2009 Chevrolet SuburbanEnlarge Photo
“America’s love affair with the automobile” is an overused expression. But sometimes there’s nothing like trite to get a point across. I was talking to a woman the other day and she said that she was out for lunch with friends who, like her, were widows. The conversation turned to how they have coped with their mates’ passing and she said that each of them had not come to terms with disposing of their husbands’ cars. This is an example of vehicle attachment.
Now, I knew this woman’s husband well and he never drove anything with less than six digits on the odometer so this was not about value. Often the exterior of his vehicles had a certain, let’s say, patina. Never did he baby his automobiles and not ever did they lack “character”. In a strange way, his cars were an extension of him. To recall his vehicle is to recall him coming in with tattered jeans and a paint splattered T-shirt to fill a gas can in the midst of some home project. So it’s not surprising that the luncheon companions derive some comfort in keeping the garage filled with 4,000 pounds of sheet metal, plastic and steel that reminds them of their spouse.
One time I bought a car from an old timer. Scooter was in his late eighties when we took the ride down to the motor vehicle department to transfer the title. They had taken his license away but we decided that there would be no harm in Scooter driving it one last time to the DMV. He had a history that dated back to some of the first cars and had been a chauffeur for a wealthy person in town. His attachment to vehicles was part of his DNA. When it was our turn at the window, the clerk asked for our driver’s licenses as ID. Scooter didn’t hold back and pointed to a bureaucrat beyond the window and said: “I don’t have a license, he took it last week.” It only dawned on me many years later just how poignant a moment I had witnessed--Scooter’s last drive in his very last car.
It has been entertaining to note the idiosyncrasies of people concerning their automobiles. One customer always purchased two cars at a time, that’s probably not too strange, but he would always buy identical cars. Another bought only red Cadillacs in an effort to confuse his neighbors about his buying habits. This was sort of an inverted keeping up with the Jones’ approach to life in the ‘70s.
Nothing demonstrates vehicle attachment more clearly than how owners react when their cars are not available. People do not like to look into their driveway or garage and not see their cars. You might compare it to the separation anxiety pets experience in their master’s absence. However, I never experienced a car owner race around the rooms of the house when I returned their vehicle. I haven’t seen that behavior since my neurotic beagle passed away some years ago.
So whether you call it a love affair or vehicle attachment it’s a sentiment that runs deep in the American psyche. Regardless of efforts to make our society more pedestrian friendly our attachments to vehicles is something that will likely take generations to overcome.