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May 19 Weekly Open Thread--Cars as "Positional Goods"

Stutz D'ItaliaI was reading an op-ed article the other day which brought up the economic concept of "positional goods." As the author explained:

A positional good is a good that people acquire to signalise where they stand in a social hierarchy; it is acquired in order to set oneself apart from others. Positional goods therefore have a peculiar property: the utility their consumers derive from them is inversely related to the number of people who can access them.

Positionality is not a property of the good itself, it is a matter of the consumer’s motivations. I may buy an exquisite variety of wine because I genuinely enjoy the taste, or acquire a degree from a reputable university because I genuinely appreciate what that university has to offer. But my motivation could also be to set myself apart from others, to present myself as more sophisticated or smarter....

If I value those goods for their intrinsic qualities, their increasing popularity will not trouble me at all....But if you see me moaning that the winemakers/the university have ‘sold out’, if you see me whinging about those ignoramuses who do not deserve the product because they (unlike me, of course) do not really appreciate it, you can safely conclude that for me, this good is a positional good. (Or was, before everybody else discovered it.)

So what has this got to do with cars? It's obvious that certain cars are pitched to the consumer as positional goods. One example is the 1970s "revival-era" Stutz: between 25 and 50 or so were sold in each year during the peak of its production. Like the seats at the cool kids' table in the junior high cafeteria, there were only so many to go around, so getting one put you in an exclusive club.

There's another phenomenon that seems to attach to particular cars: whether intended by their owners as "positional goods" or not, they become cultural markers for a particular (stereotyped) subculture. The 3-series BMW was a cultural marker for yuppies in the 1980s; the VW Type 2 Microbus was the same thing for hippies and assorted Bohemians in the 1960s and '70s; Subarus have been strongly associated with the "granola" lifestyle for several decades.

Please share your thoughts on this, or any other automotive topic, in the comments box below.

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

The photo of several textbook examples of positional goods--polo ponies, a fur coat, and a Stutz D'Italia--came from Peter Madle's Stutz history website.

August 5 Weekly Open Thread--Dashboard Videogames 2: Revenge of the Stickshift

Consider this your Car Lust virtual chat room, where you can talk about anything that comes to mind.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post on visual displays designed to encourage fuel-efficient driving under the unique (until now) title "Dashboard Videogames." According to Wired's "Autopia" blog, Zach Nelson, a junior engineer at Ford, has taken the driving-as-a-game concept a step further.

Mr. Nelson built a shifter knob (using a 3D printer) which contains an Ardurino microcontroller and the "haptic feedback motor" (vibrator) from an XBox controller, and connected it up to an Android tablet, which in turn was synced to the OBD computer in a Mustang with a manual transmission. The knob can be programmed to vibrate as a cue to the driver that it's time to upshift--and since it's programmable, you can set it to vibrate at different engine speeds for different purposes. As the Autopia blog notes, it can be made to vibrate and cue a shift at the most efficient point for fuel economy--think of it as the tactile version of the old Honda CRX HF's upshift light--or, if you're more interested in acceleration, when approaching redline.

This isn't a completely new idea. Airplanes have been equipped with "stick shakers" that give a tactile warning of an imminent stall for decades. GM is already selling Buicks and Cadillacs with a "Safety Alert Seat"--a vibrator in the driver's seat that goes off when one of the active safety systems detects something amiss, like a vehicle in your blind spot.

Can you think of any other potential automotive applications for "haptic feedback motors"?

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

July 22 Weekly Open Thread: Electric Whines, Revisited

Miss Minnie"How...DEEE!!!" (Audience: "How...DEEE!!!") "I'm just so proud to be here."

So announced Miss Minnie Pearl (aka Mrs. Sarah Cannon) every time she addressed an audience. Nobody had trouble hearing her trademark greeting or seeing the price tag still attached to that new store-bought hat. The lady from Grinder's Switch, Tennessee, was a staple on the Grand Ole Opry for many years, and is sorely missed to this day.

Speaking of recognizeable audio tones, people today are still debating whether hybrid and electric cars are noteworthy. Some folks say they are silent and a menace to the non-motoring community. Others believe they are about as audible as any other car on the road, once they get up to speed. The Independant, a UK publication, reported a couple of years ago that there will not be required audible signals on non-petrol-burning vehicles.

Continue reading "July 22 Weekly Open Thread: Electric Whines, Revisited" »

"If this is the 21st Century, where's my flying car?"

We are living in the future, I'll tell you how I know
I read it in the paper fifteen years ago
We're all driving rocket ships and talking with our minds
And wearing turquoise jewelry, and standing in soup lines

--John Prine, "Living in the Future"

We live in an age of wonders. The tablets and cellphones carried by today's middle school students, used primarily for Instagram and Angry Birds, boast more computing power than the baddest IBM mainframe of 1970. There are an average of two computers of equal or greater power in every American household--and that statistic doesn't include "embedded systems" like your Honda's ECM or Sorry, kids, you can't live here.your microwave oven's programmable timer. All of these millions of computing machines are linked by a global digital network of once-unimaginable bandwidth which is used for sharing cat videos. I mean, we've even got consumer grade robot lawnmowers f'cryin'outloud!

At the same time, there are some disappointments. We have no cities on the moon or Earth-orbit vacation hotels like we'd once been promised--the best you can do in the way of "space tourism" is a half-day suborbital jaunt with a ticket price only affordable by one-percenters. There's also a distinct shortage of those high-speed atomic-powered monorails I was so looking forward to riding.

You can say similar things about the cars of the twenty-first century as well. On the one hand, it's an age of automotive wonders. The humblest suburban housewife's base-model minivan is ritzier than a Cadillac used to be, out-accelerates and out-corners an E-type Jaguar, and is orders of magnitude safer and more fuel efficient than anything built a generation ago. My daily driver is a relatively cheap "hot hatch" that flirts with 30 MPG in normal driving, but would smoke the GTOs at the dragstrip and dominate the 2.0 liter class at Le Mans were I to drive it through a time portal back to 1964.

And yet, there is one crushing disappointment, one hopeful prediction of the automotive future from my formative years that stubbornly refuses to come true.

Where's my flying car?

Continue reading ""If this is the 21st Century, where's my flying car?"" »

Some Cars Just Should NOT Have 4 Doors

"You're travelling through another dimension. A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. At the signpost up ahead, your next stop... the twilight zone." --Rod Serling

Dodge Charger 2006Yes, folks, some cars just should not be 4-doors. A lot of folks felt this way when the Dodge Charger was reintroduced in the 2006 model year, but we did get used to it. For the most part. I know the cops sure did.

And usually, if a car has a back seat, I'd like back doors there. I learned my lesson in a 2-door Chevette about leaning forward to let folks in the back.

But there are some cars that no amount of time will ever pass to let them be. They are surely from, or should go to, the twilight zone.

Continue reading "Some Cars Just Should NOT Have 4 Doors" »

April 22 Weekly Open Thread: The "New Car" Blues

Used-car-salesmanOur recent $100,000 Fantasy Garage Challenge has inspired me to seek out and find a new vehicle. I won't say the brand so that nobody gets offended or sued, but I will say that so far, the experience has been a borderline nightmare.

On my first visit to the dealer, they said they can't discount any new ones at all. Then I got on the internet, and saw that they are advertising a $1,500 discount or more on all of them (after a "Dealer Fee" of $598 is added).

Now I'm getting the usual runarounds... "There's no markup to work with," and "It's the time of the year where everybody wants one."

There was the perennial favorite, "There aren't any incentives on them right now." Then I got hammered with, "What are you going to trade in?" (I never trade.) Also, "Who do you have your financing with?" (It's a cash deal, folks.) Seems they're exploring every other opportunity to stick me as well. At this point, I'm seriously thinking about forgetting the whole thing.

But the biggest "pisser" has been when I have twice placed a vehicle request all over the Middle Tennessee region, and the local dealer sees it. They saw the requests and quickly called me back to say, "You won't get a better deal than we will give you," and, "You need to come back in so we can toss some numbers around."

Continue reading "April 22 Weekly Open Thread: The "New Car" Blues" »

$100,000 Challenge, Take 2: Nathan of Brainfertilizer Fame's Max Cars Edition

After reading Chris Hafner's post, I realized that if I hadn't gone so Mazda-heavy, I could have gotten some great 20- and 30-year-old cars in my garage.

I wanted to try again, with a fresh slate.  I hope you'll indulge me, and I hope you even find it entertaining.

But I've got to change the rules, slightly.  I'll still have limitations, because limitations help channel and inspire creativity.

First change: no "car currently on sale" requirement.  All cars need to be 20 to 30 years old.  Maybe 15, at most.  The point is to get cars that are old enough to be great value, but not so old as to be "classic".  The point is to catch cars near the bottom part of the trough, where the value has declined as much as possible, but not to the point where the value starts to rebound from rarity/coolness.

Second change: I have to have exactly 20 cars.  No more, no less.  The point is to see how close I can get to the $100k total without going over, for exactly 20 cars.

Third change: All car prices will be according to the NADA "clean retail" price, but here's the twist: if you can manage to find a 20-year-old car in "clean retail" condition, it won't really be ready to go.  The coolant system will be having problems, or it will consume oil as lustily as Vikings drank mead, or the paint will be starting to flake off, or a few minor rust points, or the alignment will be horribly off, or...you get the picture.  A 20-year-old car that wasn't lovingly restored to new condition is going to have some issues.  So right off the bat, I will budget $2000 per car to get it up to speed.  That might go to a tune-up, or a paint job, or a replacement door + paint, or an alignment, or a new radiator, etc.  That might be an underestimation, but we are starting with a "clean retail" example, so I think an average of $2000 will work.

That leaves me with $60,000 to get 20 cars.  So I'm looking for cars I can get for averaging just about $3000 each.

That's the rules I have.  Let's see what I come up with.

Continue reading "$100,000 Challenge, Take 2: Nathan of Brainfertilizer Fame's Max Cars Edition" »

$100,000 Fantasy Garage Challenge: Chris Hafner

Higher EducationWhen Cookie the Dog's Owner proposed the $100K Fantasy Garage challenge, I was immediately intrigued. Who among us has not dreamed about which cars we'd purchase if only we had the funds available? This challenge is a license to mentally catalog our old and new favorites, weigh pros and cons, and show our tastes and brand loyalties through the creation of a carefully curated collection.

The genius in this challenge is the $100K value limit. Without that, we wouldn't have anything to keep us tied to reality. After all, why add a Mazda to your list when you could add a Maybach? Why add a CRX when you could add an FXX? But the $100K limit, combined with the requirement to include one brand new car, is almost perfect. A cool hundred grand sounds like a lot of money, but it doesn't go as far as one might imagine. I could easily concoct a scenario in which two very nice but still fairly ordinary vehicles consume the whole budget, so turning this into a true fantasy garage requires some creativity.

I chose to put my own spin on this challenge by laying out a series of tasks that I want the cars in my garage to fulfill, and then picking the cars I thought would best fill those roles. This required a lot of revision, as I shifted resources from one bucket to the next, and leaves me without some of my all-time favorites (omitting the Porsche 928, E28 BMW M5, and GMC Typhoon was pretty painful). Overall, though, I'm pretty pleased with the results.

Since in some cases I'm linking off to listings on Craigslist and eBay there's a chance that those links will be dead fairly quickly. My apologies for that, but I'll try to capture some of the pertinent details in the text so that the story doesn't suffer too much.

Continue reading "$100,000 Fantasy Garage Challenge: Chris Hafner" »

$100,000 Fantasy Garage Challenge: Nathan of Brainfertilizer Fame

Let's start off with the cars my family needs:

2014 Mazda6:

Mazda_6_2013_MIASThis very nearly was a 2010 Mazda6.  I love my current daily driver car.  It has plenty of power, plenty of room for 4 adults on long trips, handles amazingly well, looks nice, and is generally very satisfying to drive in almost any circumstance.  However, the rules state you have to have one brand new car, and after thinking long and hard, I decided my daily driver would be the best choice to select a brand new vehicle.  The main reason for the upgrade is that the brand new Mazda6 looks nice, has plenty of interior room, has plenty of power, and handles just as well as my 2010...but with the SkyActiv technology, its gas mileage improves by nearly 30%.  To have a non-hybrid family sports sedan that gets 38 mpg highway is very exciting to me, because I am not a fan of the massive batteries necessary for hybrids: the environmental impact of creating, storing, and disposing of the battery pack really bothers me, and I don't like the idea of having to spend several thousand dollars to replace the batteries to keep the car in less than 10 years.

So this will be my daily driver.

Continue reading "$100,000 Fantasy Garage Challenge: Nathan of Brainfertilizer Fame" »

Factory to Dealer--Across the Seas

For our final installment in our series on how cars get from the assembly line to the showroom, we'll look at what happens when the journey requires crossing large bodies of water.

MV Faust maxing out on a cargo of MINIs.

Continue reading "Factory to Dealer--Across the Seas" »

Pictured above: This is a forlorn Chevy Vega photographed by reader Gary Sinar. (Share yours)

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