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I Don’t Dream of Owning a Classic Car

Hollywood tends to be quixotic about middle class life. Just about every character in a TV show or movie set in New York City seems to have a $500/month rent controlled 1,500 square foot apartment in the Upper West Side.

Such things, though, are forgivable. Who really wants to be confronted with the reality of the housing situation in New York?

But one thing that bugs me are the cars characters drive. Increasingly, it seems like everyone in movies and TV shows drive vintage cars.

If Hollywood has taught me anything, it’s that there is an abundant supply of classic Ford Mustangs available, and they are surprisingly affordable. For example, consider War of the Worlds. Despite his blue-collar job and crummy house, Tom Cruise’s character manages to own a 1966 Shelby GT 350. A good condition version sells for well over $100k. You’d think the ex-wife would have gone after that asset during the divorce.

This is just one of many, many examples, and I only mention it because I’m too embarrassed to name the titles of the other movies where “average” people are cruising around in classic cars. Ok, one other example: in What Happens in Vegas Zach Galifianakis’ character owns a 1972 Plymouth Satellite (my excuse for watching this movie is that I was sick, couldn’t sleep and I played Angry Birds the whole time). It’s nowhere near as expensive as a good condition 1960s Mustang, but you aren’t likely to see many people driving around in a ’72 Satellite.

The reason protagonists drive these cars is because they’re visually striking. Further, the cars communicate that a character is hip. Everything we see on the screen is supposed to tell us something about the character – their clothes, how their apartment is furnished, their haircut, etc. But this all rings hollow for me. Cars are probably the one product we buy that isn’t a self-expression of our inner self.

Like movie characters, we use clothing, hairdos and the pictures hanging on our walls as a means to express the kind of person we are. But when it comes to cars, this isn’t the case. Car makers are always insisting that a car is a form of self-expression (such as this winter’s BMW commercial about not settling for less), but Americans have never really bought into that. People don’t buy a Toyota because they think it symbolizes the person they are – they buy it because it gets good mileage, is reliable and inexpensive.

This issue irks me because it goes so against reality. While I think people like the idea of owning a classic car, no one actually buys them as an everyday vehicle – they’re unsafe, unreliable and money pits. And given how precious and rare these cars are, no one wants to risk taking them out on the street. You rarely see these cars being driven – they sit in a garage all day and only come out for some kind of auto show. I easily see more Bentleys and Ferraris than 1960s Mustangs.

Whether or not a character in a movie can really afford the kind of apartment they’re living in, owning such an apartment is still a goal I can identify with – the products in movies represent our own consumer aspirations. So the unrealistically large apartment is at least archetypal of middle class values.

I don’t think many people have a desire to own a classic mussel car. For the same money I think most folks would rather take a 5 or 7 Series BMW. And if I could own any car, it would be an Aston Martin DB9. We’re so practical when it comes to our cars – except for maybe gas mileage – that these vintage cars are totally out of place in movies that are supposed to be about identifiable people. It breaks the reality more than invading alien armies.

Ironically, I see classic cars driven in movies so often that they are no longer unique. The only time I actually take note of car a character is driving is when it’s something like an early 1990s Honda civic. I don’t think there is anything that can communicate a sense of authenticity about a character than them driving an old nondescript Japanese car.

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