Drive to live

Jan 6, 1999 at 12:00 am

Ease into a comfy seat, tune the stereo to your favorite station and enjoy a bag of potato chips, or a hamburger, or a full meal of chicken, gravy and mashed potatoes.

Adjust the mirror, get out your cosmetic bag and freshen your lipstick, or grab an electric razor and take care of that five o’clock shadow.

Spend a few minutes talking with a friend on the phone, and then listen to the evening news for an update on the weather and the traffic conditions just up the road.

Yes, up the road. If the above description sounds as cozy as your own home, you’ll know the feeling. As a regular commuter, the interior of your car is as familiar as the inside of your living room.

According to a 1990 survey published by the National Transportation Library, workers living in metropolitan areas such as metro Detroit traveled for an average of 25.2 minutes to get to their jobs every day. Add another nearly half-hour of travel time to get home, and almost nine more years of urban sprawl, and it’s no wonder more people are beginning to associate car payments with mortgage payments. Factor in trips to far-flung grocery stores and visits to theaters, shopping malls and other destinations, and it’s clear that we’ll soon be spending more time in our cars than in our houses.

It’s no wonder we’re using our drive time to multitask.

When Pennzoil polled Americans between the ages of 18 and 35 to find out what they did in slow traffic, a full third admitted to having changed their clothes while waiting in traffic jams. (Keep this in mind next time you see brake lights up ahead.) Nearly half of all women polled said they applied makeup in traffic as well.

Fortunately, car accessories are making all this auto-matic living ever more possible. A 12-volt coffeemaker that plugs into your car’s cigarette lighter keeps the joe flowing right through rush hour. Heated, massaging seat cushions soothe you through the worst traffic jams, and built-in television sets and video players, now available as custom features or as plug-in options, entertain passengers when freeway embankments fail to be scenically pleasing.

Why stay home when you can drive?

There’s something appealing about the idea of making your car into your home away from home. No more worrying about housecleaning &emdash; just hit the nearest car wash.

Want a fast and easy dinner? Pick up the all-new, revised edition of Chris Maynard and Bill Scheller’s cult classic, Manifold Destiny: The One! The Only! Guide to Cooking on Your Car Engine (Villard Books, $9.95, 144 pp). It offers recipes and tips for preparing tasty dishes using the heat generated by your car &emdash; essential for anyone who wants a hot meal ready by the time they get home &emdash; or wherever they’re going.

Don’t want to cook? Pick up a self-heating meal-in-a-box (just add water to the heat pack &emdash; it’s like the ones you take skiing to warm your hands &emdash; and it’s ready in 14 minutes) at your friendly freeway truck stop. For even less effort, there’s a drive-through restaurant at the next exit.

Need entertainment? Revisit the drive-in of your childhood, or just park in the middle of a crowded intersection and watch the world go by (honking loudly for your added enjoyment).

And as for community, well, what are parking lots for?

It’s a lifestyle that more and more Americans are living, whether by choice or necessity.

Some even go so far as to use their car as a veritable office. It’s a simple process. Equip the vehicle with cell phone and mobile fax. Add a few filing cabinets (these fit especially well in bucket seats &emdash; just belt ’em in) and the aforementioned coffeemaker, and set up your laptop on the passenger seat. If you’ve got a high-end computerized vehicle, let your onboard computer system check e-mail for you. If you’ve got a hatchback, you’ve got extra storage space, but if you have a sedan, the trunk lid makes a great desk for those number-crunching pit stops on sunny days.

Be careful, however, not to get carried away with too many creature comforts. One Detroiter, who asked not to be identified (she once drove the Mazda pictured on this page), has destroyed the suspension on several of her vehicles (including the aforementioned Mazda). It may have been the loaded bookshelves that finally did them in.

Which serves as a reminder that all these options naturally require the car to be capable of being driven.

A stationary car, on the other hand, offers several more living space options.

The car-as-storage locker is a natural choice &emdash; it’s lockable, roomy and has handy windows to make it easy to locate those missing mittens or crystal teacups.

For scaled-down luxury living, your car can be parked in scenic locations, such as on clifftops or at lakeshores where you’d never be able to afford to buy an actual house. If you don’t mind living in close quarters, you’re all set: Living room/bedroom in the back seat, kitchen in the front. The bathroom, hopefully, is somewhere outside the car.

And, speaking of car-as-bedroom, who hasn’t taken the time for a quick romantic encounter by the dashboard light? Auto erotica has been around about 15 minutes and an empty tank of gas less than car-as-transportation-device. Newer, smaller cars make this a more acrobatic option than in the finned glory days of the old land yachts ... and you wonder why those hulking sport utility vehicles are now so popular?

In any case, the extent to which you explore in-car living possibilities is up to your own inclination (and length of commute). Keep in mind that some things, such as heavy draperies or leftover tuna fish, don’t work well in cars. And if you’re expecting relatives for an extended stay, make sure you’ve at least got a minivan.