How cars became status symbols and why we should rethink that obsession

Aug 23, 2023

Woman in a vintage car

Although people are becoming more aware of the hidden costs of owning a personal vehicle, cars are still seen as status symbols. 

Their emotional appeal influences people’s behaviour, discouraging them from making decisions that are good for their health, wallet, and the environment. To overcome this obsession, we must understand how the car became a status symbol — and start challenging the narrative.

How cars became status symbols in society

Cars evolved beyond mere modes of transport in the 20th century for many reasons. 

The 1900s were a time of rapid economic, technological, and cultural change. Within a human’s lifespan, we had the first powered flight (1903) and the first person on the moon (1969). For many, cars became a symbol of progress and modernity.

The World Wars were followed by periods of economic growth, especially in the US, introducing consumerism and the mentality of keeping up with one’s neighbours. And as city populations exploded, cars were seen to improve people’s lives by granting them the freedom to move around independently.

Let’s now examine 4 specific examples to explain the phenomenon further.

Ford Model T

The luxury of the upper class

The first cars didn’t need a genius marketing campaign to make them a sign of wealth and privilege. 

Until Henry Ford introduced the mass-produced Model T in 1908, handcrafted cars would cost buyers over $30,000.00 in today’s value.

Ford made no secret that his Model T was aimed at the middle class. The price of the first Ford Model T was roughly $850, and it more than halved in the coming decades. 

And although cars quickly became widespread, they retained their status as a symbol of upward mobility and prestige.

Selling a dream

As the decade after the First World War, the 1920s marked a period of economic prosperity in many parts of the world. The automobile industry was on the rise, and many luxury brands were founded to let people showcase their wealth and status through a car.

Car ads that used to focus on novel technology and affordability began selling a dream —  elegance, status, and the lifestyle associated with car ownership. Cars became a part of the culture, and luxury car production remained high in the US and Europe until the Second World War.

Hollywood glamour

In the mid-20th century, Hollywood played a significant role in glamourising car ownership and turning certain models into status symbols. Iconic films featured stylish cars and charismatic actors — further cementing the link between cars, fame, and status.

One of the best examples is the 1968 crime classic Bullitt starring the legendary Steve McQueen. The hit movie helped popularise turtleneck sweaters, desert boots, and muscle cars. Its famous chase scenes made icons of the 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback and the 1968 Dodge Charger, almost tripling the Charger’s sales.

Car scarcity in socialist countries

In 20th-century Europe, socialist countries often faced a deficit of goods and services, including cars. Buying a personal car meant a lengthy bureaucratic process that could take 10 years!

Not only was owning a car for the privilege of a few, but getting a purchase permit was often influenced by one’s position, connections, and social status. And imported cars were rare, usually reserved for high-ranking officials. 

In 1985, there were 45 cars per 1000 people in the Soviet Union. In the US, the number was 744.5. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but associating car ownership with social standing persisted.

A 2017 study found that while Millenials are generally less interested in owning a car than their parents, the opposite’s true in some Central and Eastern Europe countries. 

Car ownership soared in these locations after the demise of socialism and is still seen as a strong status symbol.

car as a status symbol

The negative side of cars

While cars were once seen as a symbol of progress, they’re now known as a significant source of environmental and societal issues. 

Cars create air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions — leading to climate change and adverse health effects. Traffic congestion increases stress, fuel consumption, and noise pollution. And all the while, losing the economy money

Car-centred urban planning often comes at the cost of less greenery. And it discourages people from choosing active modes of transport — leading to urban sprawl.

Owning a car is also costly. Financial advisors recommend you spend at most 15% of your net income on transport, including hidden costs like fuel, insurance, and parking. 

But transport remains among the top 3 household expenses in many regions, including the US and Europe. This means people spend 2 to 3 times more on cars than their health or hobbies.

Cars are also a leading cause of death and injury. Globally, 1.3 million people die yearly from road traffic crashes. That’s 1,299,990 million more deaths than caused by sharks (up to 10 each year). 

Yet we fear these sea creatures more than the steel behemoths roaming our streets because of the prejudice created by the hit thriller “Jaws” (1975).

Rethinking our car obsession 

While cars have undeniably transformed our lives, it’s time to let go of harmful perceptions and rethink the obsession with cars as status symbols. 

Current car dependency isn’t sustainable, and fewer cars on the roads would ultimately benefit our lives in various ways, from less pollution to better physical health.

By shifting our focus towards sustainable transport alternatives and reevaluating the importance we place on material possessions, we can reduce our ecological footprint and improve our quality of life.

So let us strive for a future where success is defined by our collective well-being — not by the emblem on our car.

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