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Cars, Mechanics, and Masculinity

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December 2010
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OK, here’s the thing.  A few weeks ago, a lady pulled out in front of me and caused me to crash my car into a tree, so we’ve been car shopping for weeks now.  My lady wife selected a Subaru Outback, which is a very nice car.  Practical, but also a good-looking vehicle.  It shifts so much better than our old Mazda, and it has nice luxury features like heated seats. There was a time that I pooh-poohed heated seats, but I must have just been cranky at the time because they are very good for Minnesota winters.

As is usually the case with me and my daughter, color was the primary consideration.  Well, she, for some reason, wanted to have a wagon again.  She always did like our old teal Escort wagon.  My cunning plan when we started looking at cars was to buy two $7,000 cars instead of one &14,000 car.  The first one we looked at was a Nissan Altima.  Very nice, but $14,000.  So, I had this brainstorm.  It is so much more entertaining to find a cheaper old car that is in good condition.

However, my dear sposa overspent a bit (with my consent) on the Outback, so I was (technically) only left with about $3000 for my runabout.  That’s a tough order.  Especially when I got it into my head that the Cadillac DeVille was a cool car.  I found a few around and one in particular I liked because it was dark blue (indigo really) and had a dark blue leather interior.  I took it on a test drive (less that fun in Winter conditions) and liked it.  The DeVille lives up to its reputation for comfort and it certainly has a plethora of electronic features.  This one has a cassette player, which is quite a rare luxury these days.  I was looking forward to listening to all my old cassettes.

However, this car is $4993, almost $2000 over the original budget I planned on.  So, that’s a problem.  However, I had wife and daughter try it out and they objected to the smell of tobacco smoke.  It’s amazing how women notice different things than men do.  Now, granted, I did have a raging headcold at the time, but I did notice the smell.  Yet, it didn’t turn me off the car because it reminded me of how all our family cars smelled when I was a kid — like Dad’s pipe.  Tobacco and leather are not so repellent to a man.   The smell and a weighty indifference to the car became the main stumbling blocks, yet I thought that a thorough detailed cleaning of the interior might alleviate the smell. Everyone wants their car to smell like “new car.”

The adventured continued, as I worked out the logistics so that I could take mama to work and have the Outback for the day.  I made an appointment with a Cadillac dealership to have them inspect the DeVille.  Now, this was a mistake on a few levels — or shall I say, a learning experience.  For one thing, the Cadillac dealership is catering to Cadillac Owners, a particular class of homo sapiens the mind of which is fully open to spending thousands of dollars on genuine GM parts and mechanics who make as much per hour as lawyers.  I waited almost two hours before they could finish the inspection and write it up for me in detail.  I wanted them to tell me what some of the repairs would cost.  They did not do one of the things I requested, which was to give me a list of things they could tell had already been replaced on the car.  At 103K miles, the car ought to have had a few things done to it already.

The long and short of it was that when I took it back to the dealer from whom I was buying it, I was in a rush to go pick up the ladies and didn’t have time to have the long talk with the salesman that was needed.  Next day he was off, and the following day, when he said he would call me, we had five inches of snow.  I suspect the crew were busy scraping off cars.  It must be miserable to own a used car lot in the Winter…

So, now I am in that limbo of negotiation.  I sent the salesman an email listing five of the things the other mechanic said were wrong.  The leaks did not surprise me, but the broken rear coil spring and the broken wheel stud on one wheel, struck me as things the dealer selling the car might have been expected to fix, or at least disclose.  That discovery made me lose a good deal of trust in the salesman and the dealership.  Was it intentional deception?  Was it an egregious oversight on the part of the mechanic?  Or do dealerships normally only give a car the superficial once-over before they put it on the lot?  Perhaps the previous owner did not disclose those problems.

Well, I can quite see that one could miss them because it doesn’t effect the way the car drives, so far as I can tell.  I should think the rear coil spring would make a difference, but with my inexperience in things automotive, it escaped my notice.  My attention was mainly focussed on figuring out what all the buttons on the dashboard did and how the cruise control worked and so forth.  On the way to Morries Cadillac for the inspection, the cruise cut out a couple of times.  The mechanic at Morries said this might be due to a malfunction in the EGR valve.  Oddly, the service chap there did not explain what the EGR valve was very well.  In fact, it seemed that they had it wrong, but Igoogled it and found that EGR stands for Exhaust Gas Recirculation.  This valve is part of the emissions control system, invented to meet EPA guidelines for auto exhaust.  It recirculates some of the exhaust back through the engine, thereby removing a substantial percentage of the nitrous pollutants.  Clever.  But Blue DeVille’s wasn’t working right and whenever it did so, that sent a “check engine” signal to the car’s  capacious electronic brain, and that, in turn, shut off the cruise control, as it is programmed to do.  There must be a vast array of punch-card sorters and readers somewhere under the dash, so intricate is the car’s brain.  It is, to be sure, a very focused brain, interested only in its own autonomic systems and organs, but it is very communicative.

At the bottom of the instrument panel, as you look from the driver’s seat, there is a small version of those displays used for advertising, one which a stream of words seem to flow from right to left across the display so that you can read the message.  Rather like a tickertape machine.  This feature is called the DIC, which stands for Driver Information Center.  This is how the electronic brain communicates.  Remember “Colossus the Forbin Project”?  That’s how Colossus talked before he made the technicians build him a mechanical voicebox.  Anyway, the DeVille’s DIC says things like “Traction Engaged”  or “Cruise Engaged” or “Fuel is Low” and so on.  It apparently can give you scores of diagnostic messages to tell you if some organ is feeling a bit off.  Wish my body came with self-diagnostics like that.

Well, that’s a feature I like.  A man wants his car to have a DIC.  Gives a fellow a feeling of really knowing what’s going on.  Comforting to have your car talk to you.  A bit like “My Mother the Car.”  Only its like “My Dad the Car” because it’s like having another guy with you, one that knows a lot about cars.

The whole issue of masculinity and cars has been running through my own internal DIC.  With lag time between bouts of primal male deal negotiation — the delicate dance of expression and voice, and pressure — I had time to think about what really was motivating me to want a Cadillac.  After all, it is not a practical car.  In a family with only one real income (my earnings as a writer and wandmaker put me well below the poverty line), why buy a car that gets low gas mileage, uses premium gas, and is expensive to repair?  I knew at the outset that my interest in DeVilles was not practical.  It was a quest for male ego-reinforcement.

Most men have their own car.  I have a few friends who are in the situation I was in (am stil in): sharing the family car.  Some of my friends not only have their own car but a motorcycle on top of that.  In America it is very hard for a man to feel like a man if he doesn’t have a car.  Even if it is old and broken down, it is still an extension of his male ego.  I’m not sure when all this business started, but it must go back to the forties, when car ownership became common.  I suspect it was in the fifties and sixties of the last century that advertising created — or enhanced — the perception that masculinity and cars were linked somehow.  My generation certainly was raised with the idea that a man’s car was his castle.  This might have become more important when a man’s house ceased to be his castle during the last wave of the women’s movement.

Before that, in the sixties when I was growing up, and certainly in the fifties, women were the mistresses of the kitchen and the children; the home was kept clean and orderly for the comfort of the man of the house who came home from a hard day of wrestling with other men using his muscles and his brain to earn his wages, and desired nothing better than a quiet refuge, a pipe, and easy chair, and his newspaper.  Then there was his shop, often part of the basement or in the garage.  That was a particular male space, his domain.  Some men had a study too — it was often called “the den” in those days.  However, the garage and the car were the man’s most important domain (after the Office).  Women worked as secretaries in the office, and women worked as wives and mothers at home, but women drivers were mocked and looked upon as an abberation in the natural order, and women who could fix a car, change the oil, or even knew how an engine worked were rare indeed.

But now, decades later, women are among the main market audience for cars.  Commercials for mini-vans and SUV’s are aimed at them especially.  True, young, good-looking women are still used in car ads the way they used to be: to suggest the sexual rewards a man would get from owning and driving a particularly sporty vehicle, or one with lots of power.  But now it is all very different.  Some women know more about fixing cars than men (like me, for example), and women can buy a car independently of a man, thereby expressing their own sense of power, style, and personality.  Well, that’s all fine with me.

Here is the thing, though.  In  my life I have never had my own car when I have lived with women.  We always shared one car.  And that situation gives the car a whole new dimension of sexual and symbolic tension.  A shared car does not express a man’s personality or power.  As likely as not, it is the women who insists on getting her way when it comes to the choice of model and color.  Even if she seems to defer to her man, we all know that is seldom really what is going on.  And even if the man makes the decision, the car is still not simply his car.  Because couples operate on a more equal footing today, a shared car becomes no longer an expression of male power and prestige.  It is no longer a masculine object, no longer a part of the male’s display plumage.

Back in the fifties and sixties, cars had fins and bits sticking out all over, just like peacock feathers.  Those are the cars I personally like.  The Cadillac dealership where I was cooling my heels had a gorgeous cream-colored 1953  Eldorado “Biarritz” convertible.  OMG!  What a beautiful car!  You can just picture Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin in the driver’s seat with a voluptuous and adoring girl by his side, turning up the Beachboys on the Wunderbar radio.  Nowadays, Cadillacs look just like every other car — bigger maybe, but the same streamlined dull design sense.  Automobile aesthetics has made all cars look alike.

I was just reading a blurb about how Subaru’s designers were developing a “new language” of design that would make Subarus all recognizable as Subarus.  Hmmmm.  I suppose back in the fifties people might have thought all cars looked the same too, but the streamlining and the smooth lines, the parameters of size and so forth all have made today’s cars mostly unappealing.  The new beetle and the new Thunderbird are exceptions, but for the most part I like the looks of older cars.  The 1997 DeVille isn’t exactly a classic, but I’m not in the market for a true collector’s car.  At least it looks better than the 2010 models.  The 1970’s vintage models even look better to me.  I was researcing Lincoln Continentals and was horrified to see how few there were available used and how much they too looked just like every Japanese car on the market.  I remember in the 70’s that rounded back end where the spare tire was housed and the sleek, long black lines of the Lincoln Continentals, the Mark IV’s and the Cadillac Fleetwoods.  Mmmmm.  They were vast “boats” to be sure and nowadays people want smaller more fuel-efficient cars, less boxy.  Who really needs a trunk that could fit a small marching band?

Well, I wouldn’t know where to park a 1970 Cadillac Fleetwood, anyway.  But the ’97 DeVille Concours.  It makes me wish we had a garage to put it in.  It would take some vigillance to keep it from deteriorating in the Minnesota Winters without a garage.  But just researching the car has opened up a new vista of fascinating machinery and the potential for a thing upon which I can lavish my attention and love and which will return my care with a boost to my ego.  Now, only people who don’t know me would ever take the car to signify my social and economic status, but I am good at pretending.  My self-esteem has suffered in the past 20 years  because of lack of income and not working as an English professor.  It is hard to sustain self-confidence working as a novelist without anything published.  I’ve probably said that before….

But this seeking for ego-reinforcement through a car seems foolish.  I have always thought it part of the foolishness of the social construction of masculinity.  What I’ve found, however, is that I cannot break away from the way my masculinity was socially constructed.  I was never macho, and for some reason my Dad never managed to engage my interest in cars, even though I wanted to be an engineer as a teen.  Now that I’ve become a writer and interested in Steampunk, engines and mechanics has a new fascination for me — one that may be more practical and not merely imaginary.  Better late than never, I suppose.

Will I manage to buy the car and have the money to insure and maintain it?  Will I get an ego boost?  Will it bolster me that I can write better, enjoy life more with some freedom of mobility?  Will it give me a new hobby of mechanics, fixing and building actual machines, as well as imagining fictional ones?  Or is it a hollow aspiration?  One must, of course, learn to love oneself, not depend on the outward trappings of worldy status or the possession of riches.  The wise man casts aside riches in order to love himself better and to turn his love to others less fortunate.  “It is always better to give than to receive.”  Especially in this time of Christmas giving, it seems especially misguided to be trying to buy something for myself.

On the other hand, spending money on yoga classes and dedicating time on my own physical self-improvement is intended to make me a better man, more healthy and so more productive, and able to help others.  Could a car help that?   Perhaps it could.  For example, having my own car would allow me to volunteer at a foodshelf, a homeless shelter, or the library.  Being able to more easily travel around during the day would make it easier to get out of the house and work at a cafe.  nothing is really stopping me from doing that now, but transport being difficult gives me an excuse.  Still, perhaps that’s just rationalization and I won’t follow-through on that sort of plan, unless I make a solemn resolution to do so.

Transport during the day would also make it easier to find a job outside the house.  But will I manage to do so?  Transport is not the only thing standing in the way of that plan.  Yet, maybe it would be good to find a job for at least a few years to catch up and then maybe return to writing full time again?  Money, cars, ego-strength.  My instinct tells me that ego-strength should not depend on outward success or its material rewards.  That it must instead come from within, or be given as a grace from the Divine One.

I really do over-analyze everything.



  1. catriannam says:

    I found this post very interesting and it made me think of the dynamics of my family growing up and why a car has always been so important to me.

    Growing up my mom ran the household, she took care of all the bills, was the bigger bread winner, ran the house… etc…BUT my dad was the car master. We had one car and only my dad drove it. My mom did not know how to drive! For a very independent and strong Italian lady, I now find it funny that she never learned how to drive. My dad drove her to work and picked her up… for all her social events she relied on my aunt to drive.

    When I turned 16 I promptly decided that I could now drive the car, and they let me drive it all the time… very trusting of them. When I was 18 they bought me a car, then again at 22 and again at 25. No matter who I was living with at the time in my early 20’s, I was the one with the car. I had to drive others to work.

    I never cared what color it was or the make… as long as it was safe to drive and reliable. I learned how to change tires and do oil changes. Even when I was first married, I never thought of giving up my car, even when we worked at the same firm together and drove to work together.

    Having a car has always made me feel “safe” and not beholden to anyone. During the few months in the early part of this year when my transmission went on my Pontiac, I panicked until I had my own car again.

    My Nissan is a 2005, high miles, but runs good, clean inside and loaded. At 2,500 dollars I was overjoyed to get it and just pay cash. All my cars have been paid for in cash… the most expensive ever in my life being 4,000 dollars, and I just use them till they are dead… allowing for adequate repairs as one would perhaps make small monthly payments instead.

    I think I need a car because without one I feel that I lose a sense of autonomy. Although owning a car does not make or break someone in social status in my mind. I don’t care how many cars a person has (my ex brother in law had 5 jaguars on his estate… I could care less) or motorcycles or toys. In the end you can’t take anything with you and everyone makes the same kind of dust.

    I do think that having two cars in family is nice though for emergencies. etc. I hope you get the car you want and maybe it will open possibilities for you in the way of work or just feeling more free in getting about. If it helps your self esteem I do think that is also good.

    I agree that ego-strength should not depend on outward success or its material rewards… as you said….that it must instead come from within. You should always feel good about your abilities and talents, and I know they are considerable.

    Oh, and yes… and having known you these past 5 years, you do over-analyze a “wee” bit. But that is all part of your intelligence and charm.

    Good luck with the car!

    • alferian says:

      Cheers Cat. Took a break from the car negotiations and made a turkey today. As we were away for Thanksgiving, I missed the pleasure. I do love roasting a turkey. I’m glad they didn’t make it the national bird!

      It is interesting how much it makes one feel more free to have a car. In the U.S. we are so conditioned (in the middle class anyway) to think that we have to travel about. Most people have to commute long distances to work. I was watching an episode of the old Peter Wimsey mystery series (“The Nine Tailors”). It is interesting to see how rare cars were in that period. People just stayed in their village most of the time, and if they went to the next town took the bus or train. Only rich people like Lord Peter had cars, yet they were still very much at the mercy of their tires blowing out!

      I find the history of transportation fascinating. Ships, trains, and cars — and of course most of all zeppelins. Airplanes are very interesting too, though I’ve never quite liked jets. They are too noisy. When we were in London we went to the London Transport Museum and learned all about the development of buses and bus lines. It was really chaos until the government began to regulate and control the bus routes. At first there were different bus companies competing for passengers on the same routes! And, of course the trains in England are amazing. I think they said buses had their debut in Paris but it was an American entrepreneur who started it there, then came to London to do the same. If memory serves.

      I do agree that in the land of blizzards, having a spare car does seem like a matter of safety (Oh, good! Another rationalization!). It looks like I will get the blue DeVille but it is just a question of how long I keep them on the hook. I’ve got them to fix one of the problems it has and look into the others. It is too bad that it is just so inconvenient for me to get up to Fridley or I’d go chat up the mechanics. It’s a tiny dealership. They have only one small garage, so they don’t usually do repairs after the car is sold, I’m sure.

      I’ll take you for a ride in it.

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