So why does any of this matter? Well the thing is that Car Culture is an imagined community. The phrase “imagined community” isn’t very clear, but the best way to think about it is in opposition to a real community.
An actual community of gearheads would be living in a village with face to face affirmation of their group. An imagined community replaces that face to face affirmation with a general “I know there are others out there.”
Due to the non-direct nature of an imagined community, car culture relies heavily on shared ideas. For Muscle cars, the main theme is big engine, aggressive boxy body and a singular focus on going fast in a straight line. JDM, due to the less masculine appearance of Japanese cars, favors visual aggressive modifications alongside an emphasis on handling performance
In one, the core idea is Power, in the other it’s being able to handle that power (while also making their car look cooler). And therein lies the tension between Muscle Car and JDM culture.
V8 Power vs. JDM Performance
Since the imagined gearhead community relies so heavily on these central ideas, any change in these values is massive. You can see the impact just by talking to muscle car enthusiasts. Ask them what they think of JDM cars, and you’ll usually hear a series of emasculating statements conjoined with the words “plastic” and “weak”. Similarly, ask a JDM enthusiast about Muscle Car culture and you’ll get a series of statements making allusions to steroids, over-compensating or bailing on alimony.
I do want to make clear though that this division isn’t as large as the previous sentences insinuates. If you press any car enthusiast a little farther they’ll admit respect for any other car enthusiast just out of their shared love for cars.
But that initial response is still important. The emasculating of JDM culture and the cartoonish hyper-masculinizing of Muscle Car culture indicates that there is an actual shift in how masculinity is defined between these two groups.
Masculinity as a Constantly Performed Act
This becomes important, because similar to shared ideas in a community, masculinity isn’t constant either. Rather, masculinity is defined by a constant series of actions. It’s why gearheads don’t just peel out from a stop light, get out of their car and say “Yup that’s enough masculinity for the next 2 years.” They constantly have to support their masculinity with action.
Since there is this need for constant action to define your masculinity, it means that masculinity is not really stable. Rather it’s constantly changing as people perform different acts to affirm their masculinity.
As JDM culture grows, and focuses on modifications that are considered not-masculine by Muscle Car Guys, the number of people performing what used to be not-masculine acts to support their masculinity increases. This shifts the overall definition of masculinity in car culture.
Going back to the start of this part – why does any of this matter? Well to the outside world – it probably doesn’t. But things are changing rapidly for car culture. Due to the internet and the advent of autonomous driving, cars have gone from an essential utility, to a deadly nuisance. In a very selfish way, I hope that by understanding how car culture changes, gearheads (myself included) can find a way to keep cars relevant in the changing world.
I owe a significant amount of research credit to Dag Balkmar. His gender studies thesis "On Men and Cars" made up a significant amount of research on this piece.