Is there anybody out there who doesn’t fancy themselves as some sort of amateur psychologist? It seems that everyone you talk to feels that they have certain insights into what makes other people tick. We all naturally size people up and set our first impressions based on whatever data is available. House size, clothing, a handshake, all hold the potential to reveal the inner soul of the people we meet, but no indicator is more reliable than simply observing the kind of car a person drives — or so some people seem to think.
Now, while not immune to the allure of being able to peer into one’s psyche by simply reading their body lines and tire profile, I have come to realize the folly in this particular form of divination. That said, I must admit that car reading is not completely devoid of substance. I mean there are likely very few unemployed fast food associates driving Ferraris, and you won’t find many NBA centers in Mini Coopers, but for the most part, the conclusions drawn about people, based on their choice in vehicles, probably say more about the judge than the subject.
Fortunately, unlike other forms of stereotyping, such as those based on race, gender or creed — “ride” reading is relatively harmless. In fact, the practice has yet to rise to the level where we have standard sub-group epithets. So, until we start hearing people referred to as “Humhogs” and “BeemerWeenies,” and we all actually know exactly what’s inferred, we can feel free to judge at will. We just need to make sure we keep it in perspective and fully appreciate the rules of the game.
We can all agree, that if there were an Idiot’s Guide to Car Reading, it would identify that SUV drivers are thoughtless “meanies” who care not about our planet, and that middle-aged men driving sporty convertibles are obviously going through a mid-life crisis. If you drive a minivan, then you must be a soccer mom; pickup truck drivers are obviously bullies who don’t care about others on the road, and people who choose red or black cars are aggressive, potentially dangerous speeders. BMW and Mercedes say money, Kia frugal, Ford practical and Prius environmentally conscious: cars really are so much more telling than tea leaves . . .
Personally, I drive a black Mitsubishi Spyder, and since I am middle aged, I guess that colors me in crisis. But wait a minute, that’s unless you happen to see me when I’m driving the Aerostar van, or God forbid in my four wheel drive F-350. While it’s not impossible that I’m a thoughtless bully soccer dad who’s so shaken by my departed youth that I’m just mean on the road and even meaner on the environment — there just might be a bit more to the story.
The story is that my wife and I chose the convertible, because we like to take long drives in the country with the top down. The Spyder was our choice because it seats four which allows us to take the grandkids with us, and it gets darn good gas mileage. It’s black because we bought it “used,” and that’s what was available. The Aerostar is getting a bit long in the tailpipe, but it’s still our most driven vehicle. It carries seven, plus a decent amount of gear, so it works great for family outings and tailgating, even though we no longer have any kids living at home. And our bully beast, the F-350 diesel, well it’s seven years old and has barely over 30 thousand miles on it. It does handle six passengers, so it gets occasional use as a non-hauler, but its real utility is in pulling our fifth-wheel trailer or carrying a load in the bed.
You see, this car/driver connection is just another stereotype, and stereotypes are like politicians: they may seem solid at first glance but often turn flimsy when put to the test. Each generalization has some basis in fact. They would not otherwise have come to be, but as with those pesky politicians, there’s a lot more than what’s on the surface. You sure wouldn’t want to cast your political vote without taking a closer look. Neither should you trust the notion that the type of car a person drives reveals anything about who they really are.
Car choice is very personal but also very situation specific. The avid car reader may find their assumptions validated from time to time, but they’re likely to meet with disappointment far more often. Some people buy cars for form and others for function. Some don’t buy at all but come into car ownership through other means. The truth is that at some deeper level, the car a person drives will tell a story. That story may reveal something about the person, but the insight will really be found in the detail.
What’s true may not be so obvious. I mean, if you were driving down the highway and a Dodge Dakota pulled up next to you, what are the chances that you’d assume it was driven by Jim Walton of the Wal-Mart Waltons? How about a 1988 Mazda pickup? I’m sure you would immediately think, “That must be Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft.” What if it was a Lincoln Town Car? You’d likely think it was a person of means, but the World’s richest man, Warren Buffet? Regardless of what the autonosticator’s guide might say, these are the cars driven by these billionaires.
When it comes to associating personality traits with a person’s car, there will be hits, but they will inevitably be dwarfed by the misses. Carologists may feel a sense of vindication when they see Jay Leno cruising along in one of his many roadsters or Simon Cowell in his million dollar Bugatti, but will they be surprised when Clooney shows up in his Tango electric car, or they spot one of the many Prius driving celebrities on the road? Will the conclusion drawn regarding Pitt, Clooney, Julia Roberts or other “green” celebs change when they find out that they all also travel routinely by private jet?
I must admit that car reading is great fun, and it definitely has some limited usefulness. I’m an amateur carologist myself, but I always keep in mind that my conclusions may have nothing to do with reality. So, go ahead and enjoy your autonosticating, but please remember that the lady driving that little white minivan just might need the extra space for her payload of illicit drugs, not elementary school soccer players. And be careful about judging that bearded guy with all the tattoos. He may need that beefed up Hummer to deliver his donated medical supplies to a remote Indian village.