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I used to think that you needed to rent a room or buy a house if you wanted to be a hoarder. I was wrong: parked in my neighbourhood is a beaten-up Oldsmobile Alero that's packed to the roof with everything from books to electronics to discarded fast-food bags. The suspension is flattened by the weight of the junk inside. The tires bulge. This isn't just a car – it's a rolling TLC episode.

The first time I saw the Alero, I assumed it was being used as a temporary storage unit. Then I noticed that the driver's seat area had been cleared out just enough for a human being to burrow in and operate the controls, like a rat wedged into a trash heap. A few days later, I saw the Alero in a different parking spot, and it dawned on me: this was an operational car.

As I peered into the chaos of the Alero's interior, I realized that I was looking at a life story. And it got me thinking about a topic that has intrigued me for years: automotive semiotics. Cars are highly symbolic, reflecting tastes, interests and, on occasion, brutal disorders.

Cars emerge from the factory as identical, mass-produced units, varied only by colour and minor options. Then we add our human touch. My glider-pilot friend Willem drives a Volvo XC-60, and keeps it immaculate: his gear is stowed with military precision, and the Volvo is always washed and polished. His condo is the same (his music collection is neatly stored and indexed with cross-referenced cards). Ditto for Willem's glider – it's freshly waxed, and the GPS co-ordinates for the upcoming flight are loaded into the computer. To look upon Willem's machines is to look upon Willem himself – clean, organized and prepared.

Then there's my friend Mike, a news photographer known for his skill with a camera, but not for his hygiene. (His nickname is Pig Pen.) To get into Mike's car (a dented Chevrolet econobox), I had to spend several minutes clearing food containers and discarded clothing from the passenger seat and untangling a skein of electrical cables that had tangled themselves around the seatbelt. The trunk was filled with thousands of plastic film canisters – some new, some used (unfortunately, they all looked the same, so we always spent a while sorting through them to find the ones we needed).

Automotive messaging begins with our choice of vehicle. You may drive a beige Corolla, believing that it makes no statement, but even that tells us something about you. Other cars telegraph a message loud and clear – a customized Rolls-Royce says you like tradition and mechanical solidity (and that my pension may be in your Cayman Islands account). A black ZR1 Corvette with tinted windows and a wing on the back says you like performance (and, possibly, that your penile enhancement surgery failed).

I first recognized the symbolism of cars back in the 1960s, when my father made the transition from sports-car buff to family man. When I was little, my dad had a German sports coupe called a Borgward Isabella, and was saving up for a Porsche 911. But by the time I was a teenager, my father's automotive dreams had been crushed beneath the wheels of family responsibility – with three kids and a stay-at-home wife, he made do with a base-model Mercury Comet.

My father was still the same man who had tooled through Africa in that cool Borgward and commanded a military unit on missions around the world; yet, others probably saw him in a different light: behind the wheel of a Comet with three kids in the back, he was just another suburban dad. But a closer inspection revealed the man behind the car. The Comet might not have been the sports car my dad wanted, but its oil was always fresh, the interior was cleaned out and the front end was in perfect alignment (my father's tires always exhibited perfectly even wear).

My dad rarely waxed the Comet, considering it a waste of time. But just a few doors away, one of his friends (a fellow army officer) spent every weekend washing and polishing his racing-green Corvair Monza. The Corvair's body panels were like mirrors. You could eat off the brake drums.

The Corvair reflected a different lifestyle than my father's Comet did. My dad's car was a well-maintained workhorse, used by a man who had to haul lumber, groceries and hockey bags. The Corvair was a showpiece, reflecting the fastidious ministrations of a loving owner who had been careful not to have kids.

I've always loved cars that tell a story. Earlier this year, I tested the Conquest Knight XV, an armoured SUV that weighed more than six tonnes. Rolling down the street, it resembled a tank that had been outfitted with a television, leather interior and a rear-seat bar. I wouldn't buy one, but it certainly made a statement (the typical owner has concerns about social unrest or criminal retribution).

Down in Chattanooga, there's an old Cadillac that the owner has painted a distinctive shade of purple, and equipped with a Continental-kit spare tire. Looking at the purple Caddy, I know that the driver came of age in the 1970s, and that he listened to a lot of Isaac Hayes.

Then there's a 1980s Chrysler I spotted on the highway down in New York State, its golden paint faded to a dull Appaloosa brown, broken windows covered with sheets of flapping plastic held in place with sun-bleached duct tape. I didn't know this guy, and yet his car telegraphed a message – I pictured a run-down house, lost jobs and a yard filled with broken things that would never get fixed.

In Vancouver, I ran into a VW Beetle with a V-8 engine stuffed in the front. As I studied the car, I realized that it was an engineering tour-de-force, with a custom-welded steel frame, race-car suspension (double A-arms at every corner) and massive disc brakes taken off a late-model Porsche. As a former Porsche-VW mechanic, I instantly saw what had gone into the car – thousands of hours of design and fabrication work, all executed with a master's touch. The weld beads were perfect. The wiring was routed through custom-milled looms and secured with aircraft tie-wraps.

From the outside, the Beetle could pass for a regular model. The paint was a standard VW colour and the builder had worked hard to disguise the unique mechanics packaged within the little machine. Only a few would look at the car and know the narrative of hard work and invention that had delivered the Beetle into this moment. It was profound and personal – and those are the best car stories of all.

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Twitter: @cheneydrive


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