Petrol heads. Gear heads. Racers, drifters, and monster truck drivers. Wrench monkeys, cruisers, and sim-racers. Motoring enthusiasts. We all come together for one simple act: Driving. So what is it about driving that excites us? That makes us prefer one style of driving over the other? Why is it that some people get it and some don’t?
When I was too young to drive, it seemed I had an eternity to wait. I spent much of my time playing with toy cars, and had it in my mind that when I turned 16 I would buy my first car – a Dodge Viper. Of course, this was completely unrealistic, but to a 9-year-old who grew up favoring his 1:64 scale Ferrari Testarossa, Dodge Viper and Porsche Carrera with no real concept of value, the Viper was the cheapest and most common in America and therefore, the most easily obtainable upon getting my license. Long before I ever got behind the wheel of a real car, driving was all I cared about.
As I’m sure you guessed, I never got the Viper. However, I did get a ten year old Chevy S10 pickup. For reasons which no longer make sense to me, I had this grand idea that it would be perfect with All-Wheel-Drive and a Subaru boxer engine swap – that never happened either. What did happen was a massive amount of sad, one wheeled burnouts, wet-road powerslides, off-roading and even a few jumps (my apologies to the person who ended up with that truck when I sold it). The point is, I had the bug. So, I traded the truck for something a bit more racey – a Chevrolet Cavalier Z24. For those on the other side of the pond who may have no idea what that car is, it’s appalling. It was a plastic mass of a throwaway car with a slightly more powerful engine than the base model – quoted at 150 horsepower, and around the same figure for torque (155 lb/ft). For a teenager at the time, where the best competition was an early 90’s Camaro or perhaps a Honda Civic, it seemed like a great sleeper. In the grand scheme of things, I know now it was not a very good car. However, when taken to a certain one-way gravel road that snaked through miles of woods and hills, the recyclable death trap became my rally car. Before I got my driver’s license I spent years playing hardcore rally games like “Richard Burns Rally” trying to learn the basics, and it paid off. If I had the bug before, it had at that point become a full on terminal illness.
So what makes the difference between myself and the kids who were more concerned with things like sports, arts or music? Why do cars stir such emotions in some people? After all, what I say is an amazing noise (perhaps a Maserati V8) other unintelligent, horrid, unconscionable, unapproachable, silly people might say is an awful racket that sounds like a broken car. Is this a learned behavior or something more inherent? Let’s take a look at the evidence at hand.
First off, let’s think about why we like the sound certain cars make. Everyone loves the sound of a good V8, or a Ferrari V12, or a classic Jag straight-six, but do you know anyone who loves the sound of a Peugeot 3-cylinder? We love the sound cars make because we understand what creates that sound (power), thus indicating it is a learned behavior. There may indeed be strange creatures who do find joy in the sound of a 3-cylinder’s cough of an exhaust note, they would probably tell you it is because it represents fuel efficiency or eco-bla, bla, bla.
Next we consider the looks. Many of us would agree that the Alfa Romeo 8C is an especially beautiful car. Or perhaps you prefer the sleek lines of the McLaren 650S, or the widebody of the Skyline R34. These cars are all things people who love cars may see as art. Sleek lines communicate speed and aerodynamics. Sharp edges and bulging corners communicate technology and power. Meanwhile, there’s the PT Cruiser wedding chapel which has been discussed on Jeremy Clarkson’s Tribe. Believe it or not, someone built that thing. It wasn’t a cyst or a deformity, a real human being thought, “Yes, that will look good.” So again, I have to lean toward the visual appeal of cars being a learned trait dependent on our learned expectations of beauty.
So now we come to the meat and potatoes: Driving. We all know some of us – yes even we petrol heads and the like – can find daily driving on public roads to be boring. We need a bit more excitement, a bit more thrill. And that’s where driving can become the real draw. Driving can be exciting, however what that takes is dependent upon your experience. For some, driving through a canyon road in a hot-hatch at 45 mph is thrill enough. For others, it takes a lap of the Nordschleife in an M3 to do the trick, or an all out drift session in an 800 bhp Supra. Some might even find driving a Peugeot 203 to the grocery store to be a terrifying ordeal.
To me it would seem the love of cars and driving is very much a learned behavior. This might initially seem like a bad thing to those of us prone to react with statements like, “NO WAY DUDE! MY CAR IS AN ABSOLUTE GOOD AND YOU F#@&*!G KNOW IT!” Fear not, however, for this means we can teach our children the way. We can breed petrol heads through learning, rather than genetics. Petrol heads need not die out with evolution, ergo we may rejoice.