There may be sound, prudent reasons for buying a Bugatti Veyron ($2.6-million; top speed, 403 km/h). And there may also be sound, prudent reasons for marrying a 22-year-old exotic dancer with a substance abuse problem, too. But I can't come up with any.
When it comes to choosing a car, logic takes a back seat. This is why I spend so much of my time playing Dr. Sigmund Ford, probing the twisted psyches of friends and colleagues who are determined to buy the wrong machine. Is it an Oedipus complex? Compensation? I'm not sure, but it sells a lot of Corvettes, Porsche Turbos and giant SUVs.
Our car is a reflection of ourselves - and some of us will pay almost anything not to be a Dodge Caravan.
Consider my friend Ian, who uses his car to haul gardening supplies, skis and a really long kayak. I told him to get a minivan or a small SUV. But Ian wants a Mini Cooper S, even though it's about as appropriate for his mission as a set of thong underwear. It's too small for his gear, and it costs too much for what it does, but Ian still wants a Mini. In this car, he sees his four-wheeled doppelganger - stylish, well put together, and irresistible to women. (So it's really not like him at all, but he's projecting.)
As I have pointed out to Ian, rational analysis points to a minivan or a Prius hatchback. He received these suggestions with all the enthusiasm of a horse being scheduled for his gelding procedure. (And I think I saw him cruising the Mini website the last time I was in the office.)
I once recommended a Honda Civic to an urban accountant who commutes five kilometres carrying nothing more than a briefcase and a Blackberry. Instead he bought a Dodge Ram diesel pickup, which will be absolutely perfect should he suddenly decide to move to Alberta, buy a cattle ranch and spend his days hauling heifers, branding irons and rolls of barbed wire fencing.
Why was I surprised? I'm the guy who tried to talk my wife into buying a Caterham Seven as a second car, even though it doesn't have doors, windows, or enough trunk space to carry anything beyond a pair of roasted Cornish game hens.
That was just one in a long list of inappropriate vehicles I've lusted for. (Last year, it was a Lotus Exige, a tiny speedster with door openings that resemble the gun slots on a machine gun nest at Iwo Jima.) I'm no psychiatrist, but I surmise that our longing for inappropriate cars is part of the same life spirit that pushes us to write poetry and explore outer space. Instead of staring into the abyss of our own mortality, we reach for the stars. At least this is what I tell my wife when I'm trying to buy a cool car.
I've had plenty of practice with automotive psychiatry - mostly as a patient. When I was 14, I tried to convince my father that the perfect family car was a Plymouth 426 Hemi 'Cuda, a two-door muscle car with a jacked-up rear end, a Hurst shifter that got in the way of the passenger's knees and fuel mileage so bad that it could barely make it from one gas station to the next.
I was one of three kids, and we had a dog. Reason dictated a Ford Falcon station wagon (which is what we eventually got) but not before I waged a long, fruitless psychological campaign for the Hemi 'Cuda. I presented my father with a long list of arguments: He'd get to work faster in the 'Cuda. Its resale value would be superior (unless I crashed it). Best of all, it would make him the coolest officer in the Canadian military, dramatically increasing his chances of getting promoted to general. My dad heard me out. Then he bought the Falcon wagon. (He never did make general, by the way - maybe he should have gone with the Hemi 'Cuda.)
Seen through the unblinking lens of reason, many of our car choices make no sense. Instead, they conform to a private vision. The question is whether others will share that vision. And in many cases, the answer is no. I once watched a woman burst out laughing at the sight of a fat, bald man in his 50s squeezing into his new Ferrari wearing colour-matched racing shoes and a Ferrari jacket.
Then there's a guy who drives around Toronto in a pink Dodge decked out with pink neon tubes that spell out his name in the back window. More neon tubes are mounted on the bottom of the car - at night, the Dodge appears to float on a moving cloud of pink cotton candy. I'm not sure I want to know what inspired this guy's pink vision, but I'm sure a psychiatrist would have a field day.
On a trip down south, I watched a young NASCAR fan load his wife and kids into a replica of Dale Earnhardt's famous #3 Chevy Lumina. Most fans would have been content to paint their cars in Earnhardt black, throw on a #3 sticker, and be done with it. This guy's vision went further. The interior had been torn out and replaced with one exactly like Earnhardt's actual race car: bare aluminum panels, steel roll cage and a single bucket seat (for the driver). The doors didn't open. The wife and kids climbed in through the window, NASCAR style. They clung to the roll cage as dad blasted off.
Who knows what psychic avenues this Earnhardt worshipper had travelled by the time he talked his wife into letting him build his dream machine. He probably grew up with Earnhardt's picture on his bedroom wall, and worked an extra job so he could go to the Talladega Speedway to see The Intimidator (Earnhardt's nickname) swapping paint with Michael Waltrip. And now he had a #3 car all his own - black paint, GM Goodwrench logo, un-muffled V8 and welded-shut doors. The kids didn't have seats to ride in, but how could they? Seats weren't part of the vision.
Calling Dr. Sigmund Ford.
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