"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Do You Own a Prius or a Ford F-150?

In a very amusing column in today’s (5.12.12) Washington Posthttp://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-american-dream-in-an-automobile/2012/05/11/gIQAhEWzIU_story.html George Will reviews “Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars” by Paul Ingrassia.  Inspired by Ingrassia’s book, Will writes how cars reflect our individual identity – or at least how we would like to have others see us.  There is nothing new in the observation, and Detroit has turned out models which would appeal to image rather than practicality shortly after the first automobiles came off the assembly line:

The Model T, born in 1908, was priced at $850. By 1924, it was offered only in black but cost just $260 and had America on the move. Three years later — the year Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs and Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic — the LaSalle, a Cadillac sibling, announced Detroit’s determination to join Hollywood as a manufacturer of visual entertainment, but working in chrome rather than celluloid. The phrase “It’s a Duesie” became an American encomium in tribute to the Duesenberg, which sold for upward of $20,000, or $245,000 in today’s dollars.

The American love affair with cars which said something about you rather than just get you from Point A to Point B in basic black was born.

The designer of the Corvette explained why such dream cars had so much appeal:

“In our age where the average person is a cog wheel who gets pushed in the subways, elevators, department stores, cafeterias . . . the ownership of a different car provides the means to ascertain his individuality to himself and everybody around.”

Ere long, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s Corvette license plate read “RES IPSA,” lawyer’s Latin for “It speaks for itself.” And loudly.

If it’s one fundamental right that we Americans appreciate, it is freedom of expression.  We are all individuals, defined uniquely by our choices.  We are less interested in groups per se than in the cachet or identity that they give us.  Bumper stickers proclaiming support for environmental protection, gay rights, or gun ownership have as much to do with our perceived identity as a commitment to the organizations which help create it.  We have rejected the precepts of Old France and have become very American locovore gourmets.  Hipster fashion of the Mission District is eclectic but carefully put together – a statement of individuality but also a shout for uniquely San Francisco ‘high fashion’.

A car is the way of making an image identity statement.  You can eat local produce, wear porkpie hats and funky glasses, belong to 100 advocacy groups, but the growl of Porsche Carrera turns heads.  It screams wealth, power, taste, success.  You glance at headlines on global warming.  You peruse the menu at Zuni or Bar Bambino, but you crane your neck to see who is driving that black, sleek, throaty Porsche.

It isn’t just high-end cars which make a statement, it is the low end as well.  When I was growing up in a small New England town, the beat-up 15 year-old ‘woodie’ was the preferred car of the WASP elite.  The tweedy families of Lincoln Street eschewed anything new and shiny.  They gagged at the sight of the Cadillacs parked in the driveways of newcomer Italian doctors – cars which themselves were identity wagons, symbols of immigrant success.  The WASPs had old money and the woodies were a reverse statement of wealth.  We have it.  You know we have it, so why flaunt it.  The WASPs affected the old English ethic of sensible shoes.  A car was indeed a vehicle for Point A to Point B travel, and why, once you had become comfortable in it, should you jettison it for a newer model and God-forbid, a glitzier one.


Banged up cars – if and only if – their owners had money, are another sign of reverse cachet.  There is something about the two, old Toyota workhorses parked in an upscale neighborhood in Upper Northwest street Washington – after almost twenty years each, the sunbaked paint is finally peeling off the hood.  The dings and dents and spider cracks show their 150k miles.  Hubcaps come off and are not replaced.  They, like the woodie, shout “We could buy a new Volvo, Mercedes, or Saab; but we choose not to throw away our money (like you bourgeois spendthrifts)”.

Pay attention, however.  These cars speak the language of the professionals who own them, and who have earned their money in the trenches.  The language across Mass Ave in the wealthiest neighborhood of Washington is far different. There are no beaters there, nor any woodies.  The wealth profile has changed, and in that affluent neighborhood there are Senators, investment capital managers, plastic surgeons, and still some old money.  It is too mixed a demographic to take chances.  All driveways are filled with Mercedes, BMWs, Jaguars, and Lexus’.  These cars are not iconic like the woodie, for drug dealers drive them as well (albeit pimped up with smoked windows, spinners, and high-gloss paint); but the genius of manufacturer marketing understands that you can in today’s America, simply sell to the wealthy, regardless of how they got their money.

This Mercedes-beater range is far too black and white for reality.  When I lived in Newark, New Jersey many years ago, and hung out with the Nicky Nork Italian Mafia up-and-comers, the preferred car was of all things, the Buick LeSabre.  These goombas couldn’t afford a Caddie yet, but the LeSabre was just one notch below.  They had nothing to do with Oldsmobile (another rung down), or the seriously plebian Pontiac and Chevrolet.  The LeSabre told everyone “It won’t be long now”.  The LeSabre was the ultimate greaseball car – always kept polished to a high sheen, always Frank Sinatra and Vic Damone on the radio, always an air freshener, and above all, clean.

Since this is the ‘10s, the car-gender link cannot be avoided.  Many articles have been written about the preferences of the gay consumer.  There are hundreds of websites which list ‘gay’ cars here and in Europe.

A few years ago, Meghan Daum, an op-ed contributor to The Los Angeles Times, wrote about a promising first date with a man that never led to a second one because, she later learned, the guy saw that she drove a Subaru Outback station wagon and concluded she must be a lesbian.

And when Joe LaMuraglia, the founder of Gaywheels.com, an informational site modeled on the likes of Autoweb.com, told his partner he wanted to buy a Mini Cooper convertible, the boyfriend joked that he would not be seen in it because the couple “would look like such a gay cliché,” Mr. LaMuraglia said.

What makes a car gay?

Ramone Johnson is a gay journalist and former Saturn engineer who compiles an annual “Top 10 Gay Cars” list for About.com, which is owned by The New York Times Company. Mr. Johnson said that “traditionally we are used to being defined by others.” Driving a stylish car can be a way of “taking control back” and saying “this is who I am,” he said.

Mr. Johnson maintains that “soft lines” and a “vibrant personality” — say like those on a Volkswagen New Beetle — are typical attributes of a gay man’s car, and fashion-forward red gauges and other styling cues, for example, make the Pontiac G6 more of a gay car than its sibling, the Grand Am, because the features express a taste for freedom and fun. (NY Times Fashion 2007)

It is interesting to observe that even the most obvious cases of brand-personal identity, car owners do not realizing they are driving a parody:

“You have a Prius. . . . You probably compost, sort all your recycling, and have a reusable shopping bag for your short drive to Whole Foods. You are the best! So, do we really need the Obama sticker? The Portland Mercury, 2008

One of the most popular cars in America is the Ford F-150 pickup.  There cannot be that many husky haulers as seen on TV, wrestling North woods logs, towing stuck semis out the mud, or loading stray steers.  A brief look at the history of marketing of the F-150 shows that it has crafted its advertising in the very American ‘truck-as-hero’ vein; and many non-users buy that image.  Although Ford wants to reposition its brand and to refocus on real users rather than image buyers, it has made big profits on this cowboy, workingman, American roots tradition.

The hilarity of the juxtaposition of Prius-Ford F-150 is not lost on Will.  Prius owners gag as much at the sight of a monster pickup in their professional neighborhoods as the old WASP woodie owners did when they saw a Cadillac; and F-150 owners snarl contemptuously at the sight of a Prius, hobbling as it does the oil industry, reeking of big government regulation, showing off the pretentious liberal snobbery of the pseudo-wealthy.

Oh, well, sighs Will, there is room in the big tent for all:

Prius, vehicle of the vanguard of the intelligentsia, does not have the most obnoxious name ever given an automobile. In 1927, Studebaker, which anticipated the Prius mentality, named one of its models the Dictator. The car supposedly dictated standards that the unwashed would someday emulate. In the mid-1930s, Studebaker canceled the name.

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