Heated Car Seats Are an Antidote to Our Grief

I come from Britain, a middling, gray island of middling, gray weather. Like the national temperament, the climate rarely tends toward t...

I come from Britain, a middling, gray island of middling, gray weather. Like the national temperament, the climate rarely tends toward the extreme or the spectacular. I’m not inclined to romanticize British sogginess in its actuality — all those leaden skies and damp socks — but I do cherish the language it has produced. “Mizzle” and “dibble” and “smirr” and all those other regional words for precipitation have a gloriously humdrum quality.

A decade ago I moved to America, where the weather, like the politics, is bigger, shoutier, much more attention-seeking. If you were in North America in the winter of 2014, you most likely remember the term “polar vortex.” Nothing mizzling or middling about it. There was a comic book excess to the term, a full-throttle quality that called for it to be spoken in the ominous tone of a blockbuster movie trailer voice-over. The phrase may have sounded faintly ridiculous, but its referent, which included air so cold it made your eyeballs yelp, was dreadfully serious. Very late one frigid night on the steps of my apartment, frozen-fingered and panicking that I couldn’t find my keys, I had a thought both hysterical and factual: I could die out here. For a person raised in reliable meteorological drabness, this was a shock. In that moment before I found my keys, the pitiless weather screamed a cold truth: You are a mammal who needs warmth and shelter!

Now, as we continue to stagger through this hard year, trying to summon whatever mettle we have left for a cold, hard winter under lockdown, the brief chill of 2014 seems laughably trivial. In a few months, we’ll most likely all be feeling a lot more mammalian — that is to say, not just in need of warmth, but also yearning for that spiritual salve that comes from a little insulation from the world and its harshness. Any small thing that brings comfort and joy, however slight and silly, is now ennobled with the aura of survival. Thank God then — or rather, General Motors — for the most famous invention of one Robert L. Ballard: the heated car seat.

Ballard was a former Soap Box Derby champ who used the college scholarship he won in the competition to study mechanical and electrical engineering. After graduation, he began a long career in the automotive business. It’s a stolid background that seems incongruous with the object of pure pleasure that he created. He filed his patent for the Automobile Seat Heater in 1951, but humanity had to wait a decade and a half before it was finally available in a production model: the 1966 Cadillac Fleetwood.

My first experience of a heated car seat came in a 2013 Audi, shortly after I moved to Boulder, Colo., a place that last year earned the distinction of the snowiest city in America. When I arrived, my partner took me on a drive along the Peak to Peak highway — a satisfyingly denotative name for a particularly scenic stretch of the Front Range. It was December, and the mountains were vast and snowbound. Am I committing some sacrilege against the outdoorsy spirit of my adopted state when I venture that the chilly majesty of the Rockies is best appreciated from within a small vehicle with the passenger seat’s heating coils cranked to the maximum?

I am not alone in my enthusiasm. On Twitter, I find Ballard’s name invoked with hyperbolic gratitude: “Perfect. Perfect. Astounding. Impeccable. Beautiful, beautiful man”; “heated seats are the best invention ever; all hail Robert L. Ballard!” These minipaeans are, I think, about more than just heat. There is something more visceral at stake.

The heated car seat delivers an almost contradictory pleasure, simultaneously maternal and sensual. There you are, cocooned like a child in the lap of some warm, benevolent bear, while also privately experiencing a vulgar idiom made literal: a hot butt. But of course no one need know it; you are, in other words, in possession of a little secret. To experience a heated car seat, then, is to be simultaneously soothed and slyly reminded that you are not just a mammal; you are also a viable erotic being, alive in and conscious of your body. To be comforted like a creature, while affirmed in your carnal reality — is there a better double antidote to the ambient grief of our moment?

Bobby Ballard himself seems to have been almost aggressively wholesome — not a man, I’d venture, propelled by a desire to deliver erotic thrills to the driving public. An ad from 1950 encouraging boys to enter the Soap Box Derby features a grinning, grown-up Ballard: “Yes, Fellows,” he begins, “that wonderful day back in 1937 when I won the National Championship was the turning point in my life. It gave me the four-year college scholarship that let me prepare for this job — helping design America’s most beautiful automobiles!” Another ad from 1967 continues the hagiography. It declares: “You can tell a lot about a guy who enters the Soap Box Derby. What kind of guy are you?”

I suppose I’m the kind of guy who thinks a warm bum is better than any trophy. I’m also the kind of guy who wonders why Ballard never got an ad celebrating the greatest automobile invention since the wheel itself. In short, I guess I’m the kind of Englishwoman who thinks that all-American overstatement sometimes has its place, especially when facing down another Colorado winter. So let me abandon middling, gray, humdrum speech and just say it like a Yankee would: Heated car seats — best thing ever.

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Newsrust: Heated Car Seats Are an Antidote to Our Grief
Heated Car Seats Are an Antidote to Our Grief
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