Oh yeah, we’ve only gone and got a real life Dr in the house. Namely Dr Jonathan Kershaw. He knows a bit about cars and our attachment to them, so when we pondered why we were so attached to our yellow Saab, the good Dr stepped in with a deeply interesting answer.
Earlier this year, the estimable Pollitt posed an automotive conundrum – why, he wondered, did he continue to hold his Saab 93 Cabriolet dear, and even go so far as to miss it? Why did this problem car, a car that had caused no little trouble, continue to engender a fondness? How do some cars get under our skin so, and others not?
An excellent question.
On the face of it, the car in question was essentially a cost-driven Vauxhall Vectra in Swedish couture (and undergarments) without the braces to counteract its missing a roof. As charismatic a marque as Saab was, it wasn’t all it purported to be – or, indeed, that the original Saab 900 cabrio was, scuttle-shake notwithstanding.
First, some background. My PhD considered how the car is ‘consumed’ – as status symbol, avatar, cultural artefact and driving experience – to see if and how any feelings generated might impact upon an uptake of electric vehicles. The motor car is much more than mere transport and, in my capacity as tree-hugging petrolhead and wannabe academic, it occurred to me that it was necessary to look beyond the technology, the practicalities and costs of EVs, and so explore a social and cultural automotive ‘consumption’ to fully assess the potential for EVs.
I did this by following the notion of the ‘affects’, first posited by the 17th century Baruch de Spinoza in his posthumously-published book ‘Ethics’ of 1677, and subsequent academic interpretations thereof. Spinoza says (and bear with the metaphysics here) that God is Nature, something that is purely in and of itself. This ‘Nature’ is something of which we are possessed; an essence that is innate and authentic to us. This ‘Nature’ determines how external ‘causes’ – encounters with other people/objects/things – ‘affect’ us, thus resulting in an increase in happiness, what Spinoza called a ‘greater perfection’, or in sadness, leading to ‘lesser perfection’.
Philosophy lesson over.
So an innate ‘being’ might explain why some of us are instinctively drawn towards small cars, some to supercars, some to SUVs; some to Citroëns, some to Lancias, some to VWs. It’s about what causes us a greater perfection, or a lesser perfection; it’s about our ‘feeling’, or a, car.
An example. Last year, I was given the chance to run a diesel Jaguar XE for a week. The drive from Jaguar’s Wolverhampton facility back to Rochdale raised lots of questions – What’s that ‘bong’ noise? Who needs ‘that’ feature? Who thought of that…? – while the following week with the car left me feeling, well, not much really. The Jag was okay, and looked suitably macho with its subtle R-Sport skirts and ridiculously sized wheels. But it didn’t feel ‘right’ somehow. I didn’t desire it.
Indeed, I found it striking how, jumping back behind the wheel of my Fiat Panda, my immediate thought was “this is more like it”. I do like cars that are small, light, simple and fun. My Panda seemed innately more ‘authentic’. I do love my little Panda. It feels happy. It feels right. More my ‘Nature’, more me.
Developing this theme, I also contend that it’s not just humans that are possessed of an essence, an authenticity. The car is too. Stephen Bayley noted in his 1986 book ‘Sex, Drink, and Fast Cars’ that “more than any other manufactured product, the car enshrines and projects the values of the culture that created it”. Why a car was conceived, how it was created and engineered, and by whom, lends a car an essence, a nature, an authenticity that speaks to us, in ways that we may not notice. Consider, for example, Issigonis’ Mini, or Giacosa’s Nuova Cinquecento, or Porsche’s Beetle, cars borne of necessity and fuel crises, and how they compare to their more modern, reimagined iterations. Do they – like the good Pollitt’s late Saab – ‘say’ the same thing as their predecessors?
Such an automotive essence is also why the Nissan Leaf actually worked as an EV, more so than the Mitsubishi iMiev or the Renault Fluence. Unlike its lashed-up electro-contemporaries, the Leaf was conceived and developed as an EV. Authenticity is key. Likewise, it can be argued that, lacking the true Scandi-chic essence of its pre-GM forebears, the Pollitt’s Saab just wasn’t all that. Despite what the Scandinavian input there was, the later 93 wasn’t authentic. It perhaps wasn’t a real Saab.
So what can we say about the Pollitt’s ‘affection’ for a car that, on the face of it, repeatedly led him to distraction, to a ‘lesser perfection’? The essence of the Saab perhaps caused happiness, even if its antics caused resulted in sadness. What and how a car is speaks to us, its Nature ‘affecting’ our Nature. We may fetishize a particular car or type of car in ways that others necessarily don’t; cars ‘answer’ back. As such, looking at his automotive history, it may be that the Pollitt is innately, positively ‘affected’ by crap cars. They’re just more ‘him’.