The Psychology of Ugly Cars, or "In Defense of Minivans"


I didn’t realize until several years back that I was highly uncool, by virtue of the fact that I own a minivan.  Now, I mostly drive my convertible these days—even though it’s an oldie (but not nearly vintage, of course), it’s still cool—but we own a minivan, which my wife (who’s blissfully unconcerned about cool, at least until she gets her Mustang convertible in years to come) drives regularly. It’s comfortable, functional, reasonably-economical.  We haul family in it, Chick-fil-A in it, yard tools and other things in it (though there has never been a torture invented that is worthy of infliction upon whomever invented the “easy-to-remove” rear seats).

The other day, I pull up behind a Lamborghini.  Sweet machine.  Living in the ATL, we tend to see these types of beasts a little more frequently than we did when living in small-town PA.  I’ve got a friend with a Lotus.  Ferraris aren’t dime-a-dozen, but they’re around, and Jags?  Well, pretty commonplace.  Then, a few minutes later, I pull up beside a royal blue Honda Element.  You probably know what I’m talking about, but if you aren’t at all into cars (actually, for most of the ladies in my reading audience, they stopped reading after the words “royal blue”.  “What kind of car was it, dear?”  “Oh, it was a pretty blue one.”), I should let you know that the Honda Element is, along with the Toyota version of the same basic automobile, perhaps the ugliest car ever to be built, or at least since AMC went out of business.  This thing is Ugly with a Transmission.  It’s Rolling Repulsion, Grotesque on Wheels, a Metal Monster.  If you happen to drive one, may the Lord bless you real good, and you’re a wonderful person, I’m sure, but your car is not pretty.

But here’s the point: so what?  So what?

I got to thinking about this some time back.  What matters about a car?  Rephrasing that, what should matter about a car?  Let me suggest a few things.  Does it effectively and efficiently get you and yours to where you want to go?  Can you take along the stuff you need to?  Is the driving experience enjoyable (this is the main reason I bought the convertible—and it is fun, I assure you)?  I could probably think of one or two more things, but when you boil it down, those are the things that really matter, right?  And the fact of the matter is that while you are doing what a car is designed to do, you can’t even see what it looks like on the outside.  It makes utterly no difference.

So why this obsession with sleek cars, or cool cars, or cars that look good?  Seems to me it’s this, at least in significant part: we want other peoplemost of whom we will never meet—to see us in our cool cars, to agree that those cars are cool, to think that we then are the coolest of people because we drive such neat machines.

How silly is that, really?  Really?

Someone has said that Americans spend money they don’t have, to buy things they don’t need, to impress people they don’t like.  In the case of some people’s car-buying decisions, it’s to impress people they’ll never meet.

A friend of mine in PA bought one of those hideous Elements a few years back, and I sort of good-naturedly ribbed him about it.  Bill acknowledged that the thing wasn’t much to look at, but he said that it really did for his family what they needed it to do.

And you know what?  That’s plenty good enough.  Or at least, it should be.

That’ll be me in the Town & Country.  Be sure to wave.


  1. Jillian Ziemann on April 29, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    Dear dear Byron, you have such a wonderful thought process! We will never go in debt again to pay for a “nice car”! Now that is out of the way,I drive a mini-van and LOVE IT! I may not be cool to others, but my bank account sure appreciates it!

Leave a Comment