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A Porsche Cayman R, one of the cars that exerts a primal hold over Peter Cheney, who theorizes that automotive tastes are governed by urges and associations that may reach back to our time in the womb. (Peter Cheney/Peter Cheney)
A Porsche Cayman R, one of the cars that exerts a primal hold over Peter Cheney, who theorizes that automotive tastes are governed by urges and associations that may reach back to our time in the womb. (Peter Cheney/Peter Cheney)

Road Rush

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder Add to ...

When I look at cars, I'm always drawn to the same basic design: a low-slung sports machine that looks like a mako shark with headlights. Stupid? Of course. As consumer follies go, this car is right up there with the Learjet – how can you justify an expensive car that barely has enough room for two people and a bag of groceries?

But that doesn't stop me from wanting it. And it doesn't matter whether it's made by Ford, Lotus or McLaren, either. It's not about a brand, or even a specific car. Instead, it's about an automotive vision that can be traced back to the earliest days of my childhood – my ideal car exists as a template that is lodged somewhere in the distant galaxies of my sub consciousness. And when I see a car that looks like it, I am powerless. Urges are triggered, and desires unleashed. I salivate. I am in the presence of Pavlov's Porsche.

Each of us has one. Your psychic car template may be a sports sedan, a pickup truck or an Italian exotic. It makes no difference. We tell ourselves we're looking for a way from Point A to Point B. But what we're really after is the fulfillment of a dream – or maybe an escape from a nightmare.

I thought about this after reading an interesting story in The Economist about Ernest Dichter, a psychologist who used Freudian theory to analyze consumer behaviour. Dichter believed that product choices are anything but rational. Instead, they are based on deep-rooted desires, unconscious urges and irrational fears that may stretch back to our time in the womb.

Like all car buffs, I have my preferences, conceits and dislikes. (Dichter would have understood.) I am not a fan of the SUV genre. I eschew pickup trucks, except on those rare occasions when I need to haul furniture or an engine block. I dislike RVs, because they burn through fuel like an aircraft carrier and kill the joy of driving. All this makes sense – there are practical reasons for all these choices. But only recently did I come to understand why I don't like sedans.

At first, I thought it was a functional matter – a hatchback has more cargo space than a sedan. But then I remembered Colonel Cox and the Rolling Living Room. It was the mid-1960s. Colonel Cox was my best friend's father, an engineer who liked golf, scotch and Buicks (his favourite was the Electra 225, a land yacht with a hood the size of a tennis court.)

I was a 12-year-old boy who spent his days building slot cars and reading Road and Track. My favourite car was the Ford GT40, a low-slung model just large enough to contain two people and an engine. (The GT40 won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the “40” part of its name came from the car's height in inches, which gives you an idea of its usefulness.)

I built a model of the GT40 and brought it over to show Colonel Cox, assuming he'd love it. He didn't. “What would you do with that?” he asked. “It's a ridiculous car.”

Colonel Cox had an automotive philosophy drawn straight from the country-club car brochures of Detroit's Mad Men era. His tastes ran to tail fins, wooden side panels and heavily muffled V-8 engines. As I learned, he hated small cars in general, and reserved special vitriol for Volkswagens, Porsches and Ferraris, because they were built by Axis powers that had tried to kill him in the Second World War. There was never a chance that Colonel Cox would like the GT40 – it might be North American, but that was trumped by its smallness, which linked it with foreign countries and fancy-pants designers who drank wine instead of scotch.

Colonel Cox liked battleship-scale GM cars with sofa-style seats and cushy shocks that turned the highway into velvet. I remember cruising up to the B.C. interior with him for a vacation at Lake Shuswap. The Colonel's Buick was like a sensory deprivation chamber, smooth and silent. Unless I looked out the window, it was hard to tell that we were actually moving. Colonel Cox steered with his left hand. In his right was a cut-crystal tumbler filled with ice and Crown Royal (things were different back then, and the traveller drink was a sign of the times). We were in a living room on wheels.

Although I wasn't old enough to drive yet, I already had a vehicular philosophy. I believed that a car should connect a driver with the road. I wanted to feel the pavement through the steering wheel, have wind in my hair, and pare away everything that added weight or unnecessary complexity. And in Colonel Cox's Buick, I found the ultimate expression of what I didn't like – a floating ride, a slush-box automatic transmission and fake chrome exhaust portholes. I didn't like Colonel Cox's Brylcreemed hair or his wife's lacquered bouffant either.

I had developed an entire set of associations – Buick sedans stood for numbed experience, bad hair and a floating ride. But it went beyond that. Because of Colonel Cox, I came to despise not only Buicks, but the entire sedan genre.

I was a sports car guy. Maybe that's because of Punchy Payne, another friend of my dad's. Payne was a fighter pilot who flew an F-86 Sabre out of a base in Germany's Black Forest, where I lived when I was six years old. Payne lifted me into the cockpit of his F-86, then showed me a Porsche 356 Speedster, a tiny car that looked like a soapbox derby racer on steroids. I would never forget that moment, and I would always want cars that connected me with it.

So my dream cars are always small, because on that magical morning in the Black Forest, I sat in a jet fighter and gazed upon a car that imprinted itself on my imagination. Or maybe that car was always there in my sub-cortex, waiting for me to see its real-world embodiment.

All of us have a car in our head. For some, it's a pickup truck. For others, it may be a mid-'60s Mustang, a Smart car or even an old Buick sedan. There are no rules covering dreams, and we are each allowed to have our own.

A while ago, I realized that almost everything I like is based on an archetype. I like streamlined airplanes, stories told with grit and concrete detail, and well-educated brunette women with refined tastes. The result: My favourite airplanes are competition gliders (as streamlined as they come) my favourite story is The Godfather (they don't make them more gritty and concrete than that), and my favorite woman is my wife (who epitomizes the tasteful, well-educated brunette).

And then there is the car that pulls me back again and again. It's always small, with big brakes, forged aluminum suspension arms and a body shaped like an artillery shell. Whether it's a Porsche 911 or a Ford GT40 or a Lotus Evora makes no difference. I am drawn to a shape, and to a dream. Exactly when it started, I still don't really know. That's a job for doctors Pavlov and Freud.

For more of the same, check out our gallery: Related contentIn pictures: Automotive archetypes

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/

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