To know why the American auto industry is in such a mess, you only have to ask my neighbours. Once, long ago, the aspirational young couples and empty-nesters on my midtown Toronto street might have driven American cars. Now they would rather be on fire.
Walking down the street, I count several Audis, a few BMWs, a couple of Volvos, the odd Mercedes-Benz or Saab. Not an American car in sight. Why? Much has been made of Detroit’s history of poor quality, and deservedly so. But it isn’t really about that. If it were about quality, or safety, or price, or any of the things people claim to care about when they buy a car, my neighbours would have all bought Japanese and Korean. That the street is instead tiled with European cars tells you something else was on their minds. And that something is self-image.
It isn’t really cars the Europeans are selling us. It’s Europe. Tooling about in the climate-controlled interior of his Audi A4 or BMW 335, the mid-towner can briefly imagine he lives in Berlin or Paris, and not in ghastly dull Toronto. Mind you, not just any European car will do. You are unlikely to see many French or Italian cars parked in front of my neighbours’ houses. But a German car precisely meets our complex psychological needs, reflecting back to us our desired image of ourselves: stylish, yet stable.
On another street, you might find other cultural codes prevail, and other cars proliferate: flashy Italian, sensible Japanese, even those insipid American cars my neighbours find so alien. Every purchase is the product of a cross-current of different sociological urges and identifications—age, class, race, and so on—which the buyer, as much as the seller, must navigate successfully. I should know, for I have just bought a car. And it nearly killed me.
You have to understand: when a man, especially a man of a certain age, marital status and self-consciousness, buys a car, he is not simply buying a car: the business takes on all the complex symbology of a graduate class in semiotics. You are telling the world how you see yourself, and how you want others to see you, and how you suspect they see you, and how you suspect they suspect you suspect they see you, and—well I told you it was complicated.
The basic rule is that any car you really want to drive you really don’t want to drive. That hot little two-seater? Forget about it. Looks like you’re having a mid-life crisis. Or you’re trying too hard. Or you’re compensating for something. On the other hand, go to the other extreme and buy a Taurus, and it means you’ve given up. Or never started.
There are any number of other rules you must learn, without being taught. The car you buy cannot cost too much, but neither can it cost too little. It can have leather seats, but not burl walnut trim. It should not be bland, but on no account can it be interesting. For interesting—an antique car, say—is halfway to whimsical, and whimsy in a man’s car has something of the overripe to it, like a deerstalker hat. Or an ascot.
Then there’s the phenomenon of the “chick car.” Automakers live in fear of this, for if at any moment the culture suddenly takes it into its head that something is a chick car, half its market drops out overnight. And yet for just about any car you will find someone who will decree, with utter authority, that it is a chick car. That rules out not only the Miata or Mini—cars whose chief sin appears to be that they are well-made, cheap and fun to drive—but also certain species of Audi, Lexus, and every car ever made by Volkswagen.
And who are the enforcers of this ludicrous orthodoxy? In my experience, women. A Mini, a woman of impeccably progressive and feminist leanings told me at a party, says one thing: I have a small penis. Another said with a shudder she would refuse to open the door if her date showed up in a Miata. I looked at her to see if she was joking. She wasn’t.
I suppose it’s a kind of revenge. A car is for a man what clothes are for a woman: an opportunity for others to judge you. You wear a car the way you wear a suit of clothes. You are putting on the same set of vanities and insecurities in yourself, the same prejudices and assumptions in the viewer.
In my own case, this is overlaid with filial guilt. My father has only ever driven a Ford—the cheapest, most practical Ford he could find. This is because my father is a better man than I am. I know that I should be more like him, and yet I fail. I am weak, and my willingness to spend more than $15,000 on a car is further proof of it.
So I cannot help seeing some sort of divine retribution in this coda. After months of dithering, I finally settled on a car: a nifty little BMW 128i, in “space grey.” Sporty, yet dignified, I thought. (Chick car, I can hear some reader snorting.) Picked it up last Thursday, wheeled about in it for a bit, feeling alternately pleased and sheepish. That evening, as I was driving downtown, a cop ran a red light and smashed into me. They had to tow the car to the shop.
My shallowness and self-importance, they left spread-eagled on the road.