Why I’ll Never Understand Our Culture’s Obsession With Cars
Last updated February 8, 2019
"Art on wheels" is how my husband refers to beautiful cars. But not me. Although I've had some car adventures in my life, including one with a flying Jaguar, I much prefer a cozy sphere where I can sit and think. And you'll never guess what I did to my grandmother's Cadillac.
I’ve never understood our culture’s obsession with cars. In my mind, they are nothing more than a means to get from point A to point B. And they’re a hassle—a ruse that steals your time and money. Though I know my views run counter to most.
Our Culture’s obsession with cars starts at an early age
I first learned I didn’t care much for cars when I was seven years old and the girl who lived across the street invented the Can you guess that car? game. It was just the thing to do with five or so kids on someone’s front lawn where the grass meets the curb—a lazy way to drink in dusk after endless hours of jump rope and hide-and-go-seek played out under the oppressive hand of a Mississippi summer sky.
The object of the game was to identify the makes and models of passing cars before they rolled out of sight. I didn’t know a Ford from a Chrysler. But the other kids did. And it was telling that they could nail them and I couldn’t. We would sit and wait for cars to pass—jabbering on about which cars were the coolest, whose grammar book was the smartest, the tornado that leveled a nearby subdivision, communists, hippies and dolls and trolls—while smacking ravenous mosquitoes that had come to light on our warm, sticky skin. When someone spotted a car, we’d jump up to get a better view. And so we passed the time this way until whistles and shouts from adults broke the rhythm. Then, one by one, we’d disappear into air-conditioned 1960s ranch houses to eat dinner.
But after several rounds of the car-guessing game, I discovered I couldn’t care less about leveling up; I couldn’t care less about makes and models of cars; I couldn’t care less about cars at all! And, in retrospect, that was a defining moment — the catalyst that severed the ties between me and the girl who lived across the street, especially after she became smitten with Barbies. Fortunately, I moved a few miles away, which was lucky because breaking up with seven-year-old girlfriends over cars and Barbies is tricky. At least it was in the ‘60s. That was a close call.
Art on wheels—and walls, too
Yet, cars mean more to some people than others. My husband says, “Cars are art on wheels.” Whatever. “But you can’t see the art when you’re in it,” I say. I admire other people’s art on wheels—colorful, parading polygons zipping along highways and byways. But what does that have to do with me? The art — the very cool cars — pass in a nebulous blaze. They do not linger. In fact, I don’t even remember them. But my husband does.
My art on wheels is my living space, minus the wheels. It’s a refuge, a place to savor music, contemplation and memorable conversations. I revel in crafting a space that speaks to me. I’m a woodpecker—nailing countless holes in the walls and shuffling around pictures. Eventually, though, I get it just right. And, unlike the passing cars, my space remains. It doesn’t need to go anywhere.
My grandmother's alligator Green, 1969 Cadillac DeVille
But when I was in junior high, the family car was more than a contrivance; it was a curse. In those days, my grandmother often picked me up from school in her monstrous alligator green 1969 Cadillac DeVille with the gold vinyl roof and matching plush upholstery. The local General Motors dealership had to special order it on account of the gold accents. And to make matters worse, I was the rich kid at school. So the ostentatiousness of the whole affair was mortifying.
How could you blame me? When one of your classmates wears the same smock top to math class every day and that top is made of old bed sheets, riding home from school in a gilded carriage is shameful. And, on top of that, the Cadillac roared—given that my grandmother wasn’t the smoothest of drivers. Every time she hit the gas, the engine rumbled in that way that makes car enthusiasts go weak in the knees . I think she got a thrill out of doing that. My grandmother and her Cadillac were larger than life. And my classmates were mesmerized. They would fish around for any excuse to snag a ride home in the roaring green monster. Though one sweltering, humid day in the summer of 1972, I threw up all over the screaming green reptile’s gold, plush interior. That car would never be the same again.
My Father’s flying Jaguar
There’s only one car in my life that I’ve ever truly loved. And it was a Jaguar: my father’s beat-up, black, secondhand Jaguar that took flight when you pushed the unmarked button on the walnut dashboard. I was convinced that car could fly. And one crisp February morning when the sweet smell of daffodils had taunted us with the hope of spring, my father casually spoke about flying his Jaguar over the schoolyard during recess. So I rounded up every gullible kid I could find, lined them up by the cyclone fence, and we waited—watching for signs of winged, black, funky elegance streaking across winter’s sapphire sky. He never showed.
Of course, I forgave him for that. Who could be angry? Our little game created a memory the two of us would never forget. And I’ll always remember the anticipation and excitement I felt when my father’s hand would reach for the fly-mode button: “No, Daddy, please don’t push the button, not today!” I believed in the magic of the flying Jaguar. I still do.
I prefer a cozy room to a snappy car
Yet, even after falling under the flying Jaguar’s spell, I still don’t think I’ll ever understand our culture’s obsession with cars. I prefer a cozy room to a snappy car any day. Though I know what you must be thinking: Some people value both stylish cars and welcoming spaces. That’s true. And I don’t judge.
But cars are awkward to get in and out of; tedious to park; a drain on my finances; and complicit in the nervous breakdowns I have in the drop-off loop at my kids’ school. Besides, driving a piece of art on wheels is meaningless if I can’t see it. Though other drivers can.
But a room filled with floor-to-ceiling bookcases, even the faux wood kind from IKEA; low-light lamps; a mishmash of art and family photos arranged just so; stacks of magazines and books strewn across been-around-the-block-a-few-times wooden end tables gleamed from thrift stores; windows for daydreaming; and a quiet place to sit and ruminate while sipping coffee?
I’ll sign on the dotted line, even if there’s no walnut dashboard with a fly-mode button. —Laura