Cars as Symbols of Wealth and Power


What cars stand for or symbolize in their owners’ minds can be very different from how others perceive those vehicles.

The classic example would be the Hummer. A large number of these were sold—not for off-road, work-truck use, but to make a statement about the driver’s testosterone level. Like NFL players, they were big, strong, powerful and overweight.

They were also heavy polluters, got DOT safety exemptions and an unfair tax deduction for their owners. They made a lot of other drivers angry.

One of our frequent commenters, panayoti, put some thoughts together (see comment #5 here) on why those who buy luxury SUVs (land barges) should be perfectly able to choose and drive what they want without getting dumped on.

Paris Hilton's pink BentleyWell, of course they should, but it’s not a matter of environmentalism or economics, as he suggests. It’s about human psychology: greed, envy, strutting, preening one’s feathers, power-hunger—and the reactions these displays cause in others. It can become a “my judgment against yours” thing.

The newer land barges that I wrote about cause these reactions in many of us, just as the Hummer did, because their owners appear to flout not only needs of the environment but common sense and good taste. It’s like Paris Hilton and her pink Bentley.

If people want to drive cars like the Infiniti QX56, they ought to expect comments like mine:

It is easily the ugliest new car on the road; it’s a “dressed-up truck…ultimately assembled from Nissan’s mainline parts bin”; it handles like a pig and costs $75,000 as tested.

I also called these cars part of the American Dream, since many people aspire to them, as they do to status symbols like Ferraris, diamonds and other accoutrements of the elites. Women drive these cars to share in their man’s power domain, maybe in his alpha-maleness.

Car lovers get so enmeshed with the objects of their desire that they frequently fail to recognize how others view their behavior. And what is a status symbol for one group is a joke to another.

A parking-lot attendant makes disparaging remarks about your black Escalade. How do you react?


Find Used Cars in Your Area at CarGurus

Used Hummer
Used Infiniti QX56
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  1. I see trucks all the time on the road that the people clearly bought, not for work or anything useful, but just to have a big tall vehicle to sit in. It’s really sad every time I see one because it is such a waste since there is no utility to it. People make the claim that if you buy a fast car (corvette, etc.) you how low self esteem, mid-life crisis, small penis, etc. but I think that is more true for the truck buyers (unless of course the corvette buyer, etc. never utilizes the speed of their vehicle, they just got it to show off. I think the most telling sign of whether someone bought a vehicle to show it off or due to low self esteem is whether they actually utilize the vehicle or not. Like I said I see it all the time and it is so, so sad.

  2. Booyah Leif!! So Doctor Senor you are suggesting that women not have penis envy? or a bounce in their step? or to share in their man’s success? or to be seen in a nice eye-turning vehicle?? I, personally would love to have such a woman holding on to my arm as we go to the opera, a Laker’s game or to a nice restaurant. I also take issue with your reference to greed in the context of a vehicle purchase. I don’t believe that people, no matter their socio-economic status, buy vehicles because of greed, but rather utility, functionality, and the economics of their situation.

    I would also question your apparent denial of economics and environmentalism as a crucial decision making factor in a vehicle purchase. Your reference to the “needs” of the environment gives away your own personal belief to this mystical force that has penetrated our lexicon. If by that you mean “saving” the earth, I seriously doubt that even 10% of car buyers have that on their must have list in shopping for a vehicle. Gas mileage should not be confused with saving the environment. As reader Leif has expressed, no one has the right to shame someone because of the vehicle they drive. That is an individual decision guided by the factors that you believe in and have been taught or learned.. Common sense and good taste are acquired traits that are learned over a lifetime of many experiences and that takes a long to to acquire.

    Truth be told, I personally detest and abhor excess when intentionally and deliberately formulated for that purpose, so yes, I too don’t like Lady’s pink car or the fluorescent green Hummer any more than you do, but to excoriate people for a perceived flaw that doesn’t match up to your personal beliefs is making judgements on a whole class of people that you have just neatly packaged in a box. We have several posters here who revel in demeaning other peoples judgement and decisions and that is just plain wrong no matter what side of the discussion we are on.

    On the positive side, I thank you for trying to explain the anger that many people have concerning ownership of certain vehicles. As balanced as you tried to be in stating your thesis for this piece, I remain unconvinced that the factors that you cite play a significant role in the average person’s decision in selecting their dream car. I firmly believe that our judgements are learned by balancing conflicting and sometime contradictory views of those in our socio-economic grouping and education. In plain English, we all have our biases and we express those in dissimilar ways, but the part that continues to baffle me is the rage invoked by another’s opinion. An opinion is just that, an opinion. Why rage and not agreeing to disagree??

  3. Nothing wrong with buying a vehicle that makes you happy, whether it’s a big Hummer or classic 1969 Camaro. If you can afford it there is no reason not to go and get yourself your favorite vehicle. The idea of taxing someone based on their preference or taste in vehicles is wrong. If I had a black Escalade and some parking attendant was making disparaging remarks about it, I would give him hell. He’d have no right trying to make me feel ashamed. Your vehicle is your pride and joy, and a symbol of who you are. Maybe it’s just me but if I see a nicer vehicle than mine, I’d be more likely to give a compliment.

  4. It’s ironic that you invoke “the American dream” which, for so many, has become nothing more than an excuse to take more than one’s fair share, to destroy the environment, to ransome one’s own children’s future for a brief burst of temporal pleasure…… Well, I guess now that I think about it, that’s always been American dream. I guess I’m a support of one’s right to be stupid and greedy, but we should make those folks pay a very heavy price. We used to tax these folks at income tax rates hitting 50%, but now they pay so little that essentially all of us poor taxpayers are paying for their excess. There’s always the French way (or Arab spring) to deal with this, but hopefully the very wealthy will wake up before it becomes too late for them. Somehow a walled compound protected by minimum wage security guards or an army made up of poor people may backfire in the end.

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