There’s no question that America’s love affair with the car has changed dramatically.
The New York Times and Wall Street Journal regularly report on the decline of numbers of driver’s licenses among young people, of fewer miles being driven and declining sales figures of new cars.
This lack of interest in driving is even more pronounced in Europe, where tight-knit cities and excellent train systems make having your own vehicle increasingly irrelevant — and expensive, due in part to high taxes on gasoline there.
One option among many
I used to think cars were the solution to our transportation and communication needs. What could be more convenient than hopping into your MGB and running down to the local McDonald’s to hang out with your friends? It only took a couple of minutes to fill the tank, and with those 12 gallons of gasoline you could go more than 200 miles.
Further, attending marque club meetings, where everyone drank the same Castrol Kool-Aid and used the same Lucas lighting lamps, was often the only way you could get access to maintenance tips and parts sources.
But that was before the Internet, before smartphones, before Twitter, before Facebook, before texting and before emails.
All of the above electronic forms of communication offer a faster and cheaper way to connect with your friends — and to get needed information.
For instance, to determine the exact capacity of an MGB’s gas tank, all I had to do was Google “MGB gas tank,” and I had the answer. No calling a friend, no looking for a Chilton Manual, no picking through back issues of MG Enthusiast hoping to find the info.
Is this a disaster? No. I believe we actually have a stronger collector-car community today than we did 20 years ago. Attendance at club meetings and events may be down, but collectors all over the world are connected through the Web.
As Alfa guru Bill Gillham restored my 1958 Alfa Giulietta Sprint Veloce Series II Confortevole (SVC), he got information and parts from SVC experts in South Africa, England and Italy — as well as the usual suspects in the U.S.
We have been able to look at photos of other SVCs — and Lightweights and the early 750 Veloces with 101-style grilles that followed — to make our restoration as accurate as possible.
We also learned from the Alfa Bulletin Board that the solution to the oil pressure problems endemic with 750-Series engines was to stuff gears from a 2-liter engine oil pump into the 750 housing, which we did.
So, the future of collecting is not in doubt. Enthusiasts and restorers will be able to do more accurate restorations than ever before. At the same time, they can use technological advances that make engines and gearboxes last longer than the original builders would ever have thought possible.
But what about the quantitative side of collecting? With the majority of young people preferring a virtual community to a physical one — as access to information no longer requires face-to-face contact — how will young people become involved with any kind of cars, let alone old ones?
These are really two separate questions. I believe that the role of the automobile in our culture will continue to change, as everyday cars evolve from instruments of excitement and pleasure to utilitarian appliances.
Businesses such as Car2Go will continue to blossom. After all, why make payments for a car that sits in your garage most of the time when you could just pay by the hour to use a car when you need it?
In urban areas with good transit systems, why have a car at all when you can get where you need to go via bus or light rail?
Where’s the fantasy?
What this means, however, is that a generation of young people will grow up without ever romancing a car the way all of us did.
The day I turned 16, I got my driver’s license at 8 a.m., and 30 minutes later I bought the car of my dreams: a 1959 Bugeye Sprite with a broken cluster gear and consequently no first or reverse. I paid $30. I will never forget my initial time behind the wheel. This was MY car, it was a sports car, and my life was about to become a constant adventure.
Texting your friend a Groupon coupon isn’t exactly the same.
But there is hope. If we want to get young people involved in old cars, we need to share old-car experiences with them. If the experience resonates, then stoke their automotive fires. Above all, let them be a part of the old-car world through events such as tours and rallies, so that they get to experience old cars in their natural environment of two-lane roads that wind through the countryside.
Here at SCM, our Internet Specialist Brian Baker drove our 1967 GTV on the NW Classic Rally last year. My daughter Alex and two girlfriends famously piloted our 1967 Giulia Super on a 1,000-mile road trip this fall, and a failed heater core and starter led to no end of excitement.
On an even younger note, we have involved our 6-year-old Bradley with old cars right from the beginning, starting with his trip home from the hospital as a 1-day-old in a vintage Mini Cooper.
Bradley’s been on tours in the GTV, the Giulia Super, the BMW tii, and most recently in the Land Rover D90 200 tdi. In fact, I can’t imagine going on a one-day event without him. I derive as much pleasure from his eyes-wide-open excitement about the sights and sounds as I do from driving myself.
We will never again live in a world where cars are the single solution to our need for travel and friendship. But as we continue to use and enjoy our old cars, we can gently bring a new generation to them — by showing young people just how much fun old cars can be, when you take them out for a gorgeous day on glorious roads. ♦