After spending hours doing photographer squats at the New York Auto Show, and following the news that Ferdinand Porsche — the man who (eventually) convinced the world that hanging a car’s engine off its ass end isn’t a disastrous idea — has passed, it seems like a prudent time to discuss one of life’s enduring mysteries: Why do men, myself included, love cars so gosh darned much?
Now, there are plenty of women that have an encyclopedic knowledge of the automobile’s history, and, Danica Patrick notwithstanding, there have been a number of incredible women in motorsports history. But nonetheless, head to any auto show, classic car meet, Cars and Coffee event, or whatever, and you’ll find crowds of mostly dudes ogling over sensuous metallic curves and discussing engine specs like gospel. I’m guilty of all of it myself, and because it’s an occasionally-embarrassing affliction, I have to reconcile it somehow. And so I ask: is this male car obsession biological?
At a very basic level, male and female behavior is influenced by evolution. Humans happen to be similar to much of the animal kingdom in that respect, and it comes down to sex. Excuse the blanket statements, because exceptions always exist, but it works something like this: it’s costly to for any human or animal to get pregnant (you need more food, you’re less mobile, you have a limited number of eggs, etc.), and as such females throughout the animal kingdom tend to be very selective about who they mate with, favoring males that are strong, healthy, and good resource gatherers. No one wants to have a kid with someone who’s unhealthy and broke, right?
Girls only like you if you can gather lots of shiny things.
On the other side, sperm is cheap. Because of that, male animals tend to mate with everyone they can. But that’s not as easy as it sounds, because they’re still pressured to show off that they have good, strong, resource-gathering genes. That’s why you get all kinds of crazy sexual dimorphism in the animal kingdom: female peacocks, with no need to show off and a very real need to hide with their eggs, are nowhere near as flashy as the males, who are basically representing the quality of their genes in their tails. You couldn’t have that kick-ass plumage if you were sickly and not good at finding food.
There are also behavioral differences. Bowerbirds, for example, build elaborate bird mansions full of crazy, shiny offerings to show off to the ladies that they are responsible and good at gathering important materials. Elephant seals fight bloodily over their harems to show off how strong they are, as do bighorn sheep. Sound familiar to you?
James Hunt (also pictured above) is a legend. Read about him and have your mind blown.
Vast swaths of car culture are dedicated to impressing chicks. From American Graffiti, to the 70s booze-and-drug fueled party heyday of Formula 1, to the legendary Sir Stirling Moss even today, the visceral energy and danger surrounding loud, fast cars and racing has always seemed to be at least partially rooted in the need to impress chicks. In terms of racing itself, there’s always been a mystique surrounding racing drivers that women go wild for, but that’s another story altogether.
In terms of straight car obsession, there is a certain type of car guy that does indeed use his car like a bowerbird might. Cars happen to be a fabulous indicator of resource-gathering ability; the type of guy who drives around the city in a Lamborghini or Bentley knows that cars of that caliber are impossible to fake, and as such, are a great way to represent themselves as a superior mate choice to some dude rattling around in a jalopy.
There’s also the whole group of guys that roll around doing burnouts and revving their engines up at girls on the street and whatnot. This seems to me to be more like elephant seal behavior; the banker in the chrome BMW M3 is saying “Hey, look at me, I’m strong enough to rein in all this horsepower. Vroom vroom.” As corny as that is, the car is once again serving as a proxy indicator of mate quality: my engine’s bigger/more expensive than the other guy’s, ergo I’m a better mate. From an evolutionary point of view, that totally makes sense, and Big Tymers videos are proof that spinning around like a wildman in a Lamborghini does indeed impress the ladies.
Watch this, and then “Tip Drill” by Nelly, and then tell me cars don’t get girls.
But, of course, we’re not birds, and human behavior isn’t solely dictated by evolutionary and sexual cues. Plenty of men (and women) love cars because of the sense of accomplishment when you complete repairs, modifications, or a restoration, and because of the wonderful community car folks have to offer. The 20th century was dominated by the automobile, and the sense of history one gets from discussing pre-war Deusenbergs, 60s muscle cars, or even the sillier aspects of the 90s import scene, is a joy and makes for one hell of an involving hobby. At the same time, let’s be honest: Any guy who’s felt the adrenaline of roaring about in an absurdly fast car, or sat up a little bit straighter because he was riding around in a Rolls, can’t say he wasn’t paying close attention to see if he got looks from all the pretty girls on the street.
Evolution Explains is a periodical investigation into the human-animal (humanimal?) condition through the powerful scientific lenses of ecology and evolution. Previously on Evolution Explains: Our Fear of Google Is Four Million Years Old.
Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @drderekmead.