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Saying Goodbye to the Four-Wheeled Love of Your Life: Why do we get so attached to our cars?

What is it about our cars that allows us to get so attached? Some time ago,(September 19, 2017- but who’s keeping track?) I purchased a silver 2001 BMW 330ix sedan, e46, for about $2500. I bought it from a guy who lived in Colorado and had his friend selling the car for him out of a little used car lot in New Jersey. I negotiated hard on the phone, as his original asking price was $4800. I said, “Listen. How long have you had this car listed with people who said they’d buy but didn’t? I’m going to your friend tomorrow to pay him $2500 for the car. It’ll be off your hands and you won’t have to worry about crazy girls from New Jersey calling you to negotiate anymore.” Eventually, he accepted, and the car would be mine the next day. Prior to the purchase of this car, I thought it was the ugliest BMW I had ever seen. I didn’t want to get it, but I had been encouraged based on its widely available parts and renowned reliability. I purchased the car, got it to the BMW dealership where I worked and had it go right to our techs. This beast needed a new clutch and oil pan gasket among other things. Her previous owner did not love her. Her left rear had some sketchy welding. The entire bottom part of the chassis was covered in bondo. Her front bumper was a splotchy mess from road hazards, paint chipping, and even a few tiny rust spots beginning to show. She was hideous. After the work was done two weeks later, I proudly drove her home. We literally rode off into the sunset on I-78. Our first real ride together and I was in love. I named her Artemis and the story of our lives together began.

I’m not a particularly sentimental type. I’ve been working in the car industry since 2012 in both sales and service. I was in and out of bright shiny, new cars every day. There was little I found particularly special about them. Just beautiful, fun, sometimes fast machines that allowed us to get from point A to B. However, in the same key turn, all of my cars have been named and well-loved. My first car was a 2000 Buick Century named Gertrude (because when I was the designated driver, my less than sober friend named her after the old woman she sounded like). Her horn had to be replaced and it was a little rough and grouchy. After Gertrude came Kiwi, a 2002 Honda Accord. Kiwi was followed by Delores, a 2000 Ford Taurus (who caused nothing but pain). Delores was followed by Red, a bright red 2014 stick shift Mini Cooper, at the time, the car of my dreams. Red was followed by Elliot, my practical mom mobile, a 2016 Jeep Cherokee (who is now owned by my mother who wanted Elliot after she lost her car). All of these cars were beautiful and special but none of them compared to Artemis, the e46.

She and I drove almost 80,000 miles together in the short time I had her, taking trips to Connecticut, Boston, the Jersey Shore, New York, and Washington DC. She always got me where I needed to go-until she didn’t. In the late winter (of 2019), we had to replace a front axle, a tie rod, and ball bearing. We replaced the other bearing and axle in 2018 when she collapsed on the side of the road near my job. So, we make the repairs and my former boss, current mechanic tells me that there’s probably nothing else that could go wrong. Well, my darling Artemis proved us wrong. While driving down the highway, a flashing battery light comes on! I slowly start to lose the ability to accelerate so I pull over onto the side of the road and call a tow truck. She’s not starting, and I don’t want to make anything worse, so I sit and wait. After the tow truck finally arrives and delivers me safely to my friend’s shop, he gets it into the shop for diag. They open the hood to immediately find that the coolant expansion tank has exploded. Next step is to test the cylinders. I’m standing right next to my friends (one who is a mechanic and owns the shop and the other- who works as a mechanic at the shop) and it’s like watching a surgical TV show, where there’s so much hope but as you’re watching, you know how it ends. The lady is going to flatline on the operating table. Four out of six cylinders were dead. I’m then told formally that the motor is dead and definitely needs to be replaced. It can be done for more than the original purchase price of the car and it’s time for me to go home and begin my thinking. I’ve already put way more than she’s worth into it. I’m given a loaner car and on my drive home I begin to wonder, what is it about this car that has me near tears thinking about her loss?

After pondering this thought, I began to do some research. What is it about our cars that causes us to get so attached? Surprisingly over the years, there has been plenty of research into this topic. Here’s what was found during a 2013 study done by AutoTrader, “Consumers tend to personify their cars to the point that the relationship with them mirrors relationships with living beings in their lives. More than 70 percent of (survey) respondents feel “very attached” or “somewhat attached” to their cars, with 36 percent describing their vehicles as an “old friend” and more than a quarter saying they feel sad when they think about parting ways with it.” (AutoTrader, 2013). In another study, almost half of all drivers gave genders to their cars, with about one third of drivers naming their cars. Cars can be an incredible financial assessment in addition to a major emotional investment. Many people get new cars upon graduations, marriages, and even new babies. The car becomes the physical representation of these things. For many families, owning a vehicle can also be the difference between living in one neighborhood versus another. Living in a place where a car is completely necessary as a means of transportation can imply a better socio-economic status among other things. Many Americans spend so much of their time driving, that the car becomes an extension of them- their personality, their hard work. People enjoy their cars for the drive itself as well as the status is may bring depending on the car that’s owned.

Studies indicate that most women become attached to the car because of the way that it looks, where most men feel attached with their cars because of the fond memories of adventures they encountered together. There’s another interested correlation between the age of the drive and the reason for attachment. Most younger drivers are attached to the car because of the way it looks while most drivers over 50 feel attachment due to the way that it drives.

In addition to all these things, there’s an interesting psychological link as well. Attachment to objects- such as our cars might very well be related to the uncertainty and unreliability in human relationships. Objects can be perceived as exceptionally reliable. They can be completely controlled by their owner. In our relationships with other humans, it can be totally up to the will of the other party.

So, when it is time to let go of our cars, what is the best way to do so? Many drivers wish to take their car for “one last ride” or hope to see their car “go to a good home”. If you get to choose when to leave your old car behind, summer might be the best time to do it. Summer is often associated with a time for new love and romance. With the psychological link between consumers and their cars, looking at a new car during the summer may give you a new attachment during those lovely sunny days, filled with a light breeze, and perfect road trip conditions. Go on one last date with your car, take that last drive on your favorite road and say a fond farewell. When you’re forced to look for a new vehicle even when you don’t want to, try to find some excitement and joy in the new one. Look for features your old car didn’t have — blue tooth, heated seats maybe, those newer features that might actually be kind of nice. Look back at any photos you have of your old car and smile with fondness and gratitude at the roads you’ve driven and miles you’ve traveled.

As for Artemis, the plan was to keep her for a just a year. She was supposed to be reliable enough to get me through my 120-mile daily commute from Pennsylvania to New Jersey until I was in a better spot to get a newer car. Through the almost 80,000 miles I put on her, I definitely grew to rely on her and was thrilled to have earned those extra miles with her. I am the person who personifies my cars. I like to think that when I show love to my car, that which I rely on so much, the car will love me back and prove reliable in the most uncertain of driving conditions. I don’t know what her fate is yet as I continue to weigh the pros and cons of fixing a car that I love but is no longer practical versus finding a newer car that may not be as much car as she is. I do know that, as my broken heart prepares to part ways that she was treated so well and whatever car I have the pleasure of driving next will be just as loved.

Note: I wrote this article in May of 2019, for myself, for a magazine if they would have liked it but now, it’s here, for you- the people of the internet who want to know why we love our cars and why I loved mine. I’ve made a couple of edits (mostly just to include appropriate dates). Since this was written, while Artemis’ fate hung in the balance, I had to make the very difficult decision to let her go. I sold her to my friend’s shop and many of her parts went to other e46 BMW’s who needed her more than I did. Currently, due to my future wife’s logical brain , I am rocking a red Subaru Crosstrek- more on that later. This one is for Artemis and all the cars we’ve loved and lost.

This article was published on my Medium account and can be viewed here.

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