Do owners of insurance agencies drive Maseratis? Do construction company presidents cruise around in Jaguars? Are restaurant owners happy in Cadillacs? More often than not the answer is yes, according to a survey conducted by Growth Resources Inc., a research and consulting group in Peabody, Mass. In a recent study published by the group, it says presidents and owners of small- to medium-sized businesses are taking a drive on the wild side by using more noticeable, opulent automobiles as company cars.
''The customary four-door black sedan is disappearing from the scene,'' says Richard J. Bronstein, president of the institute. It is being replaced by slick sports cars, expensive German and British imports, and plush, boaty American models.
Some executives included in the 16,500 companies surveyed told of owning cars worth upward of $35,000. But most were in the $10,000 to $20,000 range and the average age of the car was one year, Bronstein says.
Also up is the amount of money spent on the cars in proportion to the salary of the executive. In other words, the relationship between executive income and the price of the company car is closer to 3 to 1, than the previous 10 to 1. If an executive earns $60,000, about $20,000 of that is spent on the car.
This isn't so puzzling when considering the tax break involved. Company cars are generally written off in taxes. A more expensive car means a bigger write-off - one plus for the high-priced vehicles. What does this say about the average chief executive officer? Mostly it reveals a shift from an economical, thrifty attitude to one of ''spend it now while you have it,'' says Bronstein.
''It also shows that leaders in the world of small business are creative people with unusual tastes. In the United States, people have love affairs with their cars. Their car is their means of expression. By buying a Jaguar or a Mercedes-Benz, these executives are finding an identity,'' explains Bronstein.
In a complex business environment troubled by high interest rates, inflation, and government policy shifts, the car is a means of escape, he continued. The owner of a small manufacturing firm, after having a tough day at the office, may leap into his car and go for a drive to alleviate tensions.
Antonio Rocco, owner of a banquet hall in upstate New York, drives a 1981 Lincoln-Continental and loves it. ''The car cost over $22,000. But to me, it was worth it. It's got everything - push-button doors - everything; it's all electric.''
The car is comfortable and fashionable. There'll be no bumping along in a little economy car for Rocco. ''You can drive whatever you want as long as you pay the bills first. If you can get the bills paid and you still have money left over, then by all means buy one.''
An Allstate Insurance Company agency owner in Chicago suggested a different reason for driving an expensive car. ''If you're buying insurance, who are you going to buy it from: someone in a heap or someone in a nice, new car? Most people would choose the person in the nice car. Psychologically, most people would prefer to do business with someone successful and a nice car is equated with success.''
Others disagree, saying expensive cars give the impression that the person behind the wheel has been dipping into the company till for personal expenses.
Whether or not the executives can afford the cars, the preference is there, maintains Bronstein. ''People just love to be seen in big cars. It makes them feel like big wheels.''