White vans and pickups: sending signals from behind the wheel

Thu Nov 27, 2014 9:07am EST
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By Paul Ingrassia, Lincoln Feast and Mahmoud Mourad

LONDON/SYDNEY/CAIRO (Reuters) - Automobiles are supposed to get you from Point A to Point B. They can also get you into trouble, even if you aren’t driving or riding in one, because they possess potent social symbolism.

Emily Thornberry, a Labour member of the U.K. parliament, learned this last week. During a by-election in Rochester that was won by the anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party, she tweeted a picture of a white cargo van in front of a home in the southeast town flying three English flags with the red Cross of St George, as opposed to the more-inclusive British Union Jack.

The tweet’s text said “image from Rochester,” but to some British eyes the picture said “xenophobic working class boor.” The owner of the house and van called Thornberry a “snob.” Within hours she apologized and quit Labour’s opposition shadow cabinet.

The Twitter tempest perhaps could only have happened in Britain, with its legacy of class consciousness. British vehicular stereotypes range from white delivery vans for the working class to Range Rovers -- dubbed “Chelsea Tractors” for a tony London neighborhood – for elitist “toffs.”

Range Rovers, Ferraris, Porsches carry similar social symbolism everywhere. But while rich people’s cars are alike, the stereotypical working guy’s wheels vary widely.

Consider Australia, home of the “ute.” The term has a different meaning Down Under than in America, where “ute” is shorthand for Jeep-like “sport-utility” vehicles, and little ones are known as “cute utes” while big ones are “brute utes.” In Australia, utes are pickup trucks, but not just any pickup trucks.

The annual Deni Ute Muster, held in tiny Deniliquin, 715 km (440 miles) southwest of Sydney, attracted more than 6,000 utes this year. Judges select the best Country Style Ute, Street Ute, Chick's Ute and BNS (as in "Bachelor and Spinster") Ute, the dirtiest and worst-maintained vehicle. The muster's "feral pit" is a campground for all-night revelry.

Hayden Sharman recently won his second "Ute of the Year" with his 1977 Toyota Landcruiser FJ45. He has spent nearly A$100,000 ($85,000) personalizing and rebuilding it, once after his wife, Jess, rolled it on their wedding day. "We've built it up, rolled it, built it again, rolled it again, drowned it, then put another motor in it,” said Sharman, a 33-year-old electrician. “It's had a pretty hard life, the old girl.”   Continued...

A man drives his Mercedes-Benz sedan during a traffic jam in downtown Cairo November 26, 2014.  REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh