We can’t always trust what our eyes and ears tell us

This column published as "Things Are Not as They Appear" in October 2020 issue

David Matthews / October 06, 2020 / 3 minute read
David Matthews

Car manufacturers know that first impressions are important, even when it comes to sound.

But before potential buyers ever hear a new vehicle’s engine vroom or subwoofers boom, the first sound they encounter is the door slam.

Car doors used to close with a satisfying thud, but modern innovations and safety regulations have changed that.

From new types of steel exteriors to the addition of extra safety support bars and airbags, car doors have evolved.

As a result, that thud of the door closing turned into a less-than-satisfying tinny clank.   

To compensate, engineers have been taking a crash course in “psychoacoustics” to figure out how to manipulate the acoustic design of the door structure to create the optimal psychological, cognitive, and sensory response. 

In other words, they’re doctoring the sound of the door to manipulate our opinion of the entire vehicle.

And it works. Studies show that higher-pitched, metallic noises create the impression of lower quality, so dampeners were introduced into the door cavity to create the low-frequency “thwump” sound that people associate with high-quality craftsmanship. Even the locking mechanism is altered to make just the right “click” sound. 

Now that’s cold

One vehicle sound that makes everyone happy is the siren song of the ice cream truck.

But Matt Peterson is determined to change that.

He is the owner of the Hell General, a 1973 AM General FJ-8A Postal delivery truck that he bought off Craigslist, restored, and painted black.

Blaring the familiar ice cream truck jingle and displaying what appears to be a menu of frozen treats on the side, the Hell General looks and sounds like an ice cream truck. 

But upon closer inspection, that menu is actually just heavy metal band logos pasted onto popsicle sticks. 

And the truck doesn’t serve ice cream, only despair and disappointment.

That’s because Peterson drives the Hell General around Minneapolis, Minnesota, just to get kids’ hopes up, and then sails right past them when they approach. 

For Peterson, this is all in good fun, and he tries to remain friendly even when people don’t share his sense of humor. 

He told Minneapolis’ CityPages.com that when kids yell at him, he tells them to have a good day. And when dads give him the middle finger, he gives them the peace sign. 

The Hell General’s website explains how this elaborate practical joke was inspired by a similar event from Peterson’s childhood.

As a 10-year-old, Peterson flagged down an ice cream truck, only to realize that he didn’t have any money with him. He asked the driver to wait while he sprinted home to get some change, but by the time he reached his front porch, the truck was pulling away. Peterson yelled for the driver to stop, pounding on a porch window until it shattered and cut his wrist, but to no avail.

“I realized one thing at that moment,” Peterson wrote on the website. “The ice cream man was one sick motherf***er.”

Bump in the road

They say that where others see problems, engineers see possibilities.

That was certainly true of 53-year-old British engineer Chris Acock when he came across a broken down bumper car on eBay earlier this year.

He was able to purchase the vehicle for only $40 because it was in such rough shape, but what Acock saw was a fun way to cruise around town.

After stripping down the bumper car until only the body remained, he began merging it with a mobility scooter to make it road ready.

After installing front, back, and hazard warning lights, repainting the exterior, and hanging a flag on the rear electrical pole, Acock’s creation was complete, and it only cost him a total of $525.

While the scooter battery only has a range of 20 miles, that’s enough for Acock and his partner to zip out to local stores and restaurants. 

And even though Acock’s creation tops out at just 8 mph, he’s not concerned about driving it on city streets among other full-size vehicles. After all, it was built to withstand a solid bump. 

About the Author

Matthews has been chronicling the unexpectedly humorous side of transportation news since 2000. The stories are all true.

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