The culture of romancing the automobile

It has been an interesting week of car conversations. The topic emerged as I needed to replace my own car when its predecessor started being my teen’s mode of transport. Coincidentally, the topic has also remained front and center due to a variety of car related conversations. How can a tool evoke such myriad emotions?

My personal relationship with an automobile is purely practical – a safe and reliable way to get from point A to point B. A bluetooth adapter and accessible controls always win above the horsepower or look/feel. A faux wood trim seems as pointless as the skeuomorphic designs of bookshelves on computer tablets. The time and money on rims and trim, underbody lights etc have never appealed to me but I marvel at those who keep a love for it and support an economy here and abroad to support that hobby.

Converstion 1 – with my own family as I was looking to replace my four-year old Camry. I researched and test drove a few cars, including the Mini cooper. The small MC seemed to depart from my usual car, efficient in its recent rendition, safe per those to test that stuff, and fits four. I see it on the road in cutesy renditions and thought why not give it a shot. The test drive took me back to the cars of 70s and 80s – the closest memory that of the Ambassador cars in India. Loud, uncomfortable, rough and downright blah. 2 miles of test drive and it was back at the dealer. We would go back to the brand that had been comfortable and get the smaller vehicle to fit what I needed.

I heard of similar practicality from another friend who buys vehicles for his farm and doesn’t mind a $80K Range Rover through muddy stream and gravel lots – a truck built for that environment and not for the pristine suburbia where its brethren are washed weekly to display the badges of honor. A truck that is at serious odds with the Ford, Dodge and Chevy variations on the adjoining farms.

Conversation 2 – with friends who are techies and love the computers that now drive the cars. I was surprised to be a part of a conversation that spoke of a desire to buy the one badass, loud, rumbling engine one LAST time before the battery operated automatons take over and not a Tesla! Nerds, cool nerds, eschewing tech for the rumble. This is a group that wouldn’t just buy a Tesla to show off its prettiness and eco-cred, but want to hack it with modifications. One who’d buy every gadget to monitor aspects of the car and share it on custom built websites and report the car’s behavior to bespoke home automation systems.

Conversation 3 – with friends whose cars and trucks are additional tokens of prestige. Where a Lexus, Mercedes or BMW SUV is purchased to show that you are at par with your neighbors. The position in suburbia where a desire for conformity drives the home purchase, the career choice, the car, and even travel. A conformity born as part of the American dream. Conversation where the questioner wondered why I would buy a 30K Prius if I could easily afford a loan on a 80K asset?

The disconnect was clear — a car is a position in society – a Lexus no different than my Camry. I was buying for the green cred not to show off the amount of green I could spend. I was still buying my car to be at a place in society.

Cars in my world are not assets. They are a tool to move me (and fellow passengers) from one place to another. Unless I start using my car on the Uber network to transport passengers for money – the car never generates income for me (the definition of an asset – one that creates money). At best, my car protects my ability to earn. It depreciates the moment I drive off the lot and continues to do so for its entire life.

As Americans, our infatuation with the automobile is a century old. This infatuation has traversed the oceans and is now shared in places where guts (England – power!), glory (China – prestige), and practicality (Europe – smaller cars for smaller streets and commutes) drive purchases. I wonder, though, what the current generation of teens will do with this infatuation – will they perpetuate it in their own way or, like other skins of their predecessors, car ownership will fall the way of home ownership, nuclear family, suburbia, and corporate employment.

I will continue to ponder as I watch a friend rebuild a 60s Porsche from frame-up, watch a fellow electronics geek drive a low-riding powerhouse, and watch previous car owners ride a bicycle on a 20-mile commute each way in Iowa (until the weather wins).

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