Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Fri Jan 9th 2009 at 9:34am UTC

End of the Car as Status Symbol

Young Japanese men and women are ditching the car as a status symbol, sparking concern for car companies.

That from this story in the Oregonian (via Planetizen). The same can be said of many young Torontonians. I see it in my own life. I am a child of the car culture. Growing up in New Jersey, older kids used to rebuild their GTOs and Barracudas on our street. But now the car I like the most is the one vintage car I own. A couple of years ago, I traded a 10-year-old car for a newer model. Every day now I wish I had the old one back. People will still buy cars, but vintage and used will be back, and more sumptuous Minis, Prius, and their like will supplant today’s luxury cars and SUVs as the aesthetic as well as the economical choice.

Much the same is true of the rise of more compact, energy-efficient (and in some cases modern design) houses or apartments over mega-square-foot McMansions. John Seabrook wrote a fascinating book on consumption trends some years back called Nobrow, where he argued that the old notion of conspicuous consumption as status differentiator is giving way to new, more subtle forms of status differentiation. I have little doubt that the Great Reset will reshape consumption and design more and more along these lines.

13 Responses to “End of the Car as Status Symbol”

  1. Buzzcut Says:

    Modern “kids” get more enjoyment out of the latest cellphones than the latest cars.

    Part of the problem is regulatory. Car companies can only go so far with styling and features. The need for comprehensive crash testing means that changing the look of cars every year (as in the past) is uneconomic. Contrast that will cellphones, which do have an annual cycle. Cellphone companies can create a continuous buzz if they’re constantly introducing new phones.

    The biggest sea change I’ve noticed is Zipcar. I’ve seen them out and about in Chicago on a number of occasions, and I’ve noticed their spots in parking garages downtown.

    If Zipcar is doing well, we know that the car as status symbol is totally done.

  2. Michael Wells Says:

    Here’s another Oregonian story from a couple of days ago. The only car company to not post a loss in 2007 was Subaru.

    The Big(?)3 could learn a lot from Subaru. Their basic cars are solid, fairly fuel efficient, all wheel drive and versatile. I’ve had my Outback for 10 years without problems and will probably keep it at least 5 more. But them in Portland a Subaru is sort of a statement itself.

  3. Buzzcut Says:

    …and built in beautiful West Lafayette, Indiana.

    Did you know you drove a Hoosiermobile, Michael?

    Indiana has been very successful in drawing transplants. Suburu, Honda, and Toyota all have assembly plants in the state.

    Suburu is one of the quirky cars of the creative class. I drive a Saab, also an edgy/ quirky brand. But in Saab’s case, GM is not very successful in marketing the edginess. It is the No. 2 Gay Car, right after the Mini Cooper Convertible. How’s that for creative class?

  4. Michael Wells Says:

    Interesting. My Outback is an import. Subaru offloads at the Port of Vancouver, WA a suburb of Portland. Probably West Coast cars are from Japan, Midwest and East Coast cars from Hoosierland.

    So does GM own Saab or part of it? I think GM owns 30% of Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru’s parent. I wonder what the GM crisis means for these “foreign” brands.

    I know Subaru has had pretty explicit ad campaigns aimed at Gays, particularly women.

    An old friend runs Zipcar here, but I haven’t seen him for a while. I’m not sure how they’re doing. He ran the local company, Flexcar which Zipcar bought a few years ago.

  5. Michael Wells Says:


    I was wrong. I looked at a small decal on the car I’ve had for 10 years and it says Indiana. Not very observant and jumping to conclusions. I also know that they import Subarus through Vancouver across the river. So I’m not sure how it works.

  6. Finn Simmensen Says:

    A related phenomenon: the recent choice to strictly enforce highway speed laws with cameras enabling the state (Arizona, in my case) to collect fiscally addictive and politically unassailable revenue by fining every violator, every time, with demoralizing efficiency, regardless of evasive tactic or electronic countermeasure. Open questions remain whether this rather parental approach is in itself desirable and whether it represents a political and cultural equilibrium. Nevertheless, where it is introduced, it tends to disabuse the motorist of subconscious illusions of exemption, superiority or self-expression formerly indulged via ego attachment to automotive performance or equipment.

    To the extent that it endures, strict traffic enforcement will be yet another factor poisoning the individualistic love affair with the car and, thereby, eroding the profit margin earned selling fast, muscular-looking cars. For this and other reasons, we may be at a tipping point toward marketing plug-ins, four-wheel-steering, composite chassis, satellite radios, cup-holders, wheel-chair-enablement, and kid-friendliness and dog-friendly cars. Earlier than the designers and dealers were prepared for, we’ll be saying hello to a “communitarian” car, a time-shared car, a self-driving car, and any other car for which we may have fondness, but not attachment — a modest car.

    More broadly, an alert person is reminded not to commute, but instead to live close to a center of talent, money, intellect, and innovation. In yet another way, we are reminded of place-as-differentiator.

  7. David J. Miller Says:

    I think there will always be love affairs with cars in the US. they still provide extensive freedom of movement for so many — from teenagers and moms to immigrants and construction workers.

    I have been driving an SUV since i first received my license at 16. My current SUV is a 4×4 ford escape hybrid which I got in late 2004. It is the smallest and most fuel efficient of the 4 SUVs that I have driven in the last 20 years. It is coming up on 5 yrs old and I will probably keep it another 3 or 4 years.

    I hope that there will be a plug-hybrid large SUV (maybe a toyota landcruiser) that gets 35 mpg by 2012.

    btw, I went to the Washington Wizards game tonite and as we pulled out after the game we passed the player’s parking lot… One of the younger wizards players (19 yrs old i think) was pulling out in his Maybach. Fancy/powerful cars will always have a place in the US marketplace.

  8. Robert Says:

    When telling off a young asian lad for throwing his drink can onto the street, he looked at my bike and said “you can’t even afford a car, when I’m older I’m going to drive a BMW – now pedal away, bike boy”.

    Apart from the genius of “pedal away, bike boy”, which has remained with me as quite a funny put down, the fact struck me that for him, and probably thousands of other inner city kids like him, cars represent freedom and status. The alternatives – using public transport or walking – are simply untenable for large sections of society. It’s a class thing.

  9. Buzzcut Says:

    So does GM own Saab or part of it? I think GM owns 30% of Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru’s parent. I wonder what the GM crisis means for these “foreign” brands.

    Saab is just another division of GM, like Chevy or Buick.

    GM has been trying to unload both Saab and Hummer, and has found no buyers.

    Saab would be hard to sell. The cars themselves have significant GM content, and GM is using Saab’s turbocharging technology throughout the corporation.

    That’s why I like Saab. They largely perfected the turbocharged passenger car in the ’70s. You get an engine that is as small as a Hyundai subcompact, but the horsepower of a large V6 in a midsize car. I get over 30mpg if I can keep the speed down on the highway (not an easy thing to do, it likes to drive fast, as do I).

  10. Wil Says:

    One of my goals is to ride public transpostation as seldom as possible for short trips. If I can arrange it, I will never ride the bus, subway,taxi or any such thing unless I am far away from my home locations. … I was stunned when I first met East coast people, years ago, who couldn’t drive and didn’t even have driver’s licenses. It is impossible to imagine living in California without a car. How can you zip out to Napa, go up to Tahoe, or take a trip down HWY 1 without a car? Why not enjoy the ride with nice, new, wheels?

  11. Jim Thornable Says:

    Michael, as far as I know, the Impreza is built in Japan and maybe the B9…but I’m not entirely confident to say the B9 is built there

  12. Thomas Bailey Says:

    I have managed without a car. With a biking range now spanning seven counties, I will probably never need a car. Yes, I live in California, a relatively bike-friendly state. I live in Sunnyvale, and have biked to San Francisco 22 times, to Gilroy and Hayward 3 times each, and to Oakland, Santa Cruz, Half Moon Bay, Sausalito, and Hollister once each. Before I started biking, I usually walked. I have walked to Redwood City, Saratoga, and Campbell once each, to San Jose three or four times, and to Santa Clara, Cupertino, and Mountain View countless times.

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