to driving, "the most dangerous activity that anyone will ever engage in," the preparation is slapdash. "It's like a Darwinian approach," she says. "You get your license and you're thrown onto the highway, and it's survival of the fittest."

What's at stake, The God of Driving seems to argue, is more than ease of transportation - perhaps even more than safety. "Driving is life," Attila memorably comments at one point in the book. "Everything behind the wheel can be applied to life. There is nothing more real than driving."

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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