When five rugby personalities were given 60 seconds each to speak about former Springbok captain John Smit at his tribute dinner in Sandton earlier this year, what stood out for Percy Montgomery was that Smit had taken him for a drive in his black Mustang. “It was intense,” Montgomery effused.
The Mustang has been described as “wild and untamed” and America’s favourite “muscle car”. In South Africa, however, this American beauty is eclipsed by racy European models, notably the BMW, which attracts more covetous descriptions like “sexy”, “potent” and “cool”, and is endorsed by the rich and powerful, like mining magnate Patrice Motsepe who gets around in a BMW 750 iL.
BMWs also come in for snide derision by non-BMW drivers, of course, with the words “arrogant SOB” featuring strongly in their sometimes loudly expressed vocabulary.
Peevish opinions about conspicuous cars and their owners give us a vent for envy, or at least some comic relief, like this succinct observation by comedian John Vlismas: “Lamborghini drivers seem to be dazed at their own splendour, wafting past in a haze of self-love. Ferrari drivers often look like men who have forgotten how to have sex, and are racing to find it. BMW drivers are as both of the above, minus the budget. Any 4x4 driver in an urban setting thinks they are a wholesome and admirable adventurer, but they’re actually just deluded, fossil-pillaging, corporate leeches. And those family stickers on the back are the final straw!”
It all goes to show how personal the relationship between a man (and woman) and his (or her) car is.
Sexy, strong, carefree, narcissistic, ambitious, arrogant, crass, discreet, clever, superior, fun-loving, caddish, super cool, deluded, wannabe womaniser… all these qualities are variously attached to what is, after all, just a hunk of steel, however shapely or speedy.
The car as a symbol of who you are, or how you’d like to project yourself, is nothing new. Way back in the 1950s Roland Barthes, in his book Mythologies, noted that consumers purchased products “because there is an unmeasured value attached to them through myths and symbols”. In the case of cars, society tends to afford you higher status if your wheels are in the expensive bracket.
Psychologists have coined the term “somatomorphism” to describe people’s tendency to identify with objects as though they were alive, animate or conscious. South African roads are a textbook example of this, our showy political and business elite being among the most voracious buyers of top-of-the-range luxury cars, like the R2 million Porsche 911 Turbo and a R500 000 Chrysler 300c that Jacob Zuma’s son Duduzane reportedly drives.
And whatever Vlismas has to say, Lamborghinis and Ferraris are widely seen as the epitome of cool in our country – sushi king Kenny Kunene drove a Lamborghini worth about R2.6m which he has since sold, and big, flashy SUVs continue to enjoy a robust market despite being notorious petrol guzzlers and environment-unfriendly. And despite the economic downturn, South Africa remains one of the world’s biggest markets for Porsche.
Then there’s the Mercedes, one of the loudest models of which, the C63 AMG, is owned by Julius Malema – although the SA Revenue Service looks ready to relieve him of it.
Evert van der Veer, head of Comedy Central Africa, confesses to owning an even bigger model, the 380 SEC, in bright blue. “It’s one of the most beautiful cars ever built and it took me three months to find one. It’s pure porn,” he laughs.
Hannes Oosthuizen, editor of Car magazine, confirms South Africans have an appetite for flashy cars.
“The Bentley, Lamborghini, Ferrari and Maserati are all popular, and the Range Rover 4x4 has become particularly popular,” he says, pointing out that the buyers of pricey wheels – you’re looking at about R2.6m for a Mercedes-Benz sports car and up to R2m for a BMW 7 Series – are not affected by the recession, although it’s no secret that some of the status seekers driving around in six- or seven-figure vehicles skimp on the standard of their accommodation to make their stratospheric car repayments.
The sacrifice is apparently worth it, as luxury cars seem to glorify them in the eyes of their contemporaries.
BMWs are regarded almost as cultural icons in the townships, being incorporated into the lingo with new meanings for the acronym, such as “Be My Wife” or “Black Man’s Worry”.
“The BMW 7 Series is known as BEE because a lot of these BEE brothers are rolling in them,” notes Lebo Motshegoa, founder of Foshizi, a research agency specialising in black consumer behaviour.
Other prestigious car models are just as telling about the character of their drivers.
Says motoring journalist James Siddall: “Aston Martins are often bought by James Bond devotees and wannabes, while Lamborghinis are the preserve of those who find Ferraris too tame. As for the once-great British brands Rolls Royce and Bentley, they’re favoured by old money and new. Think rappers in pimped-out Bentley Continentals.”
BMWs, Siddall says, are favoured by extroverts, and the traditional Mercedes-Benz maintains an edge of reserved, crisp conservatism, although this changes to extrovert if you drive a Benz packing serious firepower like Malema’s.
Then there’s the naughty but nice Mini Cooper, and Mini Cooper S.
“Most Mini buyers are singletons or Dinks (dual income, no kids) who hardly ever use their vehicle’s rear seats… Minis are bought for their status appeal, style and the thrill of driving. Their customers are young, successful and not at all averse to self-enjoyment,” says Mike Fourie, deputy editor of Car magazine.
This would certainly be an apt description for celebrity owners of Mini Coopers, like DJ Fresh (Thato Sikwane) and DJ Euphonic (Themba Nkosi).
People also ascribe personality traits to the less conspicuous models. The Audi TTRS Cabriolet, for instance, may be blisteringly fast, but as motoring journalist Gerhard Horn puts it, “not in a ‘Look at me’ kind of way”.
He says Agent 47, the protagonist of the Hitman video game series and the film of the same name, is partial to Audis. “(Audis) are clinical and understated, just as any good assassin should be.”
Among our celebrities driving around in one are former Miss SA Jo-Ann Strauss, who zoots around in an Audi A7 Sportback, sponsored by Audi. Audi has also kitted out radio personality Anele Ndoda with the recently launched Audi Q3 2.0 TDI Quattro.
“My car’s name is Brooklyn. She is a cutie, a lady and a pitbull all in one. The trait that best describes her is... let’s go... NOW! She also suffers from FOMO (fear of missing out), hence she makes sure she gets me everywhere,” Ndoda laughs.
As for less glamorous cars like the Hyundai, columnist Sipho Hlongwane once commented that “pale accountants” drive these, connoting that they are boring, predictable types. Innocuous they may be, but the “pale accountants” and their ilk are probably free of the hazards of the “car as me” phenomenon. Not only do many luxury car owners secretly worry about the repo man arriving, but a consumer behaviour study by the Temple University Fox School of Business in the US, looking at the link between personality, attitude, values and aggressive driving, found that men tended to be more aggressive – and therefore risky – drivers because they “tend to see their cars as an extension of themselves more than women”.
For most of us in the fairer sex bracket, it’s a matter of getting from A to B in a “nice enough” car, although there are striking exceptions, as any Joburg driver who has been overtaken by a woman-cum-demon behind the steering wheel of a Hummer can testify.
Johannesburg clinical psychologist Sharon Levin says there is truth in the notion of the car being regarded as an extension of a man. It doesn’t help that studies have confirmed that when women are shown an image of a man in a high-status car, they find him more attractive than the man in an average car.
“It’s about the projection of power and sexual potency. The problem is that a car is a car, and to think it gives you self-esteem or sexuality is illogical. If there are no real foundations to your sense of self, the false esteem derived from your flashy car, as well as the money you’re paying for it and the false friends who admire you for it, may eventually run out,” says Levin.
That said, you can’t judge everyone by their bolshy exoskeleton. To be fair, some people, like Van der Veer, are automobile afficionados who love their cars for their superb engineering.
As one rather put-out BMW driver put it: “I challenge other brand drivers to step into a Beemer, experience the piloty feeling of the raised console, coupled with the car’s responsiveness, and tell me if you won’t want to play a little on the road every now and then!”