You Are What You Drive

01 Dec 2002, Posted by Steven Kotler in

Does society really define you by your car? One guy takes four very different auto identities for a spin.

For the first ten years I lived in this state, California car culture meant nothing to me. I resided in San Francisco and drove a used Isuzu Trooper. I eschewed fancy rides. I used words like eschew, often while listening to NPR. Then I moved to Los Angeles. That’s where a light went bling-bling in my head, and I began dreaming in horsepower and OnStar. I argued that L.A. is bigger than most island nations, that going from point A to point B can take a whole afternoon, that I eschewed public transportation. But the truth is simpler. I saw who got the most beautiful dates and the best tables. I saw what they drove. And I decided to test-drive four cars—each one for a week—on the road of good intentions and see where it led.

Week One: 2002 Toyota Sienna MiniVan

It’s a universal truth: No one’s tough in a minivan. And the maroon color doesn’t help. I begin my journey inside a giant eggplant. When I glide into my parking garage, the attendant, who sees me breakfast, lunch, and dinner 24-7, pokes his head out the ticket-booth window to check out my new wheels.

“Yo, man, ’sup with this? Your car in the shop? You driving your old lady’s ride?”

Later that day, while I’m winding down a rather narrow road, some clown in a Hummer comes barreling toward me, taking up half the road and wedging my neither nimble nor nubile soccer-mom-mobile onto the thin edge. He’s got pavement aplenty on the other side of his tank, but I’m clipping mailboxes and breathing foliage. There’s no place to pull over and, okay, I’ve had a rough couple of hours. I’m not my normal cheerful self. So when this jerk comes Hummering past me with his window down hollering “Motherfucker, out of my way” and flipping me the bird, I lose it for a moment. Next thing you know, I’ve slammed brakes, flung doors, and am standing, screaming in the street for him to “come back here so I can kick your ass!”

That’s when I notice the two guys in the convertible Beemer who’ve been driving behind me. They’ve seen the whole ugly affair.

“What happened? Kids late for school?”
As I was saying, no one’s tough in a minivan.

If you really want to test your car’s pull in L.A., you need to submit it for approval to the parking valets, the guys who make their living in bright red vests and have the deepest understanding of how one’s chances of success can hang in a hubcap’s balance. They are the taste-makers of California car culture.

So I take a date to the Electric Lotus, roll into the lot, and see plenty of empty spots. We head inside, have dinner, come back—but I don’t see my car. I give the guy my ticket and expect him to trot into a corner. I’m driving a minivan; I can live with a back corner. But dude goes sprinting out of the lot and down the street. No, a back corner was too good for me. He’s parked my love-eliminator around the corner, in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven.

For my next date, I decide to hark back to the glory days of airbrushed vans. I rent a couple of good movies. Classics. Everyone loves a classic. I have Debbie Does Dallas playing on the mini TV. I buy a dozen airplane bottles of booze and toss them in a lunch box for my minibar. I give it my best. But let me just say for the record that asking, “Ever made it in the back of a minivan?” never got anyone laid.

Week Two: 2002 Mercedes-benz G500 SUV

The SUV has done more damage to California’s reputation than anything since B.H. 90210. It epitomizes—oh, yeah, does it ever. And the Mercedes G500 SUV takes the cake. This is the car Mr. Jennifer Aniston drives. This is a $73,000 gas-guzzler designed to get attention. The first night out, I get accosted at a gas station. Between parking lot and pack of gum, four different folks want to know the what-where-why and most specifically the who. Who the fuck am I? Because when you drive a truck like this in a town like this, it’s always a question of who. Some guy wearing flip-flops? Driving this? That ain’t right.

I roll down Sunset Strip and into Miyagi’s. This is Car Porn Central. This is the joint where the valets have serious clout. The parking lot is off to one side, but the driveway rolls right along the restaurant, which has three tiers of patio seating. If you’ve got real power, the valets leave your car in front, ogling distance from the tables. I’ve been here before. They tossed my Isuzu into the back of the back lot and ignored me all night. I had to beg to be served. Tonight my ride stays out front. The hostess nearly hugs me hello. The waitress follows suit. Everyone in the joint watches me sit down. Feel the love!

After dinner, still enjoying the afterglow, my crew and I head down to the Standard hotel. Here, it’s to be expected that the valet will pay me no mind. Even in this car, I’m the same as anyone else. But when I get bupkis in the way of reaction, I’m still disappointed. That is, until I get back in the car. See, here’s the thing about the G500: The dashboard is digital. It sits right in front of the steering wheel. All the information is in plain sight—including the trip odometer. Which, when I went inside, read 47 miles. I know because I made a joke about it. My friends laughed. But when I come back out to get in my car? Now there are 52 miles on the digital. Five miles from driveway to parking lot? Someone took her for a spin—yup, just like it was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. (A spokesperson for the Standard calls this “highly unlikely.”)

The car-centric logic of Los Angeles makes even more sense to me a few days later at the Urth Café in West Hollywood, where the parking lot and the outdoor tables are separated by about ten inches. I give my car to the valet and take a step to my seat—literally. Right beside me sits a saucy blonde who has watched my entire journey. When she turns to talk, I’m expecting snide remarks. But no, she wants to know how the G500 handles. One thing leads to another, and, well, we’re all familiar with the bumper- sticker homily if this van’s a-rockin’, don’t come a-knockin’. The G500? All I know is the shocks could use some work and thank God the windows are tinted.

Week Three: 1969 Convertible Cadillac DeVille

Classic cars are a commitment. Not just because they break down every other mile. But because you might as well forget about the drive-thru. I wanted a bit of that fifties cool. I also wanted a snack. It took two hours to find a burger joint with a parking lot big enough to turn into.

But while other drivers and pedestrians gape as my fins and rims swing into their path, those who climb inside are also affected. When I head out on the town with my friends, suddenly these guys, who watch rap videos as much as anyone else, start speaking Jay-Zese.

“Rolling in the 6-9, and all my homies say . . .”
“Kiznadillac diz-a-ville!”
“Hey,” I say. “You’re two Jews from the suburbs!”

So do you get a lot of play in a classic Caddy? You do turn heads. Which might be because the car’s the size of Rhode Island and the exhaust pipe plumes like a steel mill. Those turned heads—I’m not exactly certain—they might just be trying to find a little air to breathe.

There is one reaction I didn’t expect. It turns out that there is yet another secret society here in car country. These are what you might call the classics scholars, the guys who pound dents in the name of historical preservation. And they’re at every damn stoplight. Pulling up next to me, their old Novas booming and belching.

“Yo, bro, sweet ride.”
“Yeah, thanks.”
“So what’d it cost you?”
Well, truth be told, I don’t have a clue. But I toss out a number.
“Wha . . . ?”

Twenty-six turns out to be the wrong answer. As does the fact that I don’t know whether I’m driving a “big block” or a V-8, or what the hell a master cylinder does or if I’ve rebuilt the carb, or anything else, for that matter. In this land of make-believe, my lack of facts lumps me in with all the other pretenders. I’m just another guy trying to buy some authenticity. I’ve got no gas in my tank.

Week Four: 2002 Maserati Spyder Convertible

Call it luck or fate or happy coincidence, but the first night I drove the Maserati I had dinner with an actress. Before you think I’m all that, let me just say that it was work-related. I’m not going to tell you her name, but you’ve seen her before and you will see her again. And there is nothing like getting caught in traffic, in a convertible Maserati, with a beautiful actress as your co-pilot. Heads don’t just spin, they spin off into orbit.

When I pull up at Koi, a swank sushi joint, the valet says, “I assume you want it kept out front.” Well, of course I do! What he fails to mention is that while the normal parking vig is four bucks, the out-front treatment costs twenty. But here’s the thing about driving this car: I find myself passing out presidents with the greatest of ease. I slip the guy his Jackson without blinking, and, hell, I toss in a Lincoln for good measure.

On Rodeo Drive, as I slide into a street spot, Tourist X starts snapping my photo. Like, Look, honey—celebrity! I don’t have a clue who he is, but he’s big. Just look at the car! Which should be funny, except that twenty minutes later I’m buying a $200 Armani shirt I can’t afford, just because it matches the damn car.

Everywhere I go, someone dudes me up.
“Dude, what kind of car is that?”
Not just at stoplights. It happens in traffic. It happens on the freeway, at 80 mph.

“It’s a Maserati.” And then I zero-to-60 in 4.9. Because I can.

This car is turning me into an asshole. Just for kicks, on my last day in the Maserati, I pull into a Hyundai dealership, ten salesmen gaping at me through the window, nearly stumbling all over each other to get to me first.

“Umm . . . can I help you?”
“Yeah, I want to trade her in.”

I actually did it. I took a test-drive within my test-drive. And not a minute into it, I started to feel awful. There I was, sitting next to some guy trying to make a living while I’m playing Mr. Living Large. After weeks of the royal treatment, a Hyundai wasn’t big enough for me. I don’t even think my ego could fit in the trunk.

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