Vroom Vroom Man Car

Harmful masculinity and the automotive art of making loud, loud noise

The Mandate Letter, by Jason Rogers, focuses on the evolving state of masculinity. Thanks for being here. If you were forwarded this email, get your own:

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Not long after getting my driver’s license, I made a deal with my dad that has since become an infamous piece of family lore. In exchange for not getting a tongue piercing (my inexplicable teenage obsession at the time), I could instead buy a set of 17-inch, double-spoke rims for the hand-me-down, forest green Audi that I inherited as my first car. 

Being the businessman that he is, he’d laid things out plainly and without vexation. “What do you want?” he’d said. Having watched a few of my older friends drive around in pimped-up rides, it was a matter of micro-seconds before I offered my response.

 I should point out that I’d never been such a brat, and he’d never resorted to a bribe. So, it was out of character for both of us. Thankfully, I did not use that tactic again (although maybe I should have 😈), especially considering that I was starting to catch the car-improvement bug. 

About a year later, I couldn’t resist another round of improvements (if memory serves, I paid for those myself). The mechanics swapped my yellow turning indicators for white ones. They also replaced the springs to make the car sit down low (this made speed bumps problematic). However, the piece de resistance was a new exhaust system that transformed my former dad-mobile into a souped-up specimen that spat a throaty, leonine roar.

Looking back, I shake my head at such sophomoric pursuits. And the amount of money I spent on a car that only lasted three years (the transmission died) kind of makes me sick. However, today, when a man drives by in a car that looks like a spaceship, I don’t always draw the same conclusion as the nearby passersby who mutter under their breath, “well, that guy must have a tiny...amygdala.”

Yes, the Fast and the Furious movie series makes car modification culture look like one big act of overcompensation. However, chalking the entirety of the lifestyle up to harmful masculinity is a little bit unfair. 

Swedish academic Dag Balkmar wrote a nearly 300-page opus on the relationship between masculinity and car modification. He unpacks a litany of psychosocial reasons that drive the obsession, chief among which is the idea that the car becomes a symbol of creative individuality and thus an extension of the self. 

I think that thesis is certainly thought-provoking, and in most cases, I can get on board with that philosophical rationale. However, for me, the one practice within car modification that unequivocally crosses the line into jerkish bro-dom is when guys (or girls) modify their cars to make ungodly amounts of noise. 

Yes, that means that I crossed the line too. Although I will say that to compare today’s exhaust rigs with the one on my old A4 is equivalent to a lion vs. a mouse. 

The most egregious of those rigs is the so-called “straight pipe” exhaust system. The addition of coffee canister-size pipes and the removal of the catalytic converter (along with some additional electronic tweaks) result in a sound that pops and rattles in such a way that it can resemble gunfire.

Showing off those kinds of modifications often comes at others’ expense. (it pollutes more too). I’m sure you’ve had the experience of watching some neckbeard pull up to a stoplight next to an outdoor restaurant, then gun his engine, leaving everyone with their hands over their ears in a cloud of dust and smoke.

The critical difference between the loud-car thing and other modifications is that while a vehicle with a modified exterior asks for attention, a car with an ear-splitting engine demands it. And if there’s anything that signals hyper (or harmful) masculinity it’s the ever-present need to take up space.

While you might think that the rise of electric vehicles will make this type of automotive fetish a thing of the past, I think it portends the reverse. First of all, there are those who want to live in both worlds, like this British car enthusiast who added a supplementarily sound system to Tesla to make his EV sound like a Lambo.

But more importantly, the combustion engine is inextricably linked with American masculinity. And, considering the appearance of the “Trump Trains” as a political statement, I suspect many will preserve and modify extremely loud cars as a way of rejecting climate change as fake news and given the finger to other progressive men.

I’m writing several other articles at the moment (I’ll share soon!), and time is short these days. So, I’m going to leave it there for now. But if you want to dive further into the world of car culture, here are a few more interesting links.

  • New York Times feature about loud car culture | NY Times

  • Street Gods: A Vice doc series about street racing and car culture | Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

  • The academic paper that coined the term “Petro-masculinity” | SagePub

Department of (More) Links

  • What Are Sperm Telling Us? | NY Times

    • There have been numerous reports in recent years about declining sperm rates among men. Many in the manosphere would claim some nonsense about how culture is feminizing guys, but, thankfully, we continue to report on the actual science.

  • We Don’t Understand How Dangerous the Manosphere Truly Is | Mel Magazine

  • How a 22-year-old woman helped bring down the Tokyo Olympics chief | CBC

    • The Tokyo Games’ former head said, “women talk too much,” then further entrenched when called to make amends. CBC reports on how it went down. 

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