I recently spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out what vehicle blends in perfectly in every single situation. This is the kind of thing I do on a Friday night when my girlfriend is out of town.
These were my parameters: I wanted to find a car that wouldn’t inspire a second glance, regardless of whether you were rolling up to an old money country club or driving around in a bad neighborhood (strictly defined by today’s leading sociologists as: the kind of place where people put adhesive fender vents on Chevy Uplanders).
But I also wanted this “under the radar” vehicle to be able to geographically blend in. In other words, I wanted it to look as comfortable and normal as possible in any setting, regardless of whether you were waiting in the Park Avenue median to make a left turn into the upper seventies or driving through the kind of rural Midwestern town where people give directions based on where things used to be.
Is there any possible vehicle that fits all of these conditions? I pondered this issue for a lengthy period of time before the Law & Order marathon on WE tv returned from commercials.
Initially, I was thinking the vehicle that fit my guidelines would be some sort of old luxury car, like a 10-year-old Range Rover or an aging Mercedes E-Class. After all: see an old Range Rover at the country club and you just think it’s Pierce, the WASPy 84-year-old attorney who would rather dump eight grand a year into his old model than buy a new one, because “damn it, I finally have my seats where I want them.”
Meanwhile, you see an old Range Rover in a rough neighborhood, and you know exactly what’s going on: the local buy-here, pay-here lot convinced another person that “AIR SUSPENSION INACTIVE” was nothing to worry about, and now the guy is making payments by the week at an interest rate normally reserved for people who have previously been involved in a) a divorce, and b) a bankruptcy, and c) a triple homicide.
But there’s a problem with old luxury cars: they don’t really blend in when you’re driving around in rural areas. I once spent several weeks on a road trip through the Great Plains, and I remember that the total number of used luxury cars I saw was roughly equivalent to the total number of tall buildings I saw that were not filled with some sort of agricultural material. In other words: zero.
Actually, that isn’t strictly true: at one point, I saw a late-1990s Saab 9-3 in the town of Holyoke, Colorado, (Motto: We have tall buildings! But they are filled with some sort of agricultural material!), which has a population of 2,300, and I got so excited that I frantically waved to the driver and I flashed my lights, and he probably thought: Damn it, this is why I never come out to the country anymore to visit grandma.
So then I was thinking it could maybe be some type of aging midsize convertible, like a Solara or a Sebring. These things fit in perfectly in rural America, and they’d almost look right at the country club, where they’re driven by prickly divorcees who still use outdated racial terminology. But let’s be honest: you could never take a Chrysler Sebring to a place like the Hamptons. People would look at you and ask: “And which party are you here to cater?”
And that’s when I figured it out: the ultimate “blend in” vehicle; the vehicle that blends more than any other vehicle; the vehicle that blends in so well it might as well be a chameleon, or at least one of those frogs at the zoo that looks like it’s made out of twigs: the cargo van.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that’s right: the cargo van. No matter where you are, no matter who you are, no matter what you’re doing, you never notice the cargo van.
I’ll give you an example. I live in the middle of a very large city, and whenever I walk basically anywhere, I look at the cars parked on the street. OK, OK, I admit it: I don’t just look. I also glance inside to see if they have a manual transmission.
But when I see a cargo van, I just assume it’s some contractor, or some plumber, or some worker. I don’t even give it a second glance. I just move my eyes right along to the next car.
It’s the same story in virtually any upscale setting: you see a cargo van at the country club or at a neighbor’s house in a wealthy area, and you don’t think: What is that thing doing here? Instead, you think: Oh, Todd is finally taking care of those trees. You think someone else must know why it’s here; someone else is handling it; someone else is getting some work done. And then you completely forget about it, the same way you forget about junk mail, or a vacation toothbrush, or the Milwaukee Brewers.
In other words: a cargo van essentially functions as an all-access pass to go wherever you want. Do you want to blend in in a wealthy neighborhood where people are always getting work done and hiring caterers? Get a cargo van. Do you want to blend in in a rural area, where people are always doin’ things and haulin’ stuff? Get a cargo van. You will not regret your decision, until it is time to change lanes.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn’t work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.