If you wanted to check out some late-model, high-dollar whips, where would you go? The local country club? A chic nightspot? A racetrack? A quick trip to Beverly Hills? It’s likely that your first thought was not of the city of Eugene–some people know it as “Havana, Oregon”–which is famous for the immortal beaters that still ply its streets. Eugene is home to the University of Oregon; in the past few years, the city has seen a large influx wealthy foreign students eager to show off their menagerie of expensive cars. The UO campus is just a couple of miles from Paul’s house, but he doesn’t get over there on his daily routine. Since I work on campus, I asked him if I might contribute to Curbside Classics some of the photos I’ve snapped, and share some firsthand news of this fairly new phenomenon.
When I came to Eugene, in 1993, it was the plethora of Volkswagen camper vans and modified school buses that impressed me. Now I can boast of having seen two Maserati Gran Turismos (sorry, no photo).(Ed: but musicalmcs8706 just posted this one at the Cohort) One of them was driving past the other at 13th Avenue and Kincaid Street, the college-town crossroads where students go to see and be seen. Three weeks ago I snapped this Aston Martin DB9 there.
The largest share of wealthy foreign students come from China, and they seem to prefer such exemplars of German engineering as the Porsche Panamera in the top photo. It is rather incongruous to see cars we associate with rich, respectable businessmen, ladies who lunch, or even hairy-chested men in mid-life crisis being driven by 19-year olds who barely speak English. The local dealers—we have Mercedes and BMW, but no Audi or Porsche franchises—must be ecstatic.
Back home in China, high tariffs, choking traffic and limits on new registrations have made car ownership difficult in many large cities like Shanghai. If you pay for a new Mercedes you also risk having it dinged up in a land were 20% of the motorists learned to drive within the past year. So when the Chinese students arrive in Eugene, a $55,000 E550 coupe (at right) or $45,000 C350 coupe (middle) seems like a bargain. They are also happy to feed meters at the rate of $1.50 an hour, and also to pay for the inevitable tickets. Some of these German luxury cars, like the Audi A7 that Paul snapped one night recently, bear decals that hint at their owners’ heritage.
The fuel-tank filler flap seems a suitable place for this Chinese-character sticker on a BMW M3 (16 mpg combined), which may return even lower mileage since the owner has modified it with a carbon-fiber hood and other expensive toys. I wish I could tell you what it says.
Other decals in English include “Pretty in China”, which hints that the male car owners are able to attract female passengers. I always see a man behind the wheel, often with a glamorous woman passenger.
At the right edge of this photo is a woman, in black boots and a skirt, on her way to class after being dropped off in a BMW 550i.
The most meaningful decal is this one, which I snapped on one of the many Nissan Skyline GT-Rs that now prowl the campus.
After I talked to a couple of students and searched Facebook, I found that the International Student Car Club is indeed Eugene-based. Making decals, going out to clubs and gathering in parking lots for impromptu car shows appear to be its members’ main activities. Note also the stuffed animals belted into the rear seat. These seem to be for Chinese car nuts what fuzzy dice were for the U.S. hot-rodders of the American Graffiti-era. No kids to worry about among this set, but I’m glad they are getting in the habit of buckling up their plush toys.
Recent posted on CC was a snapshot of this McClaren MP4-12c, which was parked on the same block as the two Maseratis and the Aston Martin pictured above. I guess this driver was not to be outdone, and paid nearly $250,000 for his curb candy. Comments on the site suggested that he went too far, but those words may be tinged with envy.
Of course, not all of the student gearheads are from China, nor are all their cars imports. One member of the International Student Auto Club drives a new Camaro.
A couple of years ago I met several students from Qatar who had enrolled in my course (about cars). A couple of them drove modified Mustangs, another a BMW X5. They taught me and their classmates a lot about cars and driving in their home country which, of course, is far wealthier than China. In Qatar, rolling a Land Cruiser on a sand dune or having one’s Nissan supercar confiscated by the police apparently is a routine experience. And unlike the Chinese students who buy their cars here in Oregon (no sales tax!), all of the Qataris shipped over their rigs from the homeland. Last Friday at dusk I spotted this Nissan 370Z wearing plates from home. I believe these are from Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates.
According to several recent news stories I’ve read, the major auto makers fear that the college-age markets of North America and Western Europe increasingly regard bikes and buses as cool, but cars as a waste of money and fossil fuels. These savvy young drivers might buy a Kia Soul or Hyundai Elantra (if it has enough USB ports), but they’re not interested in hot-rodding or the high-ticket rides that drive the manufacturers’ profits. This appears to be true in Eugene, where bicycling students put stickers proclaiming “One Less Car” on the frames of their one-speeds, and skateboarders respond with a sticker boasting “One Less Fixie” on their boards. Nevertheless, the international students who drive the cars pictured here still follow the old-school way of showing off expensive cars.
[Long-time CC reader Gordon Sayre is Assistant Professor of English at The University of Oregon]