Read somewhere recently that many young adults today have no desire to own a car. Moreover, that many of them don’t even have a driver’s license.
Before I had time scoff at the silliness of the idea that a generation of Americans lack the DNA necessary for the desire to drive a car by junior high, a columnist writing in one of the dozen or so automotive magazines on my subscription list offered a similar notion.
The earlier opinion was based on young urban dwellers with little or no need for their own mode of transportation. The latter was pegged on the view that nine of every ten automobiles seen on the road in the last 20 years more closely resemble each other than first cousins at a family reunion. That, combined with the thought that legislation based on politics more than real science leaves hot rodding, custom cars and auto racing with a dim future.
And restoration of antique automobiles? Even if there were any cars on the road today that held enough mystique for an auto historian down the road to appreciate, automotive offerings of the last few decades have been crafted from a myriad of disposable materials that offer little hope of leaving behind enough of a relic to restore or modify.
Either way you look at it, that’s somewhat disturbing for anyone who grew up in a time when most young males were reading hot rod magazines in history class by the seventh grade, drawing cool looking cars on book covers and building plastic model cars on weekends.
Every single car rolling out of Detroit then had its own personality. Not only could you tell a Chevrolet from a Ford or a Dodge at a quarter of a mile, but even the youngest novice had no problem distinguishing the various model lines within each manufacturer’s offerings. There was no mistaking a Bel-Air for an Impala, a Mainline for a Fairlane, or a Coronet for a Meadowbrook at a hundred yards.
Getting a driver’s license was once a right of passage, something that was nurtured by playing Auto Bingo in the back seat of the family sedan out to “See the USA in a Chevrolet” during summer vacation trips. Innovation and individuality were paramount during the years when Ford ads featured their newest in styling and performance innovations with the slogan, “Ford has a better idea.” Not to be outdone, Dodge touted the distinctiveness and flair of their designs with marketing that proclaimed, “One look and you’ve got Dodge Fever.”
Then there’s the makes that have faded into history in the last couple of decades. Names like Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Plymouth, Mercury and other marks that succumbed to the homogenized history that once took pride in their own individual looks, colors, and engines, even within the ranks of the big three.
So how did we get from a society built on the automobile to one that’s content with the city bus or Uber? From generations based on the legends and mystique of the new model unveiling every year to a generation that seemingly could care less?
Don’t ask me. My small fleet is more mid-fifties than later current year makes. It includes a ’55 Ford Crown Victoria, a ’57 Ford Thunderbird and a ‘57 Ford purchased off the show room floor by my grandparents in North East Texas. It’s a survivor of America’s automotive hey day and the very car in which I learned to drive, and in which I dated my first girl friend. My second one too, now that I think about it, but that’s a different column.
It’s fair to say my personality would be much different had American automobiles and internal combustion engines not been an incentive to survive afternoon classes in high school just to watch the pilgrimage of rolling stock leaving the school parking lot carrying classmates to after school jobs, or to the local Dairy Queen.
The anticipation of cruising the Mount Pleasant city streets at night and blazing the asphalt at East Texas drag strips on the weekend made automobile ownership my top priority by age 12. My first year or so of driving was the family sedan until an after school job sweeping floors provided enough money for a set of wheels to call my own. But, when that first car deal was made, it had to be different. A young man’s car was an extension of his personality.
That’s a concept to which dad didn’t necessarily subscribe. “It’s just something to get from point A to point B,” I can still hear him saying. “True,” I admitted, but added that the trip had to be made in distinctive style making it possible for your friends to identify you simply by the car you drove. One trip by the local theater on a Friday night, and you knew exactly who was at the movies that night just by the cars parked around the square.
Even if dad was right, for me that trip from point A to B also had to be made in the shortest amount of time possible. Whatever I drove had to be fast which usually also meant that it was loud. Switching off the ignition and coasting the last block into the driveway at home was my only hope of preventing my parents from knowing exactly what time I got home.
That need for speed did two things. It kept me on a first name basis with most of the local police officers, and it spawned a brief career in drag racing during high school and college.
A love for American iron shod with four tires has been a part of our culture all my life. There’s never been a time when I didn’t own something interesting, different or unique to drive. My motto is that life is too short to drive anything generic or slow.
Personally, I’m not writing off the car just yet. Once you get past the econo-sedans that the government has tried to make us love, the pickups and SUVs still outnumber the cars on lots. And once you peek beneath the look-alike skin of today’s cars, there’s comfort, economy and technology that wasn’t even dreamed of before the days of space exploration. In addition, the likes of Mustang, Camaro, Charger and Challenger, all throw backs to the 1960s, make up a large part of today’s car sales. And they produce horsepower that was unheard of even in the days of muscle cars. Unique and fast rides are far from extinct.
Maybe there is a generation lurking in the inner cities that doesn’t put as much emphasis on cars as those of previous years. Every generation is different and there’s a lot to be said for that as well.
But as for me, I think I’ll go cruising tonight in my ’55 Ford Crown Victoria.
— Leon Aldridge