November 27, 2014 / 2:08 PM / in 3 years

White vans and pickups: sending signals from behind the wheel

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.

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

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.”

“I‘m very much a tradie (tradesman),” he added proudly. “Having a can of rum by the campfire -- I’d rather be doing that than being in an office building.”

CLASSICS

A man driving his Mercedes-Benz sedan is reflected in a side mirror of a vehicle in downtown Cairo November 26, 2014. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Russia’s white-van equivalent is the Lada Classic, described by British car guru Jeremy Clarkson as “simply the worst car ever.”  All seven Lada Classic models are box-like, outmoded and out of production in Russia, as well as – true to their Soviet-era heritage - notoriously unreliable. In the cities cheap foreign imports are replacing the Lada Classic as the white-van equivalent but it still reigns the provinces.     

Used Lada Classics are inexpensive. Working-class fashionistas adorn theirs on the rear-view mirror or the radio antenna with the St. George’s ribbon, a black-and-orange-striped military honor introduced by Catherine the Great. Not to be confused with the cross on England’s flag, these ribbons have soared in popularity since Russia annexed Crimea last March.  Own the car, tie on the ribbon, and everyone knows where you stand.

There’s no Lada equivalent of a ute muster, but there are Lada jokes. “Can I have a hub cap for my Lada?” asks a man in an auto accessory shop. The reply: “OK, it seems like a fair swap.

In Egypt, the Lada and the Nasr, a Fiat-derivative built by the state-owned auto maker are associated with lower-middle-class government employees.

U.S. President George W. Bush takes German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) for a ride in his pickup truck on his ranch in Crawford, Texas, in a November 9, 2007 file photo. REUTERS/Jim Young/Files

But class-conscious Egypt’s most vivid vehicular symbol is a well-used Mercedes-Benz sedan from the 1970s or 1980s: boxy, basic and beloved of self-employed shop-owners. Some models had nicknames. The E280 was temsahaa, or female crocodile. The E200, less-flatteringly, was khanzeera, or female pig.

The 1988 Egyptian television series “The White Flag” depicted a struggle between an illiterate rich businesswoman and an educated former diplomat. The woman’s Mercedes E280 symbolized her growing power. Few of the old models remain on the roads, but their symbolism remains powerful.

POPULAR PICKUPS

America’s white van equivalent is the pickup truck with a “good ol’ boy” totem: a Confederate flag decal, a gun rack, or sometimes both. In Texas pickups account for one of every four vehicles sold as opposed to one of eight in America as a whole. A local favorite is the upscale Ford F-150 King Ranch edition, in which well-heeled Texans can project a regular-guy image while traveling in style.

The 2015 model, which has a weight-saving aluminum body as opposed to steel for the first time, carries a hefty base price of $48,495. Front and back seats – with more leather than most cows -- are standard, and the front seats are both heated and cooled. Optional features, such as heated rear seats and power-deployable running boards, can boost the cost well over $50,000.

Pickup imagery resonates both in country music and, like white vans in Britain, sometimes in politics. In 2010 a Republican won an upset victory for a Massachusetts Senate seat by campaigning in his used pickup. Also that year a candidate for Congress in Tennessee billed himself as a “truck-driving, shotgun-shooting, Bible-reading, crime-fighting, family-loving country boy.” The candidate, a Democrat, lost anyway.

Back in Britain, meanwhile, the now-famous Rochester white van resurfaced, rhetorically, in rowdy Parliamentary debate Wednesday. ”When I see a white van, I think of the small business owner who works long hours to put food on the family table,” declared a Conservative lawmaker from Stratford-upon-Avon. “When I see the cross of St George I think of the words of my constituent William Shakespeare: ‘this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England’. “

Additional reporting by Timothy Heritage in Moscow, William James and Ahmed Aboulenein in London and Malak Ghobrial in Cairo; Editing by Anna Willard

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