It's one of those stories that has become a news staple: America's kids don't care about cars, trucks, motorcycles, mopeds, ATVs, Jeeps, dune buggies, or driving anymore. The world is changing, everyone under the age of 30 only cares about their phones, and there's always Uber and Lyft when there's some place that needs to be gotten to. Autonomous cars are inevitable, and today's young adults mostly grow up being ferried about by their parents deep into their 20s. All the vehicle makers are desperately trying to figure out how to ignite what latent passion there is to own motor vehicles. A recent example was an April 20 piece in the Wall Street Journal wearing the headline: "Driving? The Kids are So Over It."
"I don't know the difference between a fender and a bumper," my soon-to-turn-17-year-old son, Jack, told me as I explained his birthday gift. "The fender is the part that's painted," I told him. "The bumper is the shiny thing that hangs on the front of the truck. That's the truck I gave you and which you wrecked. The truck you will fix with the fender and bumper I'm giving you."
Jack has the 2000 Toyota Tundra that I bought new and loaded up with 180,000 miles before he turned 16 last year. However, I didn't give him the raging passion for cars and car magazines that has defined my life. Jack plays football and lacrosse and hours upon hours of video games. He gets fantastic grades and does well on the standardized tests. And yet when he protests ignorance of the difference between a bumper and a fender, I believe him.
Let's admit that C/D readers and writers are a rare breed. After all, we read road tests . . . for fun. Even when we're not in the market for a new car, we still want to know all about them. We obsess over model-year changes, know what a skidpad is, and understand why power-to-weight ratios matter. Our heroes are people like Roger Penske, Ferdinand Porsche, Dick Trickle, Dan Gurney, Michèle Mouton, and at least a couple of guys with the nickname "Big Daddy." When we debate the greatest of all time, the names LeBron James and Michael Jordan never arise. But Ayrton Senna and Jimmy Clark do.
It's stuff that most people just don't understand. They never will care about it, either. And it's been this way since cars became a thing. Car culture is a subculture. And that's okay.
Most kids don't care about cars today because most adults don't care about them, either. What they care about is the utility of cars in the broadest sense-what they do for them in daily use, what they say about them in a social sense, what they cost, and how often they're likely to break down. As they go through their lives, some people develop a fascination with the mechanical beasts. Or not. Probably not.
The problem here isn't that smartphones are distracting, that video games are the new religion, or that somehow today's kids are horrible compared to the virtuous generations before them. The problem is in believing that the automotive subculture as it existed in the 50 years after World War II was a permanent condition.
That period was a time when the world was adapting itself to the car. Roads and highways were built, populations migrated to the suburbs, drive-throughs became ubiquitous, and ample free parking became an American birthright. Racing used to be a gentlemanly folly, but during this postwar period it become professional, compelling, and effective corporate marketing. The subculture mattered because it was shaping the culture at large, in many ways even more radically than the Internet has upturned society in the past 20 years.
But that influence only extends so far. At this point, three, four, or five generations take for granted a world built around automotive convenience. The mystery and romance have, well, faded. It's still stuff that fascinates you and me, but those who couldn't have cared less miraculously now care even less. On the May 1 episode of Jeopardy, mega-winner James Holzhauer couldn't identify the Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee by make and model. Nor could either of his opponents identify it as a Dodge Charger.
Despite what you may have grown up believing, the 1969 Chevy Camaro is not the great sum of all human achievements. The people who have nudged or radically altered the course of automotive history are marginal players in the great sweep of humanity. So don't take all this stuff too seriously. Appreciate our fascination for what it is.
And recognize that, even with vastly more distractions around, automotive enthusiasm is still a massive cultural phenomenon. YouTube channels abound of guys pulling wrecks out of Copart lots to rebuild, automotive websites about every obscure nook and inchoate cranny of car life are stacked up by the thousands, and people still scrimp and save and take out massive loans to buy new cars. Professional racing may have lost some of its audience, but participation in everything from parking-lot slaloms to LeMons races and a thousand variations of time-attack racing are consuming millions of people's weekends. In many ways, car culture has never been richer or more varied. The new normal is fine.
And when James Holzhauer finally cashes that big Jeopardy check, he's probably getting a new car.
I wasn't holding out hope that my son Jack will someday embrace the fascinations that have guided me. But then a couple of days ago I was spraying tree sap off my newer truck at the Dalee Car Bath here in Santa Barbara. In the self-service bay next to mine was a black 1990 Corvette ZR-1, a gorgeous artifact from when I started my writing career. Make that "career."
"That's a beautiful ZR-1," I told the guy washing it. "Oh, you know what it is!" replied Jason Campbell, looking like a slightly smaller, slightly older, slightly less surly version of my son. "Most people don't know what it is. My dad was always into Corvettes, but they didn't do much for me. Then I found this one."
Campbell, down from Port Ludlow, Washington, to attend Westmont College in Santa Barbara, was born in 1997. And when he found this ZR-1 with only about 40,000 miles on its odometer and a ridiculously low price that he talked down even further, his dormant car passion was ignited. All it takes is that one car to get someone's heart palpitating.
Maybe there's an old Corvette out there waiting for my son to find and love it. Maybe. But first he has to fix his Tundra.
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