Even with high fuel prices, a withering economic downturn and the near-death of our automobile-manufacturing industry, Americans are still car people.

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THERE IS NO reason for tire rims so big that your car looks as if it’s rolling on Ferris wheels, but as the man in the custom-painted, cobalt-blue Crown Victoria cruises along Lake Washington, the only thing higher than his tricked-out ride is his obvious pride.

The slowly rotating chrome rims glint in the late-day sunlight, turning a car that is more often used as a law-enforcement vehicle into a shimmering advertisement for living on the wild side.

The man drives at an absurdly slow pace, to make sure other motorists, cyclists and joggers get a good look. This is, after all, a car that’s made to be seen — or rather a car that’s made to be seen in.

On one level, the man’s apparent self-indulgence seems extreme. But his clear infatuation with that Crown Victoria reflects something bigger: Even with high fuel prices, a withering economic downturn and the near-death of our automobile-manufacturing industry, Americans are still car people. More than 250 million personal vehicles are registered in the United States, basically two for every household.

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Our wages may be stuck in neutral, but that doesn’t stop us from shelling out $26,850 on average for a new vehicle, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation — about $10,000 more than in 1990.

And while it’s true that we’re keeping our cars longer in these changed economic times, annual maintenance, fuel and insurance costs add up to a big financial commitment, too: More than $9,000 for the owner of a sedan who drives 15,000 miles a year and more than $11,500 for a four-wheel-drive SUV, according to the auto club AAA.

Shelly Jain, who’s chairman of the Marketing Department in the University of Washington Foster School of Business, has just cowritten a research paper exploring our connection to material possessions, and he’s concluded that many of us acquire products that “self-affirm” and signal ideas about ourselves to the rest of the world. Cars, then, become a way to show how cool, successful, practical or, more recently, how environmentally conscious we are.

It would strain the use of metaphor to say that one of our most ubiquitous and self-indulgent possessions — our automobiles — only winds up on the scrap heap of history after we get what we need out of them. Except that it’s true.

The folly of it all is on full display at Affordable Auto Wrecking in South Seattle, a boulevard of broken dreams where row upon row of worn-out, crashed and cashed-in cars greets industrial vultures who come to scavenge for cheap spare parts.

Manager Bucky Myers presides over these two huge lots with the tough-guy insouciance of someone who’s seen it all.

“I’ve seen people kiss their car goodbye,” Myers says. “I mean put their lips on the car and kiss it goodbye. I’ve seen people cry over their car … See that blue Saturn over there? That’s my wife’s. She cries every day cuz that’s here. The motor’s bad, though. She didn’t take care of it.”

You won’t need to peek under the hood of a late-model Nissan Altima parked a few rows from the Saturn. The hood has already been sold and carted off. Two Polynesian-print seat covers in front are emblazoned with the phrase “Hawaiian-style,” but this picked-over sedan has ended up far from paradise.

A white 1999 Hyundai’s vehicle registration lies on the front seat, telling the world who once owned the car and how much he drove it: The odometer reads 217,125 miles. The owner really went places. But the last place this car will ever go is the wrecking yard’s second lot, where a massive demolition machine waits like a hungry beast. It flattens cars in an almost animalian crunch of bursting glass and crinkling metal.

Ron Settergren, the wrecking company’s owner, has seen people cry over their cars, too. But he’s also heard people ask to personally smash their vehicles in that huge press, squeezing catharsis, perhaps, out of a final goodbye.

It’s funny, he says. Sellers will approach him with stacks of maintenance receipts to show how well they babied their vehicles, as if that will make them worth more in his eyes when he decides how much to pay for them, usually just a couple hundred dollars, a pittance compared to all the love and money invested in a typical car over its lifetime. Myers and Settergren don’t really care about the back story, though. What matters is how much they can earn by selling the car for parts and scrap.

Settergren points to a black, late-model Cadillac that has been in an accident.

“That Cadillac was probably $35,000 or more, right?” he says. “I paid $450.”

MIKE REILLY’S vintage black 1968 Cadillac convertible may be past its prime like a lot of cars at the yard, but he loves it as if he’d scooped it up brand-new off the showroom floor 45 years ago.

Reilly, a 44-year-old construction worker with the raspy drawl and flower-child-in-Carhartts demeanor of Woody Harrelson, is just the sort of person you’d expect to see riding around town in a car made all the more ostentatious by the huge bull horns he’s attached to the hood.

A friend who lives near Reilly in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood thought the car suited his personality and sold it to him recently for $1,000.

The Cadillac was in good condition, but “it needed some styling,” Reilly says.

In addition to the bull horns, he hung a big Christmas ornament from the rearview mirror and attached a ski rack to the trunk hood with skateboards on it.

This spring, he painted daisies on the side panels to create the illusion that flowers are spinning out of the wheel wells.

“A lot of guys put flames on their cars,” Reilly says. “I’m not a flame guy. I don’t want my car looking like it’s on fire.”

Reilly could’ve taken the conventional approach and purchased a car with less attitude, but the way he sees it, “if you’re going to be stuck in traffic, you might as well make it fun.”

“The Camrys and Kias of the world, I get it, but I really can’t afford those cars,” Reilly says. “I’ve never owned a car in my life that was built in the decade I was living in … So the option is older, cool cars.”

His Caddy “comes from a time when cars were sexy,” luxurious, he says. “Like the saying goes, ‘You’re not lackin’ if you’re Cadillac-in.’ “

Reilly thinks of his car as a prop that tells the world a bit about the man with eclectic taste behind the wheel.

If he’s driving through Yakima, he’ll blast Willie Nelson.

If he’s driving in Seattle, he’ll play rap songs by Notorious B.I.G., recline the seat and “get my lean on.”

“It’s like driving in your own parade,” Reilly says with the sort of glee that only an irrepressible extrovert like himself can muster. “I turn around just so I can drive down the same street again. It’s driving just to drive, not to get from Point A to Point B.”

Well, maybe he can get to first base if he’s lucky.

Reilly says his Caddy makes him a hit with the ladies, a distinction he discusses with shameless cheer.

To get attention, he and a buddy have a trick they like to play when driving around during rush-hour in Reilly’s other car, a white-and-blue, 1965 VW Baja Bug decked out in window decals, and once again, bull horns.

They’ll don helmets, pull up to a red light, spread out a road map of Indiana and ask people on the street which way to drive to reach the sand dunes, as if they’re hopelessly lost, then crack up laughing.

“Free fun,” Reilly says.

The memories conjured up by the cars we drive are priceless in their own right. Ask Rich Koch.

“I know exactly where I was on my 16th birthday,” says the All-City Fence owner as he reminisces about the cars that played key roles in his youth during the 1970s. “I was getting my driver’s license in my mother’s car,” a red 1967 Ford Mustang convertible with white racing stripes.

“I got my license, and within an hour and a half I went and picked up my friends, who couldn’t drive, and we went to get hamburgers,” Koch says. “The weather was gorgeous, and I was floating on air. It was like freedom — being able to drive legally and go wherever I wanted to go.”

In his junior year of high school, he spent $1,200 on a Chevy Malibu muscle car with a custom paint job in seven colors. “I got a lot of looks and stares,” he says.

Growing up near Detroit — Motor City — and later in freeway-laced California, Koch watched his dad drive home with a new car every two or three years. The 1958 Ford Fairlane was so big that “when he had me wash it, it was like washing a house,” Koch jokes.

But it was his dad’s appreciation for Model A Fords that stuck with him.

Today, Koch can be seen driving around Seattle in his 1930 Model A, a car that’s loaded with meaning rather than high-tech extras or crazy colors. This is the third Model A he’s owned.

“I have this one in honor of my dad,” Koch says. “It seems kind of corny, but when I’m driving, it’s like my dad’s with me.”

Even when he’s driving his Model A, people stop and stare. What they might not realize is that Koch is gazing far beyond the image in the car’s tiny side mirror.

EVER SINCE the first car rolled down Seattle’s streets in July 1900 and Dick’s Drive-In started selling hamburgers to motorists blasting The Crew Cuts’ No. 1 hit “Sh-Boom” on their radios in 1954, we’ve learned to appreciate cars as more than mere spectacles, vessels for leisure pursuits and symbols of success. They also telegraph our concern about the world around us and the way we live.

In 1999, 17 energy-efficient hybrid cars were sold in the United States. By last year, that number had grown to around 430,000.

The European and American car-share company Car2Go has developed a whole business model around getting people without cars from Point A to Point B. Users go online to locate a Car2Go nearby, pay 38 cents a minute to drive it, then park it in a designated space on the street for someone else to use.

The service took off when 330 of its pint-size Smart cars were introduced in Seattle in January.

Demand was so high that in March the city of Seattle agreed to lift the cap on point-to-point, car-sharing licenses to 500 from 350. Car2Go immediately snapped up another 100 licenses, bringing the total number of its cars in Seattle to 430.

“The driving reason, no pun intended, is to give folks another option to owning a car,” says Mike Estey, manager of parking operations for the Seattle Department of Transportation. “With a smartphone, and assuming there’s a Car2Go vehicle within a few blocks, suddenly it becomes a good option.”

It’s also true that while automobiles have come to symbolize the soaring idealism (and let’s face it, vanity) of their owners, they also reflect the downward economic trajectory of the very middle class that built its dreams around them.

Every night in Seattle, for instance, hundreds of homeless people park on the city’s streets or in lots and spend the night in their cars because, in many cases, they have no other option. Having to think of your car as your home is a sad and unwelcome perversion of the American dream.

“It’s a possession, but it becomes their safe harbor — their own moving castle,” says Bill Kirlin-Hackett, who’s an adviser to Sustainable Ballard, a nonprofit group that provides services to vehicle-dwellers in that neighborhood.

Data collection on people living in their vehicles is tricky, given that people move frequently and are hard to track, but the best estimates place the number in Seattle at around 800 on any given night. That number could be two, three or four times greater, however, Kirlin-Hackett says.

Members of this roving society learn the fine art of dodging parking tickets and protecting valuables — and looking out for each other in what is a potentially unsafe environment.

“Sometimes they’re better neighbors to each other on the streets than people who actually have houses,” Kirlin-Hackett says.

One man, who goes by the name Coup, spends all of his days hanging out in his Chevy van near downtown and has become a friendly fixture in the neighborhood where he usually ends up parking. Everything he owns piles high in the front seat and rear of his minivan, leaving scant room for the inflatable mattress he sleeps on. As he invites me to peek inside one afternoon, I’m taken not just with the heft of his stacked and teetering belongings, but the weight of his story.

Thirty years ago, he tells me, he was a government financial analyst in Washington, D.C. He had a wife, a house in the suburbs and a dog. Everything seemed perfect. He bought the van in 1992 when life was good.

But fate has a way of leading you down dark alleys. Among other missteps, brushes with misfortune and health crises, Coup suffered from a long-undiagnosed depression that made it extremely difficult to get back on his feet after abandoning his career and taking time off in the ’90s. He moved back to the Seattle area, where he’s originally from, nearly broke in 2002. His only real possession for the past 11 years has been the van.

Coup, who’s waiting to get into Section 8 housing, says he’s not sentimental about his plight and doesn’t feel a personal attachment to the van. Kirlin-Hackett says some of the vehicle dwellers he meets have given their cars names, personalizing a situation that is for many of us unthinkable.

Coup’s Chevy doesn’t have a name, but he has made one concession to sentiment.

The domestic clutter all around, the mold on the steering wheel and the cramped space signal a life that took a disastrously wrong turn, except that Coup has placed a figurine of a golden, laughing Buddha on the dashboard — a gesture that can only be rooted in the sort of optimism that led him to buy the van in the first place.

Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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