Terry McGean looks at younger car fans
Over the past several years, I’ve often heard the lament from seasoned enthusiasts that today’s youth is simply not interested in cars. You’ve probably heard the same, usually followed by statements about kids today only being interested in cell phones and video games, how ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft have made the need to drive essentially obsolete for teens, and so on.
After I came to terms with the recognition that I was no longer a member of a group that could be considered “young,” I started to share these concerns. But, midlife crisis notwithstanding, I’m not worried anymore—I can say with confidence that there are plenty of young people who like cars. Considering how powerfully infectious automotive pursuits have been since the first motorized contraptions rolled under their own power, could that impact really have just evaporated with one generation?
It seemed unlikely to me, and I’ve discovered proof positive that the car gene continues to be passed on. Back in 2011, I started racing with some friends in 24 Hours of Lemons events, a series started in 2006 as a wheel-to-wheel competition between $500 cars. What began as a goof quickly expanded to an annual schedule of 20-plus races, at noted tracks across the country.
Though the teams are made up of racers across a broad spectrum of age groups, I’ve been impressed by the number of guys—and girls—in their 20s who are building their own cars, racing them, and thrashing in the pits to keep them alive for the two-day duration of the events. Persuading an amalgamation of junk to continue making full-throttle laps around a road course for hours at a time absolutely mandates a working knowledge of basic auto mechanics, and the requisite tools. Lemons provides a stage where youthful enthusiasts demonstrate their skills, and their ingenuity, on a regular basis.
For another example, I’ll cite The Race of Gentleman, a drag race held on the beaches of New Jersey since 2012. The event is for vintage cars (with bodies from 1934 or earlier, powered by engines from 1953 or earlier) and motorcycles (built prior to 1948), and while demographics vary among participants, there are lots of under-40- somethings there. And again, the cars have to be built, they have to be kept running, and they have to be assembled from bits manufactured long before most participants were conceived.
In both cases, the events seem to invite people to get involved, which, in turn, inspires them to learn more about the subject matter. I’ve witnessed young people taking in these events as spectators, and then observed as these newly hatched car geeks pored over books, magazines, websites, and whatever else they could learn from, as they set out to build an old vehicle of their own to participate. Not so different from the way many of us got involved with cars.
I’m a part of what came to be known as Gen X— the generation that followed the Baby Boomers. We missed the first muscle era, or at least, were too young to appreciate it as it was unfolding. When it came time for us to get our own wheels, the decade-old mid-’70s models that might normally have been our first cars often seemed boring, so many of us gravitated to earlier stuff. Those cars were considered “old” even then, but as values for muscle cars were on the rise, we could still afford to buy cheap, battered examples. We boned up on the history, studied what made them go fast, and learned to tinker to keep them running and attempt to make them faster.
Over time, I think people of my generation who liked cars formed a sort of kinship with the older guys of the Boomer generation, thanks to our shared interests. You can see this clearly illustrated at events like MCACN today, where the audience ranges from middle-aged people all the way to those pushing 80 and beyond. But there is a sharp drop off when you look for people under 40, and most of the ones you’ll find are there with someone older—usually the sons and daughters of a Gen Xer or Boomer.
I think that drop-off point has more to do with access than lack of interest. Functional examples of cars from the original muscle era are no longer inexpensive enough to be purchased casually. In spite of this, if you surf around on YouTube, you’ll find lots of 20-somethings dragging clapped out muscle-era models from fields, barns, junkyards, or wherever they can find them, attempting to breathe life into specimens that were long ago left for dead and judged to be “too far gone.”
Interest in these cars lives on, and fostering it seems to require little more than a nudge and access to a proper old car to tinker with. And maybe some insight from a more seasoned gearhead.