The automobile: Objet d'art - Daniel Silliman

The little black car fluttered and sputtered through the Atlanta parking lot, and all of us Saturday shoppers turned to look. A girl, standing on the sidewalk in front of the mega-chain bookstore, holding a $7 latte, starting cooing. She said, "ooooooooooowh," which I took to mean she liked the car.

All of the dozen or so shoppers, standing there, were similarly charmed. Children bounced up and down, women smiled and men looked on approvingly, each saying something about old cars. One man named it, saying "Model T" authoritatively, like a zoological pronouncement. Another man cited the slogan, "As long as it's painted black," as if that somehow was important.

The little old white guy, driving the car, was dressed like an antique dandy in an ascot and leather driving gloves. He leaned on the steering wheel and the horn went off like a bull moose getting a vasectomy.

For this feat, the little man was applauded, and he got a huge grin all over his face.

I am not sure why we gave him credit for the car. It seemed like he had accomplished something, even though, as far as I know, he only drove it across a parking lot. He probably fixed up the old car and maintains it obsessively, but I don't know that, and even if it's true, it's not like he designed it or built it.

Yet the vehicle is an extension of the man. It's an incredibly personal object. We would never dream of defining people by their washing machines, judging them by their lawn mowers, or calculating their characters based on the dishes they eat off of, but cars are different. Cars, like music or drinks, are understood by everyone to be an expression of your personality.

My favorite car -- a standard-transmission, a mint-green-colored Chevy pickup, formerly owned by the U.S. Forest Service -- died on me in college. I loved that truck, and had driven it from coast to coast repeatedly. I went one semester without a car and my friends made a parlor game out of thinking what my next car should be. A Cadillac hearse? A repainted mail van? A VW van? An antique truck?

The game only works, obviously, because the kind of car you drive is assumed to say so much about you.

Curt Yeomans, the education reporter who sits across from me in the newsroom, recently was in the market for a new vehicle, and we played that game, suggesting various rides he should buy. An Aerostar minivan? A bondo-colored El Camino? A '69, Dukes-of-Hazzard-style Dodge Charger?

We were teasing him, then he apparently seriously suggested that his perfect car would be a Mini Cooper with the Union Jack painted on top. Actually, maybe that was a joke, comparing him to spoof-spy Austin Powers, which he took to be a good idea. We all reacted like he had revealed some secret about his soul. He started looking for a Mini Cooper, online, and we told him, no he couldn't do that, we wouldn't allow it, it would just be wrong.

Why, though? Why would any car be wrong for anyone? After we answer the questions of function and cost, why are there any questions left? When I buy a light bulb, I'm thinking about function and cost. When I buy a toaster, I want it to toast bread and not cost too much. When we discuss a cell phone purchase, we (with the notable exception of iFreaks) talk about reception and service plans. But automobiles evoke this extreme response of aesthetic judgment. They're not just cars. Each is an objet d'art.

I want to know when this happened. Did Henry Ford do this? Was this something that happened after World War II? When did we pass that line, in the evolution into a car culture, where cars went from practical objects to artistic expressions of self?

Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 254, or via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.