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On The Psychology of Car Desire

December 7, 2012 by Matt

A funny thing happened as I was poring over a glossy brochure of an Audi A5 acquired from a chance visit to the dealership a few weeks ago. I felt something I hadn’t experienced in quite some time: The desire for a completely unattainable car.

That used to be all I felt as I flipped through car magazines and road tests. Being young, without (or with marginal) employment and without a driver’s license meant that every car was out of reach. But as I got older, more cars entered the realm of possible purchases, not simply because my bottom line was a bit healthier, but also because many of the cars I fantasized about in my early years had depreciated to the point where they were in reach financially. Add to that a penchant for older, boxier, non- or less-electronically-infested cars and the used car market had become my oyster, so to speak.

My experience flipping through the A5 brochure brought those two different mindsets into sharper focus. Naturally, there’s quite a bit of overlap between the two, but basically, we can distinguish between:

Mazda RX-7 RX7 FD Silver

  • The idea of a car. This is all I had in the beginning. Leafing through coffee table books on vintage Lamborghinis and pictorials of the Porsche factory museum, and reading road tests in Car and Driver and my grandmother’s issues of Consumer Reports shaped my views on automotive matters—but it remained an abstract subject. In a way, it was like “car astronomy;” the vehicles I formed opinions about were as remote to me as stars or planets. I gathered data about them from a distance, but any chance of experiencing them was absent.

    This doesn’t mean, by any stretch, that I was dissatisfied with my situation, any more than an 8-year-old is unhappy reading about dinosaurs or learning about fighter jets. Cars were confined to the realm of theory, and just the activity of organizing the various brands and their offerings in my mind and stacking them up against each other was deeply satisfying. However, as I grew older, a new form of automotive enjoyment came alongside:

    Mazda RX-7 RX7 FB SA22C Light Sky Blue

  • The idea of owning a car. This is where the rubber met the road. This is where I began visualizing myself behind the wheel of a little sports car I could actually endeavor to purchase if I were disciplined enough to save for a few months. All of a sudden, worthwhile cars were within reach, and the emotional thrust of my car interest morphed from simple fascination with cars from a distance to “How can I acquire the car I want?” So much time and energy was spent marshaling resources here and there, pondering trade scenarios, working out potential monthly payments on personal loans… I was still enthralled by theory—more than ever, in fact, now that I could dive under the hood of my latest project and familiarize myself with its intricacies—but the additional hemming and hawing over whether a purchase or trade would be the right decision came into play. I agonized over these things. There was, and continues to be, a restlessness absent the gentle succession of internal spotlights on the unattainable magazine car du jour.

That kind of anxiety-free excitement over a particular car model came rushing back to me as I perused the A5’s brochure, and the twinge of forgotten familiarity pleased me, like a comforting smell I hadn’t experienced in years. I want more of the perspective from my younger days; I need to endeavor keep the fingers of potential acquisition from reflexively closing around whatever car I may be fascinated with next. It’s just more healthy that way.

Filed under: Car Culture, Car Stories, Miscellaneous

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