If you took university biology, you will recall taxonomy, the fascinating process of dividing organisms into groups (vertebrates, invertebrates, herbivores, omnivores, etc.). I wasn’t much of a science student, but taxonomy did come to mind after a long drive in the new Porsche Boxster.
The Boxster was brilliant. It handled like a race car, carried everything we needed for a seven-day road trip, and had a beautiful exhaust note that conjured up a six-cylinder, German-engineered saxophone. In short, I loved it.
But one of my friends took a single look at the Boxster and curled his lip: “That’s a chick car,” he proclaimed.
Needless to say, I disagreed with his assessment, but it got me thinking about one of the most emotionally fraught subjects in the world of cars: gender-based automotive taxonomy. In other words: Is there such a thing as a chick car?
For many years, I dismissed the concept of the chick car out of hand, convinced that the men who carried on about “girlie cars” had deep-rooted insecurities. None of my close friends needed a black Corvette to confirm their manhood, and many of our favourite cars fell into the chick car category that others loved to mock. My first car was a tiny, tootling Fiat 600. The Fiat was followed by a long series of VW Beetles, and I always wanted a Mazda Miata and Porsche Boxster. (As you may know, all of these cars have been derided as less than hair-chested.)
As I delved more deeply into the subject, I realized there were complications to my theory. My Fiat had been modified with some Abarth components, which made it a little edgier than a standard one (I had five extra horsepower and a tilted engine deck lid that spoke of the raging forces beneath). And when I thought about getting a Miata or Boxster, I always planned modifications like titanium headers, a blueprinted motor and lowered, track-worthy suspension. Was this to make the cars perform better, or was it part of some psychological chicanery on my part? Was I secretly afraid that I had crossed the Macho Ville border to find myself deep in chick car territory? Of course I would say no, but who knew what Dr. Freud might find.
Examining the polar ends of the automotive scale reveals vehicles that have a decidedly male or female constituency. In all my years on the road, I have never seen a Plymouth 426 Hemi ’Cuda or Z06 Corvette driven by a woman. And to see a man behind the wheel of a Fiat 500 or VW New Beetle is only slightly less rare than a Sasquatch sighting.
So what makes a chick car – or a macho mobile?
Generally speaking, the following mechanical and styling elements preclude a vehicle’s inclusion in the chick car category: steer horns, gun racks, hood scoops, painted-on flames, Hurst shifter with brass-knuckle lockout lever, deeply tinted windows, hood-mounted tachometer, heavy-duty trailer hitch, an engine horsepower rating of 500 horsepower or above, tires wider than 275 millimetres and Playboy mud flaps. (If you’re still feeling a little insecure, you can always throw on some Dale Earnhart or NRA stickers.)
On the other side of the coin, there are features that almost invariably consign a vehicle to the chick car category. Among them: pastel colours, a folding fabric sunroof, petite body dimensions (Fiat 500, for example), an engine horsepower rating of less than 150, custom-fitted wicker picnic luggage, and, of course, a dashboard flower vase (especially if there are fresh flowers in it). It should be noted that a convertible top automatically moves a car toward the female end of the scale, although other factors (like steamroller tires and V-12 engine) may offset that.
In some cases, figuring out the gender orientation of a car is like determining the sex of a rare lizard or deciding whether a German noun should be masculine or feminine or neuter – there are no easy answers.
The H1 Hummer and the Dodge Charger are cartoonishly macho, for example, while the New Beetle and Fiat 500 are decidedly feminine. But cars like the Pontiac Sunfire and the McLaren MP4 call for more a nuanced interpretation. The Sunfire is a bland economy car that looks like countless others, and yet it has been labelled a chick car, while the Toyota Corolla remains gender-neutral. The McLaren’s raw power and speed could be used to assign it to the stud-car category, but its elegant form and dainty digital controls seem feminine, complicating its persona. (After pondering this for a while, I concluded that the McLaren is metrosexual, but appeals to men more than women.)
What about Citroen’s classic DS19, with its swoopy, jet-age form and pneumatic air suspension that allows it to rise and fall like a camel? When I look at the DS, I see a sophisticated instrument of transportation and seduction: in my mind’s eye, I picture French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant sweeping through the streets of Paris on a sunlit afternoon with a beautiful woman at his side. So to me, the DS is not a chick car. But to some of my friends, it is. (One suggested that the DS be delivered with a matching purse.)
One of the more interesting automotive gendering studies is the Ford Mustang, which can go either way, depending on the way it’s equipped. The current supercharged GT 500 Mustang (especially in black with a six-speed cue-ball manual shifter) is so macho that I’m embarrassed to drive it, but if you order a Mustang as a convertible six-cylinder with pastel paint, you just have undergone the automotive equivalent of sex-reassignment surgery.
As a side note, any modern Mustang is macho compared to the 1970s Mustang II. Designed during the dark days of the smog crackdown, the II was based on the Ford Pinto platform, and was universally despised by the Mustang faithful, who derided it as the chick car to end all chick cars. As conversions went, the Mustang’s makeover was not unlike seeing James Brown being fitted out with hot pants and a Tina Turner wig. (Its product placement on the Charlie’s Angels TV show didn’t help.)
Ironically, both of the cars my family owns seem to be gender-neutral. Our 2002 Honda Accord is a workaday grocery-getter, long on utility, but devoid of character, sexual or otherwise. Our new Lotus Evora S has no shortage of character, but like the McLaren, it is a beautiful athlete of indeterminate gender (if I were to name it, I’m not sure whether it should be called Nigel or Nigella).
Oh well. For a guy who started out in a Fiat 600 and loved it, almost every other car feels like a black Corvette with hood scoops and a gun rack. (And now I have a sudden urge to order a Porsche Boxster, in pink.)
For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)
Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive
Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/