TT: Big Car, Little Car

ALAN: Having grown up with the British mini which really is very tiny indeed, I find it hilarious that Americans refer to what I consider to be stonking great big people movers as “minivans. “

Big Car, Little Car

Big Car, Little Car

JANE: You described the mini last Tangent, but I fear that your statement that you find “it hilarious that Americans refer to their stonking great big people movers as ‘minivans’” doesn’t make much sense.  Minivans aren’t really that big.  They are certainly not “great big people movers” – most don’t hold more than six or seven people, and those people had better like each other a lot and not have much in the way of luggage.

ALAN: Here, anything that holds “six or seven” people is absolutely huge. It’s the largest vehicle a person is allowed to drive on an ordinary license. Most cars hold four people. Perhaps five if the journey is short and you are all intimate friends…

JANE:  I still insist that minivans aren’t really huge.  They’ve just replaced the station wagon of my childhood and, honestly, seem to hold a lot less in the way of luggage.

ALAN: We have station wagons as well, but they are just cars with two seats in the back, and a larger than usual luggage area. So they still hold four people, but they let you carry a lot more junk than you could cram into a proper car.

JANE:  The station wagons of my childhood held six or seven people, three in front, three or four in back.  Sometimes, in those wild and woolly days before mandatory seat belts, kids would sprawl in the back cargo area.  I have fond memories of the summer we drove from D.C. to Omaha, Nebraska.  I was small enough that I could lie down in the back and read or color.  These days I can’t read in a moving vehicle – I get motion sick.

Returning to terminology, we never refer to “minivans” as “minis.”  It’s always a compound where minivan is a sub-class of van.

ALAN: We have minivans, but they are just a standard mini (the car) which has a van body and therefore only seats two people in the front. Everything else is empty space. They don’t really exist anymore – I haven’t seen one in decades. I suspect that my minivan would fit comfortably on the back seat of your minivan and still leave room for a passenger or two. It’s that incongruity which makes me laugh at the word.

JANE: I see…  Same word, different meaning entirely.  I might as well fill you in on the rest…

“Vans” hold more people and indeed might be called “people movers.”  Vans can hold between twelve and fifteen people.  Jim commuted in such a van for years. He requests that I clarify that if you squeeze fifteen people in, they’d better really like each other.

We call “stonking great people movers” “buses.”

ALAN: Here, anything that holds a dozen people or more is a bus, and it is never owned or driven by ordinary people – you need a special kind of license to drive anything that big.

JANE: I checked with Jim.  He regularly drove his commuter van and didn’t need any special license.

Now, to go the opposite direction, not all Americans drive huge vehicles.  My car is a sedan – a Mazda Protégé.  I think it’s about the same size as your car – comfortable for four, but with the option of squishing in a fifth.   There are many smaller models on the road, as well, two door sedans, hatchbacks…

One of the most peculiar small cars is the Smart Car.  These are so small that I, personally, wouldn’t take one onto a highway – especially out here in the wild West where there are a lot of big pickup trucks on the roads.  In many ways, they sound like a modern variation on your mini.

ALAN: Are the Smart Cars those things sponsored by Google that drive themselves? I’ve seen photos of those and they do indeed look very small.

JANE: I don’t think so…  They’re just really small cars with room for only two passengers, very little cargo space, and a very low profile.  They’re touted as “smart” because they have very low gas mileage.  I’ve only seen them, never driven one, but maybe our readers could tell you more.

ALAN: Ah, I see! That does sound really, really small.

JANE: I have a question for you…  Earlier you mentioned that “Most cars hold four people. Perhaps five if the journey is short and you are all intimate friends…”

What do families do?  When I was a kid, my family numbered two adults and four children.   No way we could all fit in a sedan.  These days, especially given that bulky car seats are now required for small children, many families drive minivans, SUVs (compact versions are common), or other larger vehicles.  They need to in order to fit!

ALAN: The problem seldom arises. Most families have only two children – larger families are the exception rather than the rule. Two adults in the front and two children’s car seats in the back and Robert is your avuncular relative. Of course, the rare families larger than this may well have a larger vehicle that holds half a dozen or so people. Actually, it’s the only real justification I can think of for driving one of these. They really do look quite out of place on our rather narrow roads.

JANE: Seriously, Jim and I have the Forester because there some of our hobbies – including our garden, landscaping, and such – benefit from the ability to haul material.  There have been times I’ve seriously missed our pickup truck.

ALAN: I think my view of American cars might have been much influenced by Eartha Kitt’s song An Old Fashioned Girl where she claimed to want “…a cerise Cadillac, big enough to put a bowling alley in the back…”

JANE:  Yes.  I can see that.  There’s also the blues hit, “Riding with the King,” as well as songs about low riders and other models where customization, not just size, are important.  But one must be careful.  Sometimes a car is not just a car…  It’s a metaphor.  Go look up Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” or Prince’s “Little Red Corvette,” if you want to figure that one out.

ALAN: Strange how we keep coming back to music. I think the Tangent Gods are dropping a very large hint here…

Do you think the fascination with cars is purely American?

JANE: Hey, the Beatles were the ones who sang, “Baby, You Can Drive My Car.”  And Lord Peter was devoted to his Daimlers.  I’m really not certain that it’s just an American thing to see a car—especially one that’s large and elaborate – as a status symbol.

ALAN:  You’re quite right. Nothing proclaims your status like a Rolls Royce and that’s about as British as it gets. And, if we are sticking to the music theme, Gary Numan (ex Tubeway Army) had a massive hit in the UK with a song called simply Cars.

JANE: And here in the U.S., we had a band called, the Cars.  You’re right.  One of these days, we’re going to need to discuss music…

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3 Responses to “TT: Big Car, Little Car”

  1. Louis Robinson Says:

    In cars, as in much else, the American notion of ‘large’ tends to the… extreme, shall we say. I remember being _quite_ surprised when I realised what size that truly impressive 3-litre Bentley that James Bond drove must really be: the 250 straight six in my ’67 Chevy Biscayne was a _4_ litre engine – and with decidedly underwhelming performance, to boot. That was GM’s smallest engine in those days, too.

    There’s another thing that makes comparisons difficult: Americans [although the rest of us, unfortunately, are catching up] average somewhat wider than people in most parts of the world. A car that you can squash 5 Kiwis into is liable to split at the seams if you try it with 5 typical Floridians or New Yorkers.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Um, about those Smart Cars. As I understand it (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smart(automobile), the car was originally associated with the Swatch back in the early 1990s, because the dude running Swatch “develop[ed] an idea for a new car using the same type of manufacturing strategies and personalization features used to popularize Swatch watches. He believed that the automotive industry had ignored a sector of potential customers who wanted a small and stylish city car. ” The car was first manufactured back in 1998, but it didn’t take off, due to relatively low gas mileage for its size (I remember 1980s American cars that got 10 mpg more and actually held four people). Incidentally, the name Smart is a mashup of Swatch and Mercedes, the partnership that finally developed the little beastie. Perhaps they were naming it for its presumed looks and cuteness, not its clever design? They lost about 4 billion Euros between 2003 and 2006 on the venture. It’s since become mildly popular, heavens knows why, but it’s owned and built solely by DaimlerChrysler. My favorite version is a local Smart FourTwo that’s painted black and has a large Batman logo on the back. I think the owner may use it to deliver pizzas, although I could be wrong.

  3. Paul Says:

    We have a Smart car, gets about 40 miles to the gallon. It’s two seats are full size; sitting in one, you don’t realize you’re in such a tiny car (until you see another go by). I’ve never had problems getting a week’s worth of groceries in the space behind the seats. Disadvantages: no cruise control (at least on our model). It has everything else we had on our last non-Smart car.

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