Dear Mr. Martin,

I’m a 20-year-old college student from Dallas, TX. I’ve been a car guy since birth. A few years ago I stumbled upon television coverage of Barrett-Jackson and Mecum, and that’s when I discovered my passion for the collector car market.

However, whenever I watch televised car auctions, I notice that the majority of the crowd is composed of middle-aged and older men. I rarely see young guys my age. And that seriously worries me.
Although I’ve never been to an auction, maybe when you attend you hear guys prattling about differences between the ’67 and ’68 Camaro. But honestly sir, I just don’t know many guys my age who can do that. Or who actually know the amount of time and money it takes to restore a car. It’s sad.

Maybe as my generation grows up, we will start to care about the cars of the past and the true beauty they represent. Or maybe it’s because my generation hasn’t had fun cars to grow up with. Or maybe it’s due to the fact that most people my age would rather spend $200 on Ultimate Fighting Championship tickets than listen to an automotive expert talk about the 2nd gear synchro troubles of the Pantera.

Whatever it is, it’s unfortunate, and it seems like my generation, Generation Y, is ignoring the beauty of restored automobiles.

So I want to ask you, Mr. Martin, what are your thoughts on Generation Y and the future of the collector car market? — Sincerely, Andrew Thomas

One Gen at a Time

It’s not unusual for us to get questions about the future of collecting. But this is the first letter I’ve gotten from a 20-year-old, Generation Y future car guy.

Will members of Andrew’s generation, born between the mid-1980s and 2000, ever come to appreciate collectible cars? It’s a question that nearly every car club asks itself, as membership numbers dwindle and average age goes up. Triumphs, MGs and Healeys, once the province of skinny young guys who wore string-back gloves and waved at each other, are now driven sedately on sunny-day tours of wineries. More time is spent commenting on “hints of chocolate with a blackberry overtone” than actually running to redline or double-declutching prior to downshifting. (The only wine I knew in 1967 when I was tooling around in my $30 1959 Bug Eye Sprite was Annie Green Springs — on ice if you please.)

In the ’50s and ’60s, cars represented freedom and personal mobility. If you had a car and $1 for five gallons of gas, you were gone as soon as school was out. “Road trip!” was the Friday afternoon mantra. There was nothing else that provided such visceral, mechanical excitement — not to mention being a magnet for romance. Even in landlocked states, watching the submarine races was a popular weekend pastime. Hence the bumper sticker, “If this car’s a-rockin’, don’t come a-knockin’.”

In that era, it was expected that you would work on your own car, first tuning and then modifying it to at least sound better, if not actually go faster. I remember the first time I removed the cold-air box and marveled at the avalanche of sound as air was sucked into the Weber carburetors on an Alfa Spider Veloce. And I’ll never forget the feeling of power when I learned how to work a throttle shaft with my hands, so I could rev the engine with my head under the hood. During tedious high school classes, JC Whitney catalogs would mysteriously appear inside textbooks, and wish lists of performance parts would be jotted down instead of biology notes.

Digital Options

But Andrew has grown up with a completely different experience. While cars still represent personal mobility, they are both far better and far worse than they were 40, 50 and 60 years ago.

They are better in that they are more capable — to a near-staggering degree. They have safety features not even dreamed of back then. Their engines may as well be sealed for the first 150,000 miles; 10,000 miles used to be the interval between cylinder-head decoking.

But they are worse because they offer no opportunity to connect with the vehicle. I maintain that the more imperfect a car, the more you will bond with it. If only you know just how much choke to give it, how many times to blip the throttle and how long you have to wait for the gearbox to warm up before you can grab second gear, your car, like a well-trained dog, will perform only for you. And you get to demonstrate mastery and develop a bond with your machine.

The other great change today is that Gen Y has more entertainment options. They can connect with their friends through Facebook, email, Skype and telephony. They can join hundreds of other individuals in Internet-based games such as “World of Warcraft.” All this can be done without leaving their rooms. Is that better or worse than actual physical interaction? While Baby Boomers might say, “Get off your butt and go outside,” a Gen Y’er might say, “You have a problem with this?”

Who Will the Collectors Be?

There will always be vintage car collectors, but in the future there will be fewer of them, just as there will be fewer old cars around, especially inexpensive ones. With labor rates approaching $100 an hour in many areas, it won’t be long before a project $5,000 MGB just doesn’t make sense. And the number of young people who work on their own cars will become an insignificant part of the population. There is no reason for a Gen Y’er to learn to change a plug or gap points, and chances are they won’t.

A Note to Andrew

Andrew, there will never again be a time like the 1950s and 1960s, when cars evoked excitement, an escape from the ordinary and, yes, romance, alongside being practical transportation.

While you will never experience these cars in their former multiple roles, you will have them in your life as exotic experiences — they will be good-times drivers, not daily drudgery. You’ll never curse your TR3 for boiling over and leaving you stranded on the way to work, because you’ll never drive it to work, and modern technology will have solved the overheating issues.

My suggestion is that you nurture your love of old cars in every way possible. Watch television shows. Go to swapmeets. Find local clubs and go to their meetings. You’ll find other Gen Y’ers out there, and with them you can start the next generation of car collectors — enthusiasts who enjoy old cars in our modern era. Most important, buy an old car that really hits your hot button, within your budget. Then you’ll have the wheels turning on what I promise will be a road full of excitement at every turn. ?

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