What is it about cars that make people talk so passionately? In ME 236 (Tales to Design Cars By) class this quarter, we are finding people relate to cars in ways unlike any other object. As a result they tell car stories differently than any other story.

We’re finding a number of elements contribute to this. Chief among them: a car provides a confined space that encourages but never forces interaction. Because the vehicle takes its occupant on a journey, it becomes a natural mechanism for storytelling.

Inspired by cinema, video, road trips, interviews and observations, our students are learning about the art of finding and telling car stories. The motoring adventures of others often help us evoke our own, and we’ve used some great reference material: the 1936 Chevrolet sedan featured in the Mason Williams' “Auto-Biography,” the race cars in the opening sequence of the 1971 film Le Mans, or the eerie anonymity of the Chevy Impala in the film Drive, “the most popular car in California.” In the process, we are touched by how car stories teach us about relationships -- our own and between others.

We use first experiences as a focal point for students to tap into episodic and semantic memory; the car becomes the reliable vehicle for time travel. Emotional development, nostalgia, and family ties are themes that paint vivid, active pictures. While these are all unique stories, it’s revealing to find and blend common themes among them. A few examples of stories that tumbled forth in working sessions:

A ride on grandmother’s lap in Nanjing:
“Bouncing up and down on my Grandma's lap, I thought I was going to fall out into the night markets. Pretty lanterns and pungent smells blurred past me as our moto-rickshaw took us through the Nanjing streets.” 

Driving a sibling rivalry:
"I will always recall the thrill of racing against my brother in my favorite electric blue race car. The most intense moments would occur as we zoomed towards that all- important last corner, jockeying for pole position as we neared the finish. With the wind rushing through my hair, I would floor the pedal…. making the most of the preceding slope, gathering speed…"

The stories are real, but sometimes the perception of this memory is stronger than reality. Take, for instance, the awe-struck five year old, pushing the magic buttons in a James Bond show car, only to grow up and learn those features were fiction and therefore absent from other cars. Or, consider a little boy laughing as he connects with his Dad bumping magically down the road in the big red truck.

What is common across all of these examples? Car stories are some of the fastest mechanisms we have to get people to talk about themselves and their relationships. Because it forces us to travel, often with someone else, it reveals something about the dynamic relationship of the storyteller and their relationship with someone else.

The art of car storytelling helps us get to a core value that is once surprising and inspiring for our future work.

(Above photo provided by Barbara Karanian; homepage photo used under creative commons attribution via Deseronto Archives)