Ask Percy Montgomery for his standout memory of former Springbok captain John Smit, and he'll tell you about being taken for a drive in Smit's black Ford Mustang.

In South Africa, you are what you drive, particularly if it's a BMW, which attracts descriptions such as 'sexy', 'potent' and 'cool', endorsed by the rich and powerful, like mining magnate Patrice Motsepe who gets around in a BMW 750 iL.

Peevish opinions about conspicuous cars and their owners give us a vent for envy, or at least some comic relief, such as 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, while BMW drivers are as both of the above, minus the budget!"

It all goes to show how personal the relationship between a man (and woman) and his (or her) car is.

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 political and business elite being among the most voracious buyers of top-of-the-range luxury cars such as R2 million Porsche 911 Turbo that Jacob Zuma's son Duduzane reportedly drives.

And whatever Vlismas has to say, Lamborghinis such as this Aventador are widely seen as the epitome of cool in our country - sushi king Kenny Kunene used to drive a Lamborghini worth about R2.6 million, which he has since sold.

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-Benz.

They range from the plutocratic E-Class limousine to the seriously loud, in-your-face C63 AMG; Julius Malema owns one of the latter, 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 laughed

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".

Lebo Motshegoa, founder of Foshizi, a research agency specialising in black consumer behaviour, notes: "The BMW 7 Series is known as BEE because a lot of these BEE brothers are rolling in them."


Motoring journalist James Siddall commented: "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 an AMG model like Malema's.

For most women, it's a matter of getting from A to B in a "nice enough" car, although there are striking exceptions, as any Johannesburg driver who has been overtaken by a woman-cum-demon behind the 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.

"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 BMW driver put it: "I challenge other brand drivers to step into a BMW, experience the piloty feel of the raised console, together with the car's responsiveness, and tell me if you won't want to play a little on the road every now and then!" - The Star