Why We Love and Collect Cars

An ode to our automobile indulgences.

By Adam Davies July 31, 2015

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Sorry, Sting, but I have never been one of those people who set something free if they love it. I am more of a get-as-many-as-you-can-and-store-them-all-according-to-arcane-taxonomies-of-my-own-invention-and-then-ogle-them-adoringly kind of guy. And I’m not alone; I have history on my side: Collecting is a deeply human urge. The Ptolemaics collected books in their famed library, of course; modern museums all over the world owe the Medici family a debt for setting the standard with their robust acquisitions; and Emperor Qin Shi Huang was buried with his army of terra cotta soldiers, thousands-strong, each of which had a unique face.

Today we have room for pretty much every variety of collectible. There are the usual enthusiasms, like butterflies (Vladimir Nabokov) and stamps (Franklin D. Roosevelt) and coins (Wayne Gretzky), but people also collect moist towelettes and back scratchers and airline sick bags and AOL CDs, and, if you’re anything like my brother, fingernail clippings. (If you’re not like my brother, however—and I dearly hope you aren’t—you won’t feel the need to collect them for an entire school year and then feed them to your little brother, hidden inside mashed potatoes, on the night of the eighth-grade formal.) But for my money, there is no greater modern collectible than the car.

We all know what the car means to America. It’s the emblem of our freedom, our wanderlust, our frontier spirit. It’s a testimony to design and to speed and to engineering. It speaks to our lifestyles and demographics and vanities. Cars also have a tremendous heirloomic power (as with the first one I ever owned, a 1984 Dodge Shelby Charger, which I bought from my brother and loved so much that I spent my first night of ownership sleeping in the driver’s seat, much to the dismay of my mother) and evoke tremendous nostalgia (like when I recently bought a 2007 Honda S2000 in the exact color scheme and option package as my old 2001 Honda S2000 simply because, well . . . I had to).

Some of our most important life events—including, and not all that rarely, conception, birth and death—can occur in cars. And road trips, with their careful provisionings of junk food and playlists and itineraries and plans and their minor misadventures, are as close to Lewis and Clark as most of us will ever get. These are all good reasons to have a car, or adore a car, but why collect them? There is a financial incentive, of course. In 2014, collectible cars returned 25 percent on investments—outperforming all other collectibles and most of Wall Street—and one car, a 1962 Ferrari GTO 250, sold for $38.1 million, which, given the original sticker price of $18,000, is an increase of over 200,000 percent.

For those of us who aren’t named Jay Leno or the Sultan of Brunei, however, such acquisitions are out of reach, and so we collect for different reasons, the most fundamental of which is love. Simply, we want to possess and preserve the automobiles we love so we can revisit them and relive the experiences they commemorate.

This is why I so often find myself scanning eBay for 1980s-era Shelby Chargers. Whenever I see the audacious racing stripe that defines the car’s pugnacious street-punk attitude, I remember my prep school years so vividly that I can hear the screams of the girls’ field hockey team as they witnessed me fling the car into a parking space by pulling a screeching 180 at speed. I can feel the hot thrust of shame in my throat when I had to pop start the car, in the rain, on my first date with Anna-Karin Ahlstrom; and I can smell Anna-Karin’s perfume—peony and black cherry—as I leaned shakily in for a kiss.

All collecting can produce this kind of time travel, but cars afford the richest experience because they have such a strong anima—even simply turning the key in the ignition feels like waking a slumbering animal—and because each car is such a clear expression of its makers and its culture, whether it’s a cheerless juddering Soviet-era Lada or spaceshippy chromed-out Cadillac from the ’50s or the boxy, no-nonsense Volvo favored by every mom I ever knew in the 1980s.

This is true even of the sound of a car’s engine note; if you were to blindfold me I would certainly be able to identify a Maserati by the hot spittling vociferation of its engine or a Mercedes AMG by the throaty sinister burbling of its exhaust or a Chrysler K-Car by its plaintive asthmatic rattling at idle.

And perhaps more than any other possession, cars reflect their owners. Your seats bear the gibbous imprint of your own buttocks; the upholstery absorbs your bodily odors; the metalwork bears witness via dents and dings and distresses to your recklessness or bad luck.

There are as many types of collector as there are enthusiasms to collect. There are the hoarders and speculators and ephemerists and dilettantes and completists; and, with the advent of the Internet, there are even virtual collectors. (If you want to have some fun, find an online forum and check out how seriously people take the “collection” of custom cars in the video game Grand Theft Auto.)

As for me, my collecting is characterized mainly by fantasy and willful delusion. In my imaginary warehouse I would have a 1984 Dodge Shelby Charger (self-explanatory); a 1969 Plymouth Superbird with a Hemi (so I can out-Mopar my brother, who had a Barracuda with a 440); a Mercedes 190 SL Pagoda (because I’m classy but not ostentatious enough to drive a Gullwing); a BMW 507 (most shark-like car of all time and a favorite of Elvis Presley); a Singer 911 (a modern Porsche that is given a bespoke makeover so that it looks and sounds like a vintage one); a Lamborghini Countach (because it turns out that I am ostentatious after all); and a fire-truck-red Marauder (a military-spec South African SUV that sneers disdainfully at RPGs and would be my go-to runabout during the zombie apocalypse).

Why seven cars, you’re wondering? So I can sleep in a different one each night of the week, of course. Right, Mom?

Contributing editor Adam Davies, a  former writer-in-residence at New College, has won a number of awards for stories for this magazine, including first places for Best Feature Story from the South Florida Society of Professional Journalists in 2013 and 2014 and from the Florida Magazine Association in 2014.

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