Is it mere coincidence that we use the prefix auto to mean both car and self ?
Or is there some validity to the theory that you are what you drive?
Our cars can indeed speak for us, although maybe not volumes, say psychologist Steve LaMotte of Huntington Beach and Anaheim psychiatrist Martin Brenner.
"We really view automobiles as an extension of some of our inner psychic needs," LaMotte says. But, taken to extremes, that can be a problem, Brenner warns. "You have to avoid jumping to conclusions. It can be like bigotry. . . . You can't draw a whole lot of conclusions about somebody based on one aspect of their behavior, appearance or life style."
Both experts say the tendency to type-cast people by their cars is greater in a place such as Orange County, where we spend so much time on the road. And so is the need to use the car as a vehicle not only for getting from one place to another, but for getting across a message.
There isn't much scientific research on the subject of auto-expression through automobiles, and both doctors caution that their opinions are based not on specific car psychology training, but rather on their own perceptions and experience.
Brenner says it is possible to draw some tentative conclusions.
"In general, people who own cars that can really go tend to drive them that way," he says. In his Stress Care Driving Program at Western Medical Center-Anaheim, Brenner teaches patients to reduce the stresses of driving. Sometimes, that means switching cars. "I had one guy who, when I started telling him to slow down, left his Cadillac at home and started driving his van because he just couldn't go as fast in it."
After he learned to slow down, the man was able to switch back, Brenner says.
"Obviously if someone has a very practical car, that says something about their choices in life, their financial situation and their priorities. Someone who drives an American car may be doing it to be patriotic and support our country's economy. And obviously, if you have a guy who's always driven a black Cadillac who switches to a red Porsche, he's doing something to attract a lot of attention," Brenner says.
The color of a car also matters. "Color does express a certain amount of energy level and the degree to which we're willing to be obtrusive, noticed and recognized," LaMotte says. "Bright colors are traditionally associated with passion and zest, while duller colors are associated with restraint, conformity and self-control."
Alan Guzik of Costa Mesa agrees that his red Toyota Celica convertible "seems to satisfy my need for attention."
"People are all the time saying, 'Nice car!' Even kids on the corner or people at a bus stop. The car gets a lot of compliments from passing motorists and blond women. It makes me feel pretty good. In Southern California, it's tough to be a little different, to be noticed, without spending $60,000 for a car."
His fellow drivers may take a look at Guzik and assume, erroneously, that he leads a free-wheeling life style to match the car. But he is happily married with two young sons and "a very conservative job. I wear suits every day, my hair is short, and I carry a briefcase."
Janet Eastman of Costa Mesa dreams of driving a red convertible. Meanwhile, she drives a Volvo. Her second Volvo.
"It doesn't bother me anymore when people say, 'You have such a nice, safe car,' " she says. "But I haven't given up my secret desire to one day own a red 560 SL Mercedes. In my fantasy, I pop the top, cancel all my appointments by using my car phone, and head up the coast."
Donna Fulwell of Corona, a.k.a. Diesel Donna, has no use for little red convertibles. She feels at home in a truck, either the 18-wheeler she drives in Orange County as well as nine states, or her personal blue-and-white 1982 Ford super-cab pickup.
She does have a car, a 1968 Mustang California Special, but that's more for sentimental reasons. "It was the first car I ever owned," she says.
"I used to be terrified of trucks. I remember walking along the highway to my girlfriend's house, and when a truck came by I'd run into the pasture and wait until it went by. But I got over the fear. Now I love trucks. . . . They make me feel not so vulnerable and unprotected as in a car."
Scott Kravetz of Rossmoor, who drives a burgundy 1987 BMW 325, says, "I don't like the yuppie representation of my car." For one thing, he is only 19. "My dad wanted to buy me a car. If I would have had the money in my pocket, I probably would have gotten a Honda Prelude or something.
"When I drive up next to people my age, I worry, are they thinking, 'Such a spoiled brat.' I don't want to be judged for my car; I want to be judged for myself. This car is supposed to command respect, to show power. But I don't like to get caught up in all that."
Pat Lay Wilson of Santa Ana, a clown and puppeteer, drives a Pepto-Bismol pink Toyota pickup.
"What does that say about me? That I'm sort of wacko," she says. "When it was white, I was just very anonymous. But my kids had it painted for Mother's Day. "I now get a lot of attention on the freeways and byways. Here's this 51-year-old, white-haired person tooling down the road. . . . Kids enjoy it a lot, and guys from 15 to their early 20s really get off on the color. Much honking and waving."
In keeping with her car's new color, Wilson has renamed her clown character. "I used to be Paprika. Now I'm Pepto, the Abysmal Clown."
Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.