I put a posting on The Post’s Story Lab blog, asking: “Have you ever loved a car too well?” One woman wrote that she kept the plates of the ’72 AMC Gremlin that she had owned for 14 years and still had dreams about. Another wrote of a ’71 Chevy Nova hitting black ice and flying, unscathed, through a tree. “I proudly drove that ugly, wonderful car with the damaged hood like it was a perverse badge of honor,” she wrote. The Nova did finally die, and nearly 30 years later, “I still mourn the loss of that car.”
Marie Sherrett of Upper Marlboro said she loves her blue 1997 Honda Civic LX with more than 213,000 miles on it because it is the color of her youngest son’s eyes. She named the car “Bessie” and has learned how to fix nearly every part of it herself, because the manual stops giving maintenance advice after 130,000 miles. “I know exactly what it’s going to do, how wide it is, how long it is, what it can do, what it can’t do,” Sherrett said. “If only I could get ahold of Honda’s advertising people, I have the best slogan for them: ‘I Am One With My Honda.’ ”
The stories poured in of “Susie” and “Brownie.” “Chip’s Chariot,” “Cyclops” and “Chuggy,” a 27-year-old diesel Mercedes. People had fallen “head over wheels” they said, for every kind of car imaginable: “tricked-out” Jeeps, sturdy Toyotas, a 1967 Mercury Cougar, sleek Jaguars, dented and faded Chevys, vintage Saabs.
John Colby of Great Falls still had the 43-year-old ad he answered in London’s Evening Standard for the used 1953 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith he bought as a young naval architect for $2,400. Kelly Spencer wrote of driving away from her wedding reception in her 1981 Honda CRX. Twenty years and five kids later, she finally agreed to donate it. “I stood upstairs as the tow truck took the car away and cried my eyes out,” she wrote. “I really felt as though it was a friend and my youth was gone.”
People like us are a mechanic’s dream and a car sales rep’s nightmare. The marketplace loves our loyalty but fears our stubborn refusal to constantly trade up for the next new and shiny model to keep the economy humming.
Over the years, social scientists have measured the human capacity to become overly attached to inanimate objects such as cars. Perhaps we are lonely, they surmise, in pain from disappointed romance, or our very identity has somehow become wrapped up in our cars.
Psychologists at the University of Michigan have found that humans tend to love cars with “anthropomorphic” qualities, such as a front grille that seems to be smiling, and sometimes go to ill-advised lengths to keep those vehicles alive. “This may potentially increase consumers’ maintenance cost beyond economically defensible levels while reducing producers’ sales,” they warned in the Journal of Consumer Psychology in 2010. Zipcar officials found that when they gave each of their rental cars a name, customers took better care of them.
Nancy Sirianni, assistant professor of marketing at Texas Christian University, spent years studying why people love their cars so much.