This idea took root several years ago when I first watched Disney-Pixar's runway hit - Cars. The concept of personifying cars seemed like a casual and entertaining notion back then, but it did crop up in a conversation with a friend a few weeks ago.
Her sister had recently purchased a Toyota Prius, and she was curious to know my thoughts on the car, in general. While she'd heard most of the public take a very polarizing stance on that car, I chose to take the diplomatic way out instead. I said that I had loved its design at launch, but for some reason, it never grew on me and lacked the sort of personality that'd ever make me buy it. And this led to a detailed discussion on whether cars even have their own personality?
Let's see. What if I told you that a tiny EV glides noiselessly past you on the road and stops just a few steps ahead. The minuscule door of this car opens, and suddenly, Dwayne Johnson steps out of the car! 😁
How would you feel if that ever happened to you? I'll tell you what I'd feel. I'd obviously be excited to see him, and then terrified to approach him, and then just shameless enough to ask for an autograph. But first, I'd want to know that how in the heavens could he get into a car built to fit only a ten-year-old!
But we shall refrain from cracking a 'dopes in a Volkswagen' joke right now, so let's move on!
WHAT about that image, apart from the obvious, does not sit right in our minds? Maybe this example was too extreme, so let's do another one.
You are strolling down a noisy street in India, and suddenly you spot a bright yellow Hummer stop on the opposite bank of the road. Now, you know that Sunil Shetty owns a yellow Hummer. How do you know that irrelevant fact? I don't know; maybe someone mentioned it in passing, or you read about it in the WastedTimes Of India, or you just had an intuition! Anyway, you eagerly await 'anna' to step out of the car. After ten seconds, a middle-aged woman flanked by two bodyguards emerges from the vehicle, with a toddler in tow.
Now, that's not too odd! Clearly, an influential woman, probably well-to-do, owns a massive car that can accommodate an entire troop of women just like her. 😋 But that's not what you expected! You expected a grizzly man in his mid-fifties to step out of the car, wearing a leather jacket and aviators-that-are-too-cool-for-his-age.
Again, why the mismatch?
Probably because throughout history, a systemic cultural influence in media, entertainment, profession and business has taught us that certain 'kind' of people use certain vehicles usually. Let's call this cultural influence what it rightfully is - 'stereotyping'.
There's an entire class of vehicles called 'muscle' that, in your mind, will only suit hunky dudes with arm-length tattoos or skinny chicks with multiple piercings. Then there are the station wagons or 'mom' vans, which, as the name suggests, are generally used by moms or families to ferry around family members from house to school to mart and back! There's the elite group of sedans that are supposed to be strictly professional, weirdly barring all instances when Jason Statham needs to transport stuff, of course. The Bay area has Teslas and electric vehicles filled with geeks and green entrepreneurs, while the usual blend of Beetle and Cooper seats the sporty yet funky generation.
There are many more. Stereotyping, by definition, is as limitless as our capacity to typecast people and vehicles into meaningless and stupid groups. On the one hand, the world fights against racism, sexism and other such prejudices, while on the other, simple systemic demarcations such 'muscle' and 'soccer van' reinforce those very evils. But, there's also a more materialistic impact of these car personalities on the car industry itself.
Vehicle manufacturers have to cater to specific target demographics while designing new cars instead of enjoying the freedom to reimagine the passenger car. As a result, we only see a slightly modified design of the same model year after year, with no defining personality. Would you believe the irony? In the bid to conform to a specific stereotype, they manage to suck the individuality out of the car completely!
Some manufacturers did try to break the mould. Case in point - the Toyota Prius, which was not a typical sedan with a boring four-door design. It borrowed from the likes of hatchbacks and wagons to create a truly unique profile. In fact, this car was so singular that it split the entire market into two factions - the haters and the blatant defenders. There's one group of people who basically want to torch every single Prius that they lay their eyes on, while the other, like Prius missionaries, wants to convert every last car owner into a brother or sister. Touché.
Why are we so dismissive of the owners who drive these cars? As an avid F1 follower, I KNOW that no two vehicles are the same if driven by different people. Pick up any current F1 team from the grid and show me one instance where the cars have the same personality, irrespective of their drivers?
Well, I set the bar too low there. Let's exclude Haas and Williams from this example. 😂
And for the non-F1 people out there, let me cite a more cringeworthy example. If I start driving a McLaren tomorrow, would it make me look cool? NO! Because I'm still going to be the same old semi-bald guy who steps out of the car and not effin James Hunt!
And that's the point.
Just as a car need not make someone uber-cool, it also need not make someone a dud! Real 'men' can drive a VW Beetle, while a sophisticated well-dressed guy can step out of an F150! Cars have a personality only based on the status that we lend them. Otherwise, they are just a piece of metal rolling around on four wheels.
So, the next time you want to stereotype a car's personality, think REALLY long and hard about how you could be wrong, and also be a tiny bit racist, sexist or elitist, or a damned Disney cartoonist! 😂