There's been a story that's been going around a lot about a formerly well-to-do woman who found her financial situation crapify dramatically. Things eventually became so dire that she went on food stamps, which she collected in her Mercedes. That made everyone crazy, and carries an important lesson for anyone who loves cars.
Let's just cover some of the details here first: she and her husband earned good money, owned a house, and she was pregnant with twins. In rapid succession, their house plummeted in value, her husband lost his job, and the twins were born prematurely.
They burned through their savings paying mortgage on an under-water house, and that's the path that led her to seek aid through Medicaid and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.
So, this woman wasn't raised in poverty, and eventually did manage to get out of poverty, but that succession of really shitty things was enough to put her in a really difficult situation. And through this time, they kept her husband's 2003 Mercedes C-Class Kompressor. This is the relevant part for us.
A key point of this woman's original article was, basically, how shitty people treat you when they know you're on some sort of government assistance, and how much shittier they treat you when they know that and you're driving a Mercedes.
And, on this point, I think she's right: people did treat her like crap. And it's needless, petty, judgmental, and cruel. This leads to the big lesson for us gearheads:
No one should ever tell you what car to drive.
Most of the comments she got, from friends and strangers alike, was that she should not have that car. Sometimes people were genuinely trying to be helpful, laboring under the illusion that a 2003 C-Class somehow has an incredible amount of value. The car was paid off, and, frankly, if they sold it, it's not like they'd make so much money they could buy another reliable car and have plenty of cash left over to help their overall situation.
It's clear a lot of people got immediately hung up on the brand of the car and quit reading or thinking. Like this comment:
I can't help but think that a sensible person would have:
1) Sold the Mercedes,
2) Bought a Prius in full with the proceeds
3) Paid off debt with what's left over.
The Prius would give you lower insurance and cut gas expenses in half over the lifetime of the car.
That's just one of many similar comments like this, where the idea of a paid-off, not-so-valuable "luxury" car didn't sink in. I suspect that this author is certainly not the only or last person to get assistance in a past-its-prime luxury make. The lure of that three-pointed star just clouds people's minds. Mercedes PR people should take this as a victory.
Today, a 2003 C-Class is worth just under $5000 or so. That's not really life-changing money, especially if they still had to get a reliable car.
Other people just found it unseemly that someone down on their luck would dare show up in anything with a tri-pointed star badge. People seem to want to believe that when you run into money trouble, everything nice you owned vanishes and you end up wearing one of those barrels with the suspenders like in old cartoons. If you appear to not be filthy and miserable, some people get offended.
All this is covered in plenty of other articles — here I want to focus on the fundamental act of people telling this woman she should not have that car. Telling someone what car they should or should not own, what car you feel they actually deserve to drive is something I believe no true gearhead should ever do.
Here's another comment from the article — I like this one because it implies some exciting deeper secret crimes needed to own a 2003 Benz:
Most people have to have, 'nothing', before they can get food stamps. How did you get them with an [sic] Mercedes. What are you hiding from the government. I hope you have to pay every cent back.
Yeah, what are you hiding? Some dirty secret about buying a car in the past?
A car is not like a washing machine or a refrigerator or a rectal thermometer or any number of other useful devices in our lives. Our choice of what car we drive is based on both rational and irrational and emotional decisions. In many ways, it's closer to the choices we make for the clothes we wear or the music we listen to. If you give any semblance of a shit, it's very personal.
And, as such, it's no ones goddamn business what you drive, or why. Sure, we all can and do have very strong opinions about cars, good and bad, and all of us have cars that we would actively be embarrassed to be seen in. And sure, if someone asks, or you're debating or discussing, you can absolutely tell someone why you think the car they drive is the most ridiculous vehicle every slapped together by the meaty paws of man.
But you'd never tell someone they can't decide what car they want to drive.
Sure, if they're genuinely unsafe in the car and posing a threat to themselves or others, that's different. But telling someone like this woman, for example, that she somehow doesn't deserve to drive that 2003 Benz simply shouldn't be done.
Suggesting that the C-Class is somehow an amoral choice requires a lot of assumptions to be made: about the price of the car, or the idea that the only reason the owner wants the car is for status reasons. Maybe status was a factor in the original purchase, but that car can be appreciated on many levels beyond badge snobbery.
If I was in that situation, broke but hanging on to an already paid-for car with a fancy badge and qualities I genuinely liked, why wouldn't I want to keep that car? It's clear it was important to me, and I derived some joy out of it, and what's the harm in that? If it's not causing me to hemmorage money keeping it going, why can't I hold on to something I genuinely appreciate?
The judgement of what cars people should or shouldn't have takes many forms other than this. When a guy in a lifted truck gets a metric ton of stinkeye from hybrid drivers, that's basically the same thing. They don't know his situation, why he has the truck, the joy he gets from it, anything. A truck rolling coal at a Honda is as bad as well.
Hell, I used to get dirty looks and even a few impromptu lectures when my son was a baby and I'd take him places in my old Beetle. I was once chastised by someone for placing my child in a "death trap." I've had that car for half my life. You'd think if it wanted to kill me it would have made its move by now.
Really, though, I know the risks I take in using a vintage small car, and I drive with more awareness and avoid long high-speed trips with my kid in my vintage cars. I don't need some jackass suggesting that a two-mile, 20 mph neighborhood jaunt is the equivalent of infanticide.
A person's decision about what they choose to drive — if they care enough to make the choice — is something that demands respect. You don't have to like what they drive, but you do have to mind your own business.
I remember when I first came to LA, I saw something I had no idea existed: the shitty exotic. I saw Ferraris that needed mufflers, and Bentleys with Bondo. Cars that clearly marked a high point in a person's life, and even though their fortunes had plummeted, they still held on to their dream cars as best they could.
There's something about that I always respected. And I always will.