I have noticed lately that a lot of my friends are driving Mercedes-Benzes, so I had to ask: Why do you all spend so much money on cars that don't even have velour seats?

Cadillacs, for instance, are cheaper and come with velour seats. You also get a smoother ride. But Cadillacs are no longer fashionable in many of the neighborhoods where my friends live, which indicates a major shift in ethnic car class consciousness.

This all started during the early years of the automobile, when black people developed a special affinity first for Packards and later for Cadillacs because those cars provided solace for egos bruised by discrimination in housing and employment.

But blacks had so much difficulty buying Cadillacs directly from car dealers that they had to hire whites as middlemen and pay them a "black tax."

The problem, as the car dealers saw it, was one of image: How could Cadillacs be billed as the status cars of the world if Negroes could drive them?

Well, as we all know, times change.

"We came to recognize," said Jere Kitzmiller, formerly with General Motors' Detroit Cadillac Division, "that blacks are very style conscious, that they were the trend setters in clothes and automobiles."

Indeed, Cadillac became so willing to accommodate its new black clientele that when black salesmen argued that more cars could be sold if they came in more colors, Cadillac came out with Dreamy Cream and Frost Orange Firemist, among other flamboyant flavors.

It worked -- too well.

So many black people started buying Cadillacs that some started wondering: How can Cadillac be billed as the status car of the world if any Negro can afford one?

Sociologist E. Franklin Frazier called this "conspicuous consumption" among the "black bourgeoisie," but as it turned out, even less well-to-do blacks wanted to be conspicuous. Enter the Pimpmobile.

So what did the well-to-do do? They distinguished themselves by purchasing BMWs. Next thing you know, BMWs got the same problem that Cadillac has.

Of course, no one in the automobile marketing analysis business will admit -- certainly not for the record -- that when a lot of blacks start buying "luxury" cars, it poses a problem for those whose job it is to create the perception of a luxury car.

However, some auto insiders note that makers of cars such as Cadillac and BMW now are seeking ways to "recapture their image both in terms of advertising and product quality without alienating the black middle class."

What we have here is an all-American situation in which successful blacks continually try to distinguish themselves with cars. The car companies are trying to help, but it gets confusing.

For example, some luxury car makers have come out with the cheaper, starter models. Take the Mercedes 190. The idea was to get a person who was up and coming but who had not yet arrived hooked on the idea of owning a Mercedes so that when the promotion came, that person would move up to say, a 300-series Benz.

As it turned out, a lot of black people did not move up, did not get that promotion or that pay raise and were now stuck driving old 190s, which made the Benz people look bad.

Meanwhile, Cadillac's problems were compounded with the "pink Caddy" and "gangster whitewall" syndromes.

Some car lovers became so frustrated that they started buying 4x4 trucks and Jeeps. And lo and behold, police report that those were the vehicles most likely to be stolen for joy rides, or worse, bought by young hustlers who say they go better with cellular telephones, fashion sunglasses and pit bull dogs.

As a result, I am told, 1988 will be the year of the Jaguar, which will be fine as long as they come with velour seats.