Share this article

print logo


My car has a spoiler.

Those who know me, and fellow drivers who see this mild-mannered schlep staying in his lane at exactly the speed limit, find this incongruous. An airfoil for road-hugging traction at perilous speeds? I'd just as likely need a parachute for deceleration, or an ejection seat for water landings.

This car, in fact, has been called my midlife crisis car on more than one occasion, an utterly unfair accusation that I counter with the fact that it gets 30 miles to the gallon.

And yet . . . there's something that speaks to each of us, deep down, about a particular car. Mine is a Toyota Celica, and I didn't buy it for the gas mileage. I could have gotten a Yugo for that. It was just the day and the mood, the glint of the sun on the car lot off the paint, the way the gearshift felt in my hand. Car salesmen don't pretend to understand it any better than the rest of us, but this is something they bank on:

Buying a car is a lot like falling in love. It happens on a level of the brain that goes back to the dinosaurs. My spoiler, for instance: It's vestigial, a useless remnant of Formula I racing design. It doesn't improve aerodynamics. It just perches there at the rear, like the little bone at the base of your spine where your ancestors' tail was. You can feel it, but you don't know why it's there.

The personality of a car intersects with its owner's personality in some amazing and complex ways. Cars are our fashion, our jewelry, our bragging rights. They're our home for long stretches of the day, our music hall, our personal restaurant. Cars feel like something. They take something that's deep inside you and put it on the outside for the world to see, and then you can climb into that two-ton vehicle for personal expression and get inside yourself. It protects you; it projects you. A car is a womb with a view.

If you think you're too practical for that kind of emotional mush, consider this: You can't not make a statement with the kind of car you drive. If you buy something used, good solid transportation, and drive it until it falls in little heaps of rust around the frame, you're still saying something. You're saying: I am above all this. I am not the kind of person who constructs an image for public consumption. And then you put that image out for public consumption on the Kensington Expressway.

You can't be neutral about your car. For most people, it's second only to a house as an investment of scarce resources. Anything for which you write a check every month for four or five years -- or, if you're leasing, until Jamaica freezes over -- is bound to get you in the gut. It may be passion, it may be resentment, but it's undeniable.

And people do judge us by the vehicles we drive. The Firestone tire company a few years ago asked a bunch of people whether they had ever declined or accepted a date based on the kind of car the person drove. Seven and a half percent of women, and 2.3 percent of men said yes. And think about professional images: Would you hire a real estate agent who drove a junker? A financial planner? A doctor?

Car dealers say it's not hard to judge what somebody is likely to buy. "It's very rare that an elderly person will come in and ask for a Corvette," deadpans one veteran of 20-plus years in the business, who now sells Chevys. "Generally you can pretty much tell the type of vehicle a person will be interested in."

Sometimes they'll surprise you. "As the baby boom generation gets older, we see more people that we wouldn't anticipate buying a Honda Accord," says Michael Laks, sales manager of Ray Laks Honda in Orchard Park. "It's not unusual to see a 75-year-old World War II veteran coming in and buying an Accord. We have one customer, an Irish guy, a World War II vet, who buys a couple of Legends from us every year."

But how do these big machines get invested with personality? The psychologist's view is that we pretend a car has a soul so we won't feel ridiculous talking to it or running a hand over its shapely fenders. If you name a car -- "Betsy" is the most common car name in both the United States and England -- you can have a relationship with it and that's OK. It's not as if you're talking to your washing machine. A car is . . . special.

I think it has something to do with the physicality of driving. Consider the computer, another complex machine that has turned our lives topsy-turvy. You don't see advertisements touting the Pentium chip as "the most fun you can have with your clothes on." There's no gatefold spread in Newsweek with a ripe spokesmodel fondling a hard drive. Computer ads pretend that computers are fun, but what they're really saying is: Buy this computer, and you can work a whole lot harder.

That's because the computer experience is the experience of sitting in a chair and moving your fingers a lot. By comparison, driving is the experience of getting your body from Point A to Point B, with all the exotic possibilities that Point B entails. It raises your heart rate; there's that element of risk on the highway. Speed feels good. The steering wheel feels good. The radio is where you like it. You're driving, man.

It's a young person's experience, and even for those of us who are seeing 25 in the rear-view mirror, it feels good to think we haven't lost it entirely. The great Southern novelist Harry Crews wrote a book called "Car," a truly bizarre novel in which the protagonist contracts to eat a Ford Maverick from bumper to bumper in half-ounce pieces. In the introduction to that book, Crews writes:

I knew what it was to stand for hours with my buddies, leaning nonchalant as hell on a fender, pretending not to look at the carhop, and saying things like: "This little baby don't look like much, but she'll git rubber in three gears." And when I said it, it was somehow my own body I was talking about. It was my speed and my strength that got rubber in three gears. In the mystery of that love affair, the car and I merged.

Try saying that about your Packard Bell 90 Mhz. It doesn't compute. Cars are an affair of the body. A study in London reveals the lengths to which people identify with their cars. A professor at St. George's Medical School there had people sit in their cars and estimate whether they could maneuver through a narrow gap up ahead. People who saw themselves as thin nearly always thought they could make it; they perceived their cars as thin, too. People who considered themselves fat were pretty sure they couldn't squeeze their cars through the gap. The objective fact of whether they were thin or not-so-thin wasn't the important factor; the driver's self-perception was. You are what you drive.

A car can be friend or lover. Detroit knows this. In an age when there's little time to cultivate good friendships, people are happy to buy one. Thus the campaign for the Dodge Neon, a "cute" car introduced in magazines and on TV as looking right at you, saying "Hi." Or consider the World Wide Web page maintained by one Cynthia S. Paloma of San Diego, Calif., in homage to her Mazda Miata, "which I've named Rip van Roadster, a k a Rip and Ripster. The car has a Jekyll and Hyde personality -- it is so much fun that I always take the longest and windiest possible route . . . and don't mind the extra time it takes. On the other hand, the car tends to rip up anyone who works on it -- maybe it is a vampire car, because it sure likes to drink blood!" Ms. Paloma includes some photos of old Rip, saying, "Unfortunately, I didn't do the best job of photographing the car. It looks like any other white Miata." Yup -- it is like any other white Miata. She just thinks it's special. It's her friend.

Friend -- or lover. The latter is perhaps more common, driven by a culture that finds sex an easy correlate with passion of any sort. Consider the current commercial for the Mitsubishi Mirage, titled "Low Maintenance Relationship." A woman is dumping her good-looking mechanic -- "I won't be seeing you anymore," she says with a regretful toss of the hair. "Uh . . . what's your sister driving these days?" he ends up asking. But she's long gone, on the road with a new beau.

Or what about the magazine ad for the Toyota Paseo: A woman poses next to the car's long, sloping hood, and the copy reads: "Stylish. Responsive. Fun. If it were a man you'd marry it."

Or get this, men: a woman's paean to the joys of acceleration in Harper's Bazaar, titled "Velocity Girl," in which author Sue Zesiger writes about the nether-regions thrill of test-driving a series of Porsches at 120 mph. An accompanying abstract of the article is, well, alarming: "Women derive sexual pleasure from driving high-performance cars at maximum speed. With the advent of sophisticated technology that makes speed safer and more affordable, women can now fully enjoy their desire."

What are we buying here, we nation of slaves to the road? It's not transportation -- often the bus would serve better and cheaper, but nobody's fondling a Metro bus. It's not the freedom to be where we want, when we want. Given traffic jams and iffy weather, that's no sure thing.

It is a freedom, though, that cars hold out the promise of having: The freedom of wearing a second body, one of your own choosing rather than the one you were born with. This body is hard and shiny; it looks good, it feels young and strong, and if it gets abused, you can always just replace it. You can really live in this body. In a car you can reinvent yourself. Our cars are us, only better.

Scott Thomas is features copy desk chief for The News.

There are no comments - be the first to comment