You Are What You Drive
by Theodore Rickard
The family station wagon has pretty much disappeared from the American road scene. First it yielded to vans with sliding side doors and then to tall-standing SUV’s. A social psychologist might make something of this, I’m sure, but for my part I think the choice of vehicle style is directly related to social fantasy. We choose a car that allows us to daydream and, more importantly, allows us to ignore its mundane use of actually getting from one place to another.
The van is a no-nonsense box on wheels. It is prosaic and practical - except when you try to parallel park - and its message is obvious. “You thoughtless parents,” it proclaims with the earnest conviction of those who eat a lot of vegetables: “without room-sized interior space, how are you going to get to music lessons when your child takes up the tuba or the bass viola?” Nobody suggests the youngster take up the flute, instead.
What insured the success of the van was Little League baseball. Many an earnest father bought the vehicle with the thought that he just might be asked to coach the team. This quickly morphed into the reality of his wife becoming cheerleader - and bus driver.
The van introduced multiple cup holders in a vehicle. As a result, after twenty years of booming van sales, the consumption of juice drinks has increased enormously. And we have a national obesity crisis, widespread caffeine addiction, and a furious run-up in the common stock of Starbucks. I’m sure there was no conspiracy involved, but there were all those empty cup holders in the vehicle and certainly the expectation was that they be used for something.
As the children of van owners reached their teen years, however, they wouldn’t be caught dead getting out of a van in front of the high school. Frantic mothers, bathrobe-clad and hair-curlered, had to disgorge their offspring from those dorky sliding doors at least a block away. “But it’s pouring rain,” had nothing to do with it in the face of “I’d rather die,” from teenage daughters and a mumbled “Whatever!” From their brothers. The result was the whole family counted the days until the last payment was made, and the van could be traded in on something else.
“Something else” turned out to be the “Sports Utility Vehicle.” An SUV could range all the way from a “Jeep” right out of old film clips on the History Channel to a bright yellow version of the Army’s newest personnel carrier - one the size of a fire engine. An SUV can also be a pick-up truck gone berserk, replete with heated leather upholstery, wheels like a road-grader, rock concert sound systems, and row of strobe lights across the front. A well-outfitted SUV trumps even the most angst-ridden teen-ager’s embarrassment that he or she still needs a parent to do the driving. The SUV, if nothing else, is “cool.”
More important is the status the SUV imparts to the parents. The driver who has already dropped off the kids at school - now actually pulling up to the entrance - can join the freeway gridlock with an implied high testosterone level that is out of the question for the van driver. The SUV speaks up loud and clear. “Right now I may be on my way to my job at Acme Locknut and Washer Company, but soon I will be plunging through white-water streams and roaring up boulder-strewn mountain trails, mano a mano.” Somehow, this makes a man’s uncertain career future at Acme Locknut a little easier to face.
In an earlier era, there was the station wagon. People who actually hated football dreamed of casually sophisticated tailgate parties and chilled white wine in plastic flutes. Appropriately elegant was the “woody.” Everyone knew perfectly well that the “wood paneling” on the side was nothing more than a printed decal glued on at the factory. But there was still the chance that we might be mistaken for the squire of an exurban estate or, at least, a member of the country club.
It helped to enhance the effect with a few wisps of straw caught in the car door or a second hand horse bridle draped on the back seat. Woody owners were known to buy pedigreed hunting dogs and ride them around on weekends just for the effect on the neighbors. A chrome luggage rack on the rooftop helped, too. Never mind that nobody ever put luggage on the roof. People now buy ski racks for the top of the family SUV even if they live in Florida. And I, for one, don’t blame them a bit.