Car Club Survival Tips: Part 2

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I was at the Oregon Region Porsche Club holiday dinner recently, and several members came up to talk about my November 11 column, Tips for Car Club Survival, concerning things that car clubs might consider to help them survive and grow as we move deeper into the 21st century.

Our new world is not particularly automobile-friendly, as we have so many options now for entertainment and socialization. How then do we keep old car clubs relevant?

In my column, I touched on having regular meetings with informative agendas, having a dedicated space to call your own at a pub or restaurant, and creating opportunities to drive our old cars every month.

All of these thoughts refer to smaller marque clubs focusing on manufacturers that may no longer be in existence. By contrast, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche and Ferrari all have large clubs with paid staff to run them, and new cars constantly fuel their memberships.

These big clubs face their own challenges, to be sure. For instance, the BMW CCA has to balance the needs of the new BMW X5 owner with those of the 2002tii fanatic.

But their challenges are not survival-based ones. Alfa sold its final car in this country in 1995 (until the current 4C), MG left in 1980, and the last Austin-Healey 3000 was sold in 1967. Clubs focused on cars that have been out of production for decades are drawing on a constantly diminishing pool of vehicles and their owners.

The Nitty Gritty

Based on my conversations with enthusiasts since my column, there are several more issues that need to be addressed.

First of all, separate car clubs that represent the same marque should merge.

In a world of shrinking memberships and declining attendance, there’s no logic in replicating clubs. For instance, Alfa Romeo fanatics have long split into two groups, the national Alfa Romeo Owners Club and the Northern California-based Alfa Romeo Association.

As I recall, ARA split off decades ago over a controversy concerning dues. From each membership fee to AROC, a certain amount goes back to that member’s local club.

Since vintage car enthusiasts tend to be a tight-fisted group, there is always some bellyaching about how much the national keeps and how much it returns.

At some point, the Alfa owners in Northern California decided to become their own confederacy and secede, thereby keeping 100% of their dues for themselves. The two clubs are still separate after all these years.

This is an issue that those who love Alfa Romeos should solve. The clubs rejoined would have the power in increased numbers that will help them stay vital.

There are two national Austin-Healey clubs as well — The Austin-Healey Club of America and Austin-Healey Club USA. I have met with the presidents of both clubs, and each is adamant that his club is the “real” club.

Really? Don’t you think the members of the two Healey clubs have more in common with each other than they do with say, the Miata Meanderers or the Prius Protagonists?

Clubs that address the same marque should simply find a way to solve their differences and pool their resources.

Spend the Money

I know first-hand of a couple of vintage car clubs that are sitting on relatively large pots of money in their treasuries and yet remain penurious when it comes to reinvesting those funds back into club activities.

Isn’t the entire point of a club to enrich the membership experience for participants? Whether it is free caps, or hosted lunches on Saturday tours or complimentary wine at holiday events, clubs should invest their retained earnings back into their memberships.

Clubs were not invented as a way to have big bank accounts. A prudent base level should be set, and amounts above that should be used to attract new members and enhance the experiences of current members.

Meet Regionally as Well as Nationally

America is a large country. For those of us on the West Coast, just getting to a meet in the Midwest or on the East Coast is time-consuming and expensive. And there is really no hope of getting our cars to an event 2,000 or more miles away.

Two years ago the Alfa Romeo Owners Club had its national convention just north of San Francisco in Rohnert Park. They also did a very smart thing and partnered with the Alfa Romeo Association, thereby getting both big clubs involved.

I drove my 1965 Giulia Spider Veloce to the convention, going along Highways 101 and 1 there and back. It was delightful.

However, this year the convention was in Detroit, and next year it will be on the East Coast, headquartered in Rhode Island. This location severely limits West Coast participation — just as a California location limits East Coast enrollment.

I would like to see smaller clubs have regional events in addition to the national ones. I have been talking to some Alfa enthusiasts here in Oregon about partnering with the Seattle club and having a Northwest  regional event next summer. SCM would be fully supportive of an event like that, just as we support the Northwest Classic Rally and the Oregon Region Porsche Club Northwest Passage.

The key would be to make it simple. Maybe a dinner, a one- or two-day tour, a seminar or two and a show-and-shine car show.

National conventions tend to get stuffed with events and activities, and a regional one could take a more relaxed path. Keep the focus on having seat time in the cars and time to walk through the parking lot and kick tires. Never forget that it’s all about the people that the cars bring together.

Regional events would make it easy for marque enthusiasts in each part of the country to come together and enjoy each other and their cars.

Go Digital and Pay the Newsletter Editor

A monthly club newsletter is the glue that holds everything together. Far more people read the newsletter than come to meetings or events.

Putting together a newsletter is a thankless, and in some ways enthusiasm-destroying, endeavor. Rare is the club newsletter that comes out on time. When a communication arrives that lists upcoming events that have already passed, everyone is frustrated.

Also, the process of printing a newsletter and mailing it is cumbersome, time-consuming and extraordinarily expensive.

Many clubs have moved to creating digital newsletters. If your club hasn’t, it should. There may be some outcry from those who choose not to be a part of the digital world, but that’s just too bad. Small clubs simply can’t afford the luxury of a printed newsletter.

Further, clubs should not be afraid to have the newsletter editor position be a paid one. It’s a grinding task, and why not take some of the funds from the bank account and allocate them to pay someone a modest stipend to assemble and distribute the newsletter?

If the position is paid, the quality will improve, the newsletter will get out on time, and awareness of the club will improve. Participation in meetings and events will go up. It’s a no-brainer in terms of survival and then growth.

Put the Politics Elsewhere

Finally, car clubs need to stop petty infighting. For whatever reasons, there are always a few people who have decided their mission in life is to be a controlling part of a car club.

I know of more than a few clubs that have had explosive separations over personality clashes. (By the way, this happens with any type of gathering, from the local Mt. Hood Chow Chow club to the national Democratic Party.)

Often the disputes center on the above-mentioned bank account and concerns over how the money is dribbled out.

Strong financial controls are necessary concerning who has access to the bank account, and at what level board of director approval is required. Some clubs make it for amounts over $250, others require a vote before spending a penny.

Run the financial side like you run your own business, with the same kinds of checks and balances and accountability, and most of the financial issues will go away.

For the personality clashes, why not designate one club member — preferably one with some HR background — as the peacemaker? If people are really irritated with each other, have them agree to sit down with a third party and talk through the things that are making them see red, and find a solution.

If they don’t want to have a discussion, frankly, I would ask them to leave. Anyone who enjoys creating trouble, often under the guise of “protecting the club,” is ruining the experience for the people who just want to enjoy their old cars.

A vintage car club is an escape from the frustrations and challenges of the everyday world. It’s a world where we can discuss traditional distributors versus Pertronix, the effects of ethanol in our gasoline, the varying quality of reproduction parts, and which tire sizes will fit under our fenders.

Let’s get clubs servicing identical marques to merge, have regional events, invest some of the retained funds back into member services, hire a newsletter editor and go digital, and find a way to resolve conflicts.

Let me know your thoughts on these issues. I’m always interested in learning more about how clubs work and don’t work and how we can improve the old-car experience.

 

Keith Martin

Keith Martin has been involved with the collector car hobby for more than 30 years. As a writer, publisher, television commentator and enthusiast, he is constantly on the go, meeting collectors and getting involved in their activities throughout the world. He is the founder and publisher of the monthly Sports Car Market and bi-monthly American Car Collector magazines, has written for the New York Times, Automobile, AutoWeek, Road & Track and other publications, is an emcee for numerous concours, and has his own show, “What’s My Car Worth,” shown on Velocity.

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