“I love my Cadillac, and Cadillacs are the hippest cars,” says TAP’s own Ben Stein in an interview in this morning’s Washington Post: “The BMW is a car for the person who wants to make it; the Cadillac is the car for someone who already has made it. And by the way, I didn’t see Elvis Presley driving around in a Mercedes.”
I’ve never owned a BMW, a Mercedes or a Cadillac, so I can’t claim to be an expert on the subject. Then again, that allows me to be objective. I doubt I could ever bring myself to buy a car as pricey as any of those three, but if I had to choose, I’d definitely go for the Caddy, if only because of its blatantly luxurious image. There’s nothing more coy than a status symbol designed to look understated.
The only car ever registered in my name was a 1981 Mazda 626, which I bought third- or fourth-hand in ’88 and managed to keep running for almost two years. It amazes me to think how many thousands of miles I got out of it, including a summer trip from Washington, D.C. to New Mexico and back. One day (ominously enough, the day I showed up in a dreary new town to start the ordeal of graduate school), the transmission finally disintegrated. Good thing I was a member of AAA, so I didn’t have to pay for towing it to a local dealer, who took the wreck off my hands for nothing.
No one would have called that car hip, at least not the way it looked by the time I owned it: the driver’s-side door had been stripped of its paint during rust removal, and a long arc had been scratched into the windshield by a worn-out wiper. Yet I took a twisted pride in driving it around, especially to fancy occasions. If I ever needed reassurance that I hadn’t sold out to the yuppie values of my college friends, all I had to do was pull up to a five-star hotel and hand the valet parking attendant the keys to my clunker.
Yet in my conceit, I now realize, I was no less vain than a middle-aged dentist cruising in his Porsche, or an inner-city kid obsessively waxing his lowrider Impala. I simply had a different image I wanted to project.
This gradually became clear to me during my car-less days in academia, a milieu at least as snobbish as any other, though typically in ways that invert the standards of the outside world.
I remember seeing the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre of Glanton) shock an audience of civilians by lecturing in a suit that looked as if it had been tailored between the wars, and not pressed or mended since. So graceful and self-assured was Lord Dacre’s bearing — to say nothing of his characteristically brilliant lecture — that the palm-sized grease stain on his jacket might as well have been a decoration from the Queen.
Shabby dress has been a point of pride for English scholars since the Middle Ages, whereas American academics, in their comfort shoes and corduroy jackets, are usually just plain dowdy. Yet Yanks adhere no less rigidly to the rules of anti-fashion. And since America is the land of the automobile, this attitude is especially clear in regard to cars.
The literary critic Stanley Fish, who regards most of his colleagues in higher education as masochists, has called the Volvo the perfect academic car, since it’s costly without being attractive. I once heard an American professor mock his “gross” neighbors by noting that he was the only man in town who didn’t drive an Italian sports car. Which efficiently conveyed the information that he lived in an exclusive area yet remained morally and aesthetically above it all.
Italy, where I now live, is another country with a car cult, not only because it’s home to Ferrari and Lamborghini, but because real estate here is so scarce, most people live in apartments that middle-class Americans would mistake for walk-in closets. A flashy set of wheels has the same importance for the typical Italian man as a well-appointed kitchen has for his wife: it’s the Holy Grail of the consumerist quest.
Being a devout contrarian, I’ve grown all the more opposed to fancy cars since I moved here. Our dinky three-door Citroën is registered in my wife’s name, and if I ever buy a vehicle myself, it will be small enough to navigate and park with ease on narrow medieval streets. But I’ve had to renounce my sense of superiority on this point, now that there’s someone around to dispel it.
“Really,” I asked my spouse the other day, trying yet again to convert her to my way of thinking, “isn’t there something laughable about wasting money on a car? Isn’t it pathetic showing off that way to strangers? Don’t you have more respect for a man who treats an automobile as simply a way to get from here to there?”
“Not necessarily,” she said. “It might mean that he’s more concerned with other things. On the other hand, it might simply mean that he’s cheap.”