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Why We Name Our Cars

Cowgirl car hang tag on the rearview mirror

February 15, 2022

Why We Name Our Cars

As kids, most of us had an attachment object, such as a blanket or a stuffed animal. As we grow older, our attachment to inanimate objects may lessen, but we place sentimental value on certain things like lucky keychains, a pen, or even our car. Most of my friends have a name for their car. I’ve heard names such as “Shelley” for a Jeep Cherokee (with a cowgirl air freshener dangling from the mirror as part of “Shelley’s” identity), “Bunny” for a Hyundai Elantra, “Stinky” for a Honda CRV, and even “Sweet Pea” for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. When “Stinky” misbehaves, its back wheel gets smacked. 

Many of us (especially those living in Los Angeles) spend lots of time in our cars. Sacred moments are shared, including road trips and sing-alongs with friends (if the right person gets the aux). We watch our dogs stick their heads out the window with their tongues lazily flapping in the wind, and they look so happy. From sunset drives home after work to rushed in-traffic lunches on the way to our next thing, lots of us are constantly moving, and our cars get us where we need to go. No wonder we want to name them, and no wonder they hold so much sentimental value.

Object attachment is when a person feels an emotional connection to an inanimate object, often humanizing it, and would feel a sense of loss in the absence of the item. Our attachment to a product may even surpass its utility. While we may not be so attached to our vehicles as to deem them irreplaceable, we may have difficulty parting with them due to sentimental value and positive association. 

AutoTrader.com weighed in on this phenomenon in their Automotive Relationship Survey. According to the survey analysis, “consumers tend to personify their cars to the point that the relationship with them mirrors relationships with living beings in their lives.” 

And it doesn’t make owning a car for five years to develop an attachment. I had a Nissan Altima rental car for a few weeks, and I drove it quite a bit. One long drive home I experienced after a pivotal day was special enough to me that if I ever smelled the interior of that rental car again, I’m sure I’d return right back to that time in my life. The car had no real part in my fortune, and yet, even now, it feels like it was a buddy accompanying me, a sidekick carrying me to and from my adventures.

Studies have shown that people even assign their cars a personality. If I had to describe my car’s personality, I’d say she’s a bit shy, unassuming, and practical. It’s normal for us to assign human qualities to objects that hold significance for us.

While it’s endearing that we place so much sentimental value on our cars, doing so may be of detriment to us for a few reasons:

1. Sentimental value often prevents us from making important and necessary changes.

Your car may be finicky, temperamental, and a fortune to maintain, but you remember the road trips to Sedona and the Dr. Pepper stain on the passenger seat that has been there since your niece was 8. Much like homes do, cars contain our lives for a period of time, and to shed this machine is to shed the proof of life it holds in its wear. That all being said, and sentiment aside, the practicality should sometimes override a sense of allegiance to a vessel. 

2. It’s expensive to own a jalopy.

Sometimes our old cars feel like a ball and chain. Something is constantly wrong with them. But making the final change of selling and looking into a new vehicle seems more time-consuming, expensive, and overwhelming than the constant maintenance. Well, it probably isn’t. And there are flexible alternatives to car buying and leasing. If you don’t want to deal with a loan or lease, and you want a cheaper, longer-term option than a rental, learn why a car subscription may be best for you. 

3. We don’t prevent change by resisting it. 

You will evolve, even if you do it kicking and screaming. Not to get preachy, but sometimes important things are uncomfortable. The more we cling to things, people, and places, the harder inevitable transition becomes. 

While I’m sure Shelley is a great friend, at some point, she’s going to cost you an arm and a leg. You’ll go weeks without getting the blown-out headlight fixed, and resent the toil that comes with nurturing a dying machine. You’ll put off the crucial maintenance, well, because it’s a pain in the ass. But putting it off further deteriorates Shelley, and truth be told, it makes driving a lot more dangerous for you. When Shelley’s time is up, walk away gracefully. She served a wonderful purpose, and you’re so grateful to her for it.

And, after all, there is a silver lining:. Your next car is out there, and you’re probably going to love it just as much as you loved Shelley. The thing about attachment is that our new attachments eventually grow to be just as important as our previous ones, which is something that’s pretty cool about being human.

Picture of Lily Donat

Lily Donat

Lily Donat has a degree in psychology. She writes about current trends in automotive that affect her generation. Lily also has a magazine editorial and creative writing background and is a singer-songwriter.