Stories of the Self

Exploring meaning, nostalgia, and continuity of identity

First Vehicles and Nostalgia: Fond Feelings for Jalopies?

Why might we be nostalgic for our first vehicle?

Do individuals have nostalgic feelings for their first-ever vehicle? Even if it was a lemon, is there something about one's first automobile that brings about nostalgic feelings? Let me frame this: A few summers ago a group of my (college) students and I embarked upon a research project which involved collecting stories about Volkswagens. We called our project, "The VW Bug: Stories Told." In fact, we ended up collecting stories individuals had about any kind of Volkswagen-not just the VW Bug. A senior colleague of mine has a 1968 VW Bug. He allowed us to park the car in Canal Park-a tourist area in Duluth, MN. My students and I collected stories from passersby. We did this in shifts over the course of four weeks. Because Duluth is heavily populated with tourists in the summer months, many of our respondents were from outside the state and, in some cases, outside the country. In this sense, we had a lot of diversity in our convenience sample. Armed with signs which read, "VW Stories Wanted" (a play on their ad tagline, "Drivers Wanted"), cassette recorders, and consent forms, we set out to collect stories.


The purpose of this research project was to ascertain the cultural significance of the VW Bug, how individuals' recollections provoke nostalgia, and how that nostalgia facilitates continuity of identity. Subjects were simply asked to share a story about a Volkswagen. My students and I conducted a content analysis of the stories, searching for patterns in the data, discovering themes and, in so doing, also ascertaining the degree and type of nostalgia that was present.


A total of 49 interviews were conducted, but many more stories were told, as some individuals told several stories. Themes that emerged in the data include memories of bad experiences with a VW (such as the car breaking down), which are actually recalled with humor and a seeming fondness for the vehicle; recollections of what the VW was like in the winter (stories, for example, about the heater not working, or about getting up the steep hills in Duluth by going backwards, since the motor was in the back of these vehicles); memories of deviant activities associated with Volkswagens (from pranks among high schoolers picking up VW Bugs and moving them, to friends traveling to rock concerts in a VW bus with marijuana in the vehicle), and underlying themes of the association of the VW with camaraderie and with coming of age.


I have written about this particular study elsewhere. Let me bring this back to my question of interest here, though: Do individuals have nostalgia for their first-ever vehicle? In the VW study, a number of participants did note that a VW Bug was their first car. In such cases, it is difficult to separate the nostalgia that may be apparent due to the cultural significance of the type of vehicle from nostalgia that may stem from the "my first car" status. For most of us, our first vehicle probably wasn't one that had wide cultural appeal. It also probably wasn't brand new nor was it our dream car. More likely, most of us got a parent's or older sibling's "old" car or were given a used car that was believed to be "reliable and safe," not "cool and fast." Some of us earned money and bought that first vehicle on our own. It may be the case that our first vehicle had certain "quirks" that were both annoying and endearing. Those first vehicles may have left us stranded and let us down. As time passes though, and we think back on that first vehicle, what emotions prevail? The nostalgia that may be present could primarily be associated with where we were in the life course at the time we began driving - a time of constructing a sense of identity, experiencing newfound freedom, "hanging out" with friends. The automobile is a symbol of this newfound freedom and the automobile is a ticket for a teenager or young adult gaining status.


It is certainly possible to hear a successful middle-aged person who has the means to buy an expensive car speak with fondness about a jalopy he drove during high school or college. Is this really nostalgia for the object itself or is it more apt to be nostalgia for a particular period of time in one's past? For example, I may fondly reminisce about eating SPAM, but it really isn't so much the food item itself that I am nostalgic for; instead, it is nostalgia for a time of life (childhood).


Questions to consider: What was your first vehicle? What are your memories and emotions about the vehicle? How do those memories and emotions connect to a past time? These questions are intended to highlight the complex (and fascinating) relationship among objects, memories, and emotions - a relationship intriguing to explore.

 

 

Janelle Wilson, Ph.D., is professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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