A Car is as Telling as a Name

By Brenda Buchanan

One of my beta readers jotted an interesting question in the margin of an early draft of my first Joe Gale book.

Does the reader really need to know what kind of car Joe drives? 

I didn’t even have to think about it. Wheels always matter, at least to me.

In my imagination, Joe Gale’s car looks like this.

Joe drives an aging Subaru station wagon, which says so much about him. (By the third book in the series he’s actually on his second Subbie, having totaled his first one during Cover Story.)

Joe’s a loyal Subaru guy because his job as a newspaper reporter requires him to drive all over the state in good weather and bad.

He carries a lot of gear, and with the back seat down, a Subaru wagon is almost as versatile as a truck. And every Subaru model is equipped with all-wheel drive, making it the all-but-official car of the State of Maine.

If you’ve never owned one, you have no idea how much stuff these babies can hold.

If Joe drove a VW, he’d be a completely different guy.

To my mind, choosing the right car is as critical as getting a character’s name right. Take Paulie Finnegan, who appears in the parts of Quick Pivot that take place in 1968.

A 1963 Bel Air was not a sexy car.

Paulie was not a stylish fellow. He wore lace-up brogans, wash-and-wear shirts and heavy-framed glasses when they were decidedly un-hip.

In the summer of ’68 he drove a 1963 Chevrolet Bel Air. Solid car, but hardly flashy.

By contrast, as a young banker Jay Preble drove a 1968 MGB Roadster. Forty some years later he tooled around in a vintage Jaguar and his golf cart was tricked out to look like a miniature Mercedes-Benz.

Jay Preble’s car in 2014.

Was Jay a foreign car nut, or was he hiding his insecurities behind such high-tone wheels? You’ll have to read Quick Pivot to find out.

What does this say about a guy? I mean, really.

A related technique is to use a car to convey something about setting. Several key scenes in Quick Pivot take place on Peaks Island, where vehicular longevity matters more than style. Jimmy B. Jones—a minor character in the book—drives a rusty pickup truck with spring-sprung seats and a passenger door that can only be opened from the inside.

A quintessential island truck.

Jimmy’s durable wheels speak volumes about the quirky folks who live on a rock in the middle of Casco Bay, including Helena Desmond, who plays a central role in the book’s plot but, alas, does not drive.

A lot of the writers I read seem to put careful thought into fictional vehicle choice.

MCW blog-mate Dick Cass uses his protagonist’s wheels to tell us about Elder Darrow’s world view. In his fine first novel Solo Act, Dick describes Elder’s car:  The Cougar’s black vinyl top was shredded, the yellow paint tinged faintly green as if it were molding.  The rocker panels were perforated with rust holes, but it ran and it was paid for.

This could have been Elder Darrow’s car in its heyday.

This passage also tells readers something about Boston, the city where Elder operates his jazz bar, The Esposito. Anyone who has lived in that city understands the benefit of driving a car with a few dings and dents. Hub rotaries can be a dangerous place indeed for those in shiny new cars.

The iconic Crown Vic, at one time the first choice of cops and police procedural authors from coast to coast.

Cops like Bruce Coffin’s John Byron and Kate Flora’s Joe Burgess don’t drive Crown Vics anymore because Ford no longer makes the longtime police favorite. So Byron drives a Taurus with balky air conditioning and Burgess patrols Portland in an Explorer.

Our Massachusetts colleague Steve Ulfelder is a race car driver in real life, and his fabulous character Conway Sax uses his big Ford Trucks (an F-150 in Purgatory Chasm, an F-250 in Wolverine Bros. Freight & Storage) to chase down bad guys in a manner as entertaining as it is intimidating.

If you like hot car chase scenes, you need to read Steve Ulfelder’s books.

No post about the use of cars in mystery novels would be complete without mention of the unforgettable book where the car was an actual character, and a diabolical one at that,  Stephen King’s Christine. That 1958 Plymouth Fury still haunts my dreams more than three decades later.

Just looking at a picture of it gives me chills.

Dear readers, do you notice what kind of car a character drives? What do you drive, and what does it say about you?

Brenda Buchanan is the author of the Joe Gale Mystery Series, featuring a diehard Maine newspaper reporter who covers the crime and courts beat. Three books—QUICK PIVOT, COVER STORY and TRUTH BEAT—are available wherever ebooks are sold.


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28 Responses to A Car is as Telling as a Name

  1. Reine says:

    Love this, Brenda. Great cars with some good memories in these photos!

  2. Bernie O’Dea drives an aging Subaru too! It must be something about reporters… and living in Maine! I totally agree that car brand helps make the character. Fun post!

    • I forgot to mention that Bernie and Joe share taste in vehicles. Two smart reporters, they are. Gerry Boyle’s McMorrow drives a Toyota pickup, but he lives in Waldo County, where that is a vehicle of choice.

  3. Beth Clark says:

    I do agree that cars matter. I bond with my cars and have trouble parting with them. My little Toyotas have served me well, although, at this time of year, I bemoan the fact that I can’t see over snow banks. I don’t know what that says about me except for the fact that I am cheap; however, I do love a sun roof and open mine even in the winter. I might have the heat blasting but I welcome the fresh air that keeps me awake over many long hours of driving.

    Loved the pictures and appreciate the time you expended to compare the work of other writers. Interesting how a simple feedback prompted this thought and research.

    • Thanks, Beth!

      I know well that feeling of loving a car so much you don’t want to sell it. They become an extension of our personalities and sometimes even our homes. This was especially true when I lived on Peaks, and kept clothes, books and camping gear in my mainland car.

      I always notice when reading fiction what the characters drive, so I didn’t have to do much research at all. When I think of Elder, or Conway, or Joe Burgess, I think of their wheels.

  4. C.T. Collier says:

    Absolutely, a car says more about a guy than his name. I totally get that, Brenda. Rock on!

  5. Gram says:

    Great article. Cars do define the man or woman. We drive a Prius and find it goes in the snow too.

  6. Heidi Wilson says:

    Brenda, I hope that Jaguar was always breaking down. As a young man, my husband bought a used one. Broke down almost immediately. When he took it into the garage, the old New Englander (female) who ran the place looked at it and grunted, “Hunh! NUTHIN’ but trouble!”

  7. Yep, cars are a clue to caracter (see what I did there?). A quibble, however: please don’t inundate me with strings of model info. I get the innuendos of a flame-red Ducati; I don’t need the engine size or the suspension specs. Give me the details only if necessary, and make sure I know what they mean. I can’t picture a “Kirby 627XE with Murphy Primos and Argon Uniques” but tell me she drives a “Kirby 3-seater with custom dual exhaust and hand-applied stripes” and I’m hooked.

    Darn it, I think I just invented a new car company.

    • Nikki, you bring to mind that fabulous scene in My Cousin Vinny when Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) holds forth on the witness stand about why the “youts” car could not have been the killers’ car:

      “Chevy didn’t make a 327 in ’55, the 327 didn’t come out till ’62. And it wasn’t offered in the Bel Air with a four-barrel carb till ’64. However, in 1964, the correct ignition timing would be four degrees before top-dead-center.”

  8. I love this piece because I almost cried when I had to get rid of my 94 Subaru Legacy wagon. There was so much rust underneath my mechanic was afraid I’d just fall through while driving. Yes, cars tell us (and others) who we are, and I do notice what people drive in books (and in real life too). When cars leave our lives (in favor of public transportation and private planes), this will turn out to have been the golden age of self-expression.

    • I have owned three different Legacys, Susan, two as island cars (which do not require inspection) and one as a mainland car. Loved them all. Safe. Reliable. Handy as all get out.

      But seeing the ground pass beneath you would be dangerous, so I agree with your mechanic.

      Your last comment is intriguing. Cars are so much self-expression, and let’s not even get started on bumper stickers . . .

  9. Monica says:

    Oh, I miss my Subaru Loyale (2 of them!) – three kids learned to drive standard on the first one (never needed a new clutch; very forgiving car). And, the ubiquitous golden in the way back.

    Yes, your characters’ modes of transportation are important indicators of who they are and how they see themselves in the world.

    I just went two years without a car of my own. First time in over 30 years. Very strange. I now, proudly, drive my mother’s 10 year old Buick. I keep her ‘lucky’ rosary beads tucked away where she had them, and still play her Rod Stewart and Sting CD’s. Mom was 80 when she died last year. Lively to the end. Her car meant a lot to her. As did my dad’s ginormous Expedition. My brother and I each drove their cars to dad’s funeral in November – cars and parents together again.

    • This is such a powerful story, Monica, about driving your parents’ beloved cars to your Dad’s funeral. I am sorry for your loss. It sounds like you honored them as they would have wished to be honored.

      I love that your Mom liked to listen to rock and roll in her Buick. I hope she drove with the windows down.

  10. Of course, it matters! It’s an extension of their character. My WIP has a protagonist who drives a Mini-Cooper. Her mother drove a Prius, which daughter dubbed a “Pious.” I bought my first Subaru a year ago, influenced I’m sure by Joe Gale’s hearty endorsement. Think of Sue Grafton and the beloved VW. And then there’s the eponymous Lincoln Lawyer.

    • I’m glad you heed Joe’s advice, Michele!

      A “Pious.” Too funny! A mini-Cooper is a great car to include in a book. A lesser character in my WIP drives one. My protagonist drives an old Range Rover she inherited from her father.

      Oh, and Sue Grafton’s VW bug and the Lincoln lawyer, of course!

  11. Paul Doiron says:

    Absolutely the make and model of your protagonist’s vehicle is important. It’s telling even if the character doesn’t care what car he or she drives. That says a lot, in fact! Or if your character doesn’t own a car — especially if he or she doesn’t live in New York City. I have a gripe about authors who avoid all mention of consumer goods in order to make their works seem timeless (or something). For better or worse, we live in a culture defined by the consumption of material goods. People use brands to assert their own identities. I can make a lot of assumptions about someone who drives a Cadillac Escalade versus someone who drives a Mitsubishi Outlander, although both vehicles are SUVs.

    • Great point, Paul. In specifying that Joe drives a Subaru, I’m not shilling for Subaru, I’m saying in a concise way he’s a common sense, practical Mainer. cars are part of pop culture and pop culture imbues our world.

  12. Well, I should think so, Missy!

    Bobby Wing, my Constable without police powers in the Dallas Plantation, Maine, series of short stories (the most recent of which is forthcoming in “Busted, Stories from the Beat” from Level Best Books in April) drives The Beast II, which has appeared in every story so far. It’s a big shiny, bright red one ton 4X4 Dodge pickup with a blown hemi, an “every which way” plow, dual winches and a crane in the bed to load up the occasional roadkill moose he comes across. It sort of matches his personality.

    I drive a rusty 15 year old GMC little pickup that couldn’t get out of it’s own way if my life depended on it. It sort of matches my personailty, now that I think of it!

    Fun post! Thanks for the chuckle.

  13. Julianne Spreng says:

    We live in north central Ohio where the weather can vary from hour to minute! We have a Subaru Forester, originally my mum’s…she lives in Palm Desert now and drives an older Audi…which I drive all over for my work, a 1978 F150 used mostly to move wood wagons, an F350 with tool box sides which is the rescue truck, a 1979 Jeep CJ7 used only for picnics and back road touring my husband calls Beauty, and a 2006 Ford Expedition my husband drives to work I call The Beast . It’s big, black, and beautiful. I personally prefer a truck or SUV because you sit higher and can see so much more. Then there is the newer Lincoln my son drives with a trunk big enough to hold a baby elephant. But his three year old daughter demands to be ferried in his 1996 soft-top Jeep Wrangler. It’s a Jeep thing…big smile!

  14. Amy M. Reade says:

    This was so interesting! I have to confess that I’ve never given it much thought, since cars in my books are only a tool to get from one place to another. But you’re right–the person who drives a Lincoln Town car is going to be very different from the person who drives a Chevy Camaro or a pick-up. I drive a Volvo–I’m not sure I want to think too much about what that may say about me. 🙂

    • Nikki Andrews says:

      Amy, it says you value stability over flash; you’re in it for the long haul and are a little bit quirky. You’re careful with money but are willing to shell out for quality, which probably also means you give your heart cautiously but loyally.

      Me? I drive a Saab. Most of the same things, with the kick from Saab’s history of road rallies and fighter jets.

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