On Record: The matter of Bessie

While manufacturing companies have lined up – with mixed results – to appear on such television shows as “Extreme Makeover” and a variety of movies, I don’t think anyone’s going to want to claim “Bessie,” the tar-spewing hybrid paver/compactor featured in the hit movie “Cars.”

She’s an ecological disaster. If she doesn’t hit you with a stray spray of hot asphalt burbling in two tanks heated by open flames, the fumes emanating from every orifice would prompt an asthma attack. Aggregate jostles loose in a top hopper, and her black-smoke-extruding exhaust pipes are coated with the remains of decades of paving seasons.

And she’s underpowered. Bessie’s only available propulsion seems to be an outside source, in this case the disgruntled, ego-driven hero car, Lightning McQueen, who’s being punished for destroying the main highway of the struggling desert town of Radiator Springs. And poor thing – she’s completely at Lightning’s mercy. When he decides to give her the NASCAR treatment in an effort to get out of town, she can only respond by making asphalt waves.

In fact, everything is wrong about Bessie except the product she produces when Lightning finally decides to get serious about his civic duty. As he chugs along, muttering, behind him Bessie generates a sleek, black, uniform surface that would puff out the chest of any asphalt contractor.

It’s a road that prompts the cars of Radiator Springs to take on a new shine. As one character declares, “We’re a town worth fixing.” The cars strut down the new road, not believing how smooth it is. Even though the nearby interstate bypassed it long ago, the citizen cars know this new highway is their future. They long to take care of travelers as they did in the 1950s, but there has to be a road and it has to be a good one.

It would be easy for those in the industry to look at Bessie and sigh. Why couldn’t she reflect just one technological paving advancement of the past 50 years? Why does running her have to be a punishment (although it does fit the crime)?

I wouldn’t go so far as the movie and declare Bessie “the finest road paving machine ever built,” but if she helps get out the message that good roads are essential to even the health of small towns, who am I to quibble?