Don’t believe the hype, car enthusiasm is safe with the next generation
It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are? Most likely, they’re right upstairs, awake to the cool blue glow of a screen. They could be keeping up with an Instagram celebrity you’ve never heard of, or they might be texting with a friend about a text from another friend (multiple studies confirm kids prefer messaging to actual conversation). The Economist, among others, reports today’s kids are remarkably socially conservative, so perhaps they’re just doing homework.
But maybe, if you’re lucky, they’re out raising hell in a fast car.
Those are the kids I’m looking for the Saturday night of Memorial Day Weekend on Detroit’s Woodward Avenue, which stretches from downtown through the city’s northwest suburbs. In the summer of 1969, Esquire made a pilgrimage to this very avenue to document how a wave of car-crazy kids compelled Detroit’s automakers to shrug off their prudishness and build performance cars. “Here, in the hot little fingers of teenage drivers,” read the story, “a large part of the future of the American automobile is being determined.”
These days, we typically talk about the Woodward Avenues of America in the context of our automotive past. Young people, the popular thinking goes, can’t be bothered with cars. They’re too obsessed with their phones, their Instagram feeds, and their avocado toast. But it seems no one’s told the skinny kid in a hopped-up Neon SRT4, the sound of its overboost ricocheting off the concrete overpass at the Woodward and Eight Mile intersection, that he’s supposed to be inside staring at his iPhone. Or the guy in his Pontiac G8 with a “not stock, not stock” idle.
I pull into the slipstream of a larger, even more potent group of late-model Camaros, Mustangs, and Chargers. They line up, four lanes wide, at every traffic light for miles, their exhaust perfuming and heating the air. Eventually, they divert into a deserted liquor-store parking lot in the northern suburb of Pontiac, adjacent to the plot where, 50 years ago, tens of thousands of GTOs rolled off an assembly line. The largest guy in the group, who’d climbed out of a lime green Mustang, eyes me warily as I approach but extends his hand. I explain I’m reporting on kids and their cars.
Cars. The magic word. The kid, Mark Moussa, 19, reels off facts about his Mustang. “It’s got a Whipple supercharger. Five hundred horsepower.” He remembers falling in love with toy cars as a young boy in Iraq. Now he runs a barber shop 20 minutes east—I can stop by any time—and has earned enough to buy and sell toys of his own. Someday, he’d like to own an Escalade. And a Lambo Huracán. But he’s fond of Subaru WRXs. And ’90s Impalas. “Anything that moves, really,” he says.
Moussa isn’t alone. Hagerty has noticed an encouraging phenomenon: The millennial generation, or those born between 1980 and 2000, have become the fastest-growing group of potential customers calling us for insurance quotes on classic vehicles. We wondered who these people are and what draws them to cars even as mainstream media, older enthusiasts, and auto industry wags declare they don’t exist.
So my colleagues and I spent the summer getting to know young car enthusiasts around the country IRL (“in real life,” in the texted parlance of our time), from New York coffee shops to dusty rural racetracks, from traffic-choked L.A. streets to the heart of Motown. We wanted to know who these kids are, what drives their car passion, and how the latest surge in car enthusiasts is different—or not so different—from the generations of gearheads who preceded them.
But nowadays, the old man got all the money, and a young man ain’t nothin’ in the world these days
—“Young Man’s Blues,” Mose Allison
“I didn’t have any money growing up, I still don’t,” says Elise Talley, 21. What she did have, for as long as she can remember, is a love for vehicles, from the trucks and tractors on a family farm to the 1990 Range Rover she lovingly maintains now. “Anything that moved I was interested in learning how to drive.”
A year ago, she moved from her native Utah to Southern California for the privilege of commuting two hours a day in the Range Rover. The work that draws her—taking photos of and fashioning metal parts for Singer Vehicle Design’s lavishly modified Porsches—gets her closer to the life she wants as a master carbuilder.
“There’s a lot I want to learn that I haven’t been able to pay for with classes,” she says.
On the subject of money, it’s a well-documented fact that young adults aren’t buying new cars. In the 1960s, buyers between 18 and 34 accounted for more than a quarter of new-car purchases. Today, they’re fewer than one in 10. The age of the average new-car buyer has been creeping up for decades and now hovers just shy of 50 years old. Google “millennials cars,” and you’ll be rewarded with thousands of articles pontificating on the reasons for these dire stats, from congestion to a shift back to city living to the emergence of transportation alternatives. Google’s algorithm helpfully suggests that you also search “millennials car sharing” and “millennials killing cars.”
The dire stats, and the alarmist articles that quote them, tend to miss young car lovers like Talley, mostly because they underestimate how profoundly they’re squeezed for cash. The Great Recession hit millennials as they were trying to enter the workforce after racking up huge student debt. Having fewer resources than older folks, they’ve taken longer to recover financially. Many, like Talley, are still feeling it.
A 2018 Federal Reserve study found young adults making do with less. “Millennials are less well off than members of earlier generations when they were young, with lower earnings, fewer assets, and less wealth.”
You may be thinking young people have always been poor. Not true. Take the 1960s, that halcyon era of peace, love, and Hemi ’Cudas. Statistically, it was a time of unprecedented wealth for a huge cohort of young workers. The median age in America dipped to 30 in 1960, and unemployment for people between 25 and 34 stayed below five percent for much of that decade. It was the auto industry’s desperate desire to tap into this boom that compelled it to market to young car enthusiasts—a group, it’s worth pointing out, it had previously ignored. Advertisements, which had through the late ’50s featured Don Draper types in hat and suit, suddenly starred tough guys in biker jackets and girls in bikinis.
And the cars. Oh, the cars! Mustangs, GTOs, Road Runners. “The main force behind the supercar revolution,” noted Esquire in 1969, “was the maturation of the World War II babies into moneyed, car-loving consumers. The influence of these kids…is astonishing.”
Since then, to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, the tide has rolled back. Youth are numerous but also poor, so automakers have, accordingly, kept their attention on their erstwhile meal ticket, the baby boomers, now marketing to this aging cohort not with power or speed but with easy-to-drive elder buggies—a.k.a. crossovers. Brands geared toward young buyers, like Scion, Saturn, and Pontiac, rolled up their carpets as others, such as Kia, have quietly reoriented their lineups away from vehicles that might attract 20-somethings with their subprime credit scores.
Automakers still talk aplenty about adapting to the next generation’s desires for mobility. But in the moment, they’re more interested in selling the idea of endless youth than in selling actual cars to actual young people. “One of the ironies about marketing is how they target young people even though they know buyers are 20 years older,” admits an automotive PR man who wishes to remain nameless.
If this sounds like we’re having less fun now, there is a silver lining. Young people, in abstaining from new-car purchases, are not saying they don’t love the automobile. “Conditional on their age and other factors, millennials do not appear to have preferences for consumption that differ significantly from those of earlier generations,” affirms the Federal Reserve report. In other words, kids want cars—they just don’t want what automakers are selling at the prices they’re asking.
To get a clearer picture of where youth car enthusiasm is going, you’d need to track the cars they want and can afford. The Federal Reserve doesn’t track how many millennials are scoping out, say, first-gen Miatas. But we at Hagerty do. The number of insurance quotes we issued for those cars to millennials more than doubled from 2016 to 2018.
That reflects an upswing in young people shopping for classic cars. About 20 percent of people calling us for quotes are millennials, compared with 12.5 percent five years ago. “Over the past two years, the number of millennial quotes has been growing at a faster rate than even those of Gen X, the second-fastest-growing group,” says Hagerty analyst (and 24-year-old motorcycle collector) James Hewitt. “Millennials are going to be influencing the collectible-car market more and more.”
That influence means you can expect to see an injection of fast and furious at future collectible-car auctions: 1995–99 BMW M3s, 2004–07 Subaru WRX STIs, and 1997–2001 Acura Integras get lots of millennial love at Hagerty’s call centers. So, of course, does Godzilla: The number of quotes we’ve issued for 1989–94 Nissan Skyline GT-Rs has shot up 280 percent since 2016, and 90 percent of the people calling about them are millennials. Even so, many of the cars this age group lusts after are the same ones their parents and grandparents crave—1968–72 Chevelles and 1968–79 Beetles ranked among the top 20 vehicles millennials called Hagerty about in 2018, as did Mustangs and Camaros of all eras.
The average value of the collector car we’re quoting for millennials is $22,631. That’s lower than for other generations and considerably less than the average transaction price for new cars, which is about $35,000, according to the valuation data firm Kelley Blue Book. But it isn’t clunker cash. And remember that Hagerty only insures limited-use vehicles, meaning many of these “kids”—the oldest ones are approaching 40—already have another daily driver. Despite their economic handicaps, millennials are spending real money—and they want something interesting for it.
We saw similar diversity on the road all summer. Julian Angeles, 15, of Montebello, California, is building a track-ready Toyota Starlet with “the same motor as in Rhys Millen’s pickup truck that he raced in the Pikes Peak.” (Angeles, the youngest person we interviewed, is actually part of Gen Z.) New Yorker Saif Masood Ansari, 24, is driving a BMW M2 in medical school and has his eyes set on a Porsche 911. “I just feel like it’s such a well-rounded car,” he says. Elise Talley, meanwhile, has learned plenty of mechanical skills keeping her Range Rover fit for her marathon commute, but eventually, she wants to build a Ford GT40 replica.
“Even if I had the money to buy a real one, I think I’d still want to build it,” she says.
—“See Me, Feel Me,” Pete Townshend, The Who
“I’m not gonna lie, I want to be seen.” Grady Eger, 20, is holding a Panasonic Lumix digital camera at arm’s length in a selfie pose, framing himself in front of a Roush Super Duty F-250. It’s the latest vehicle he’s reviewing for his YouTube channel, which features his take on everything from a 2001 MR2 (1600 views) to a cars-and-coffee event in Arizona (53 views). “I grew up with YouTube,” he explains. “Kids nowadays are much more comfortable with the camera.”
For three hours, we sweat in a cul-de-sac in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, July sun directly overhead, as Eger intently videos all angles of the interior, pans across the grille, records the exhaust, and reels off an articulate monologue. It feels suspiciously like work, yet this is how Eger chooses to spend his downtime when not interning at a local car dealership or going to college, where he’s studying automotive marketing. The camera keeps running as we go for a drive along the shore of Lake St. Clair. It’s not always clear when he’s talking to me and when he’s addressing his audience—or that he even sees any distinction between real people and his digital following. “I just enjoy talking about cars,” he says. “YouTube doesn’t care how much you know. It doesn’t matter. It’s all about what you want it to be, how it makes you feel making the video.”
Young people’s affinity for—or, as some would say, their addiction to—technology is often credited with the coming of the car-culture apocalypse. Who needs the freedom of a car or craves the experience of driving (let alone turning a wrench or attending a concours) in an era of instant communication and 24/7 live-stream entertainment? Again, the facts and figures spell certain doom: Half of 18-to-24-year-olds don’t know how to check oil level or tire pressure, per a study by the tire and auto-component supplier Continental AG. Attendance is flagging at tent-pole automotive events like the Indianapolis 500 and Detroit auto show. Distracted driving, a byproduct of ubiquitous smartphones, claimed the lives of 229 teens in 2017, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Young enthusiasts themselves echo these worries, and a distaste for technology is a common refrain among them. “The way I look at it, with social media, they never learn what a stick shift is,” says Moussa, the Michigan barber and Mustang driver. Ansari, the BMW M2 pilot from New York, says, “I’d rather be living my own life and doing what makes me happy than seeing other people doing things that make them happy.” Yet Moussa live-streams haircuts on Instagram, and Ansari devotes study breaks to YouTube videos of rally cars. Nobody, it seems, can resist the magnetic pull of the online universe.
If you’re expecting young gearheads to be stubborn holdouts from the digital revolution, you’ll be disappointed. But most, like Eger, have found ways to infuse their hyperconnected lives with cars. “For every hour a car enthusiast spends at an event, they’re spending 20 hours online,” posits Myung Jin Lee, a Bay Area BMW fanboy who was looking for places to take his 2004 330i ZHP two years ago and was frustrated by the lack of a simple, centralized place online to look up automotive events. So Lee, 23, created an app called Octane. It now has 50,000 users, 79 percent of whom are between 18 and 34. Most of them download the app to RSVP for real events. They can also create a “virtual garage” and view those of other local gearheads.
A cynic might point out that all this time staring at cars on a phone might be better spent, say, actually working on a car. I can’t help thinking back to my own languid summers in high school when I’d pull apart a brake caliper or pick a fight with a rusted suspension bolt simply because there wasn’t much else to do.
“Kids have less and less hands-on experience,” says Chris Paulsen, a faculty instructor at McPherson College’s automotive restoration program in McPherson, Kansas. But he thinks much of the blame on phones and social media—or the kids themselves—is misplaced. “There’s been a full generation of tough-to-work-on cars,” he notes. “The important thing is that the interest is there.” The best way to spark and nurture that interest, Paulsen has found with his students and his own daughters, is to provide easy access to the metal. “Just get ’em behind the wheel,” he says.
Virtually all the young car lovers we interviewed, even the most digitally savvy, can trace their passion to hands-on experience. “I was always part of my dad’s builds,” recalls Julian Angeles, the Toyota Starlet owner (who, these days, watches plenty of car builds on YouTube).
“Hands on the wheel” succinctly describes Hagerty’s own approach to youth engagement. Since 2011, through the Hagerty Driving Experience, we’ve taught 4000 young people how to operate a manual transmission in a classic car. A more intensive program called the Hagerty Driving Academy, launched this year with help from the Skip Barber Racing School, teaches kids 15 and up the art of car control, again using classics with stick shifts. It already has a wait list.
“Young people want to drive,” says Tabetha Hammer, Hagerty senior manager of car culture. “They want to experience these cool cars.” That they also want to whip out their phones and take selfies with the vintage metal is simply “how they’re engaging,” Hammer says, adding that she’s never had to remind someone the phones must be put away once the driving starts.
What’s most encouraging is that kids seem to be seeking out analog experiences on their own. Grady Eger organizes local group drives under the name Base Line Rally. You can follow it on Instagram, of course. Such social-media-friendly gatherings scale all the way up to Gridlife, better known as #Gridlife, a festival of music and cars that hits racetracks around the country but also lives on Instagram feeds of car enthusiasts. They scale all the way down, too. When I happen upon a handful of WRXs and slammed Audis staged in a high school parking lot off Woodward, I ask how everyone knows one another. “Snapchat,” they reply, instantly turning back to their cars and vape pens.
Note that the love of all things digital doesn’t extend to the bells and whistles automakers peddle in new cars. “I’m trying to go backward, before cars became computers,” says Eger.
You’ve probably never thought to organize an evening car cruise on Snapchat or Octane. Neither have I. That goes a long way toward explaining why older enthusiasts think youth car culture is dying. It thrives in places we don’t see and incorporates technology in ways that are hard for us to grasp. But these kids are after something we all love about our cars—connection.
“I just enjoy talking about cars,” says Eger. “To get behind the wheel makes it all worth it.”
I look pretty young, but I’m just back-dated, yeah
—“Substitute,” Pete Townshend, The Who
“Back when I was a kid,” says longtime auto executive Bob Lutz, “everybody was a car enthusiast. I mean everybody. Now it just isn’t the same.” At 87, Lutz is hardly a young enthusiast, although he retains youthful enthusiasm for military planes, which he flew until recently, as well as cars and bikes. A decade after retiring from General Motors, he remains one of the industry’s most voluble figures, always happy to offer, in blunt terms, a perspective that other industry suits might bury in PR spin.
Lutz’s message these days: “We’re doomed.” “In my father’s generation,” he continues, “there was a huge enthusiasm for railroads. Even my dad, who wasn’t that technically oriented, had scale replicas of all the big 3000- and 5000-hp steam locomotives in the United States. He tried to get me to be enthusiastic, and I said, ‘Gee, Dad, I just don’t care about trains.’ ” Decades on, Lutz thinks we car enthusiasts have become the ones hopelessly trying to get the kids into our Lionel sets. “Guys like you and me are dinosaurs.”
I’d be a fool to tell you he’s categorically wrong. We can’t go back to the summer of ’69, when a fast, new car was seemingly every kid’s birthright and greatest desire. But I can say that in the summer of 2019 I’ve encountered dozens of young people who, like you and me, are nuts about things that go fast and make lots of noise. There’s also something I can’t prove but that we all know in our gut: Cars are cool. Cooler than model trains, and cooler than Facebook and phones with haptic screens.
All this is rolling around in my head on a late-summer evening as I prepare to put my baby daughter to bed. I notice, in a neighboring driveway, teens wrenching on an MGB with rubber bumpers, clean and wearing a delightfully tweedy shade of burgundy. I decide to delay my kid’s curfew to expose her for the first time to a classic car. The MG’s proud owner, a high school junior named Henry, beams when I compliment the rust-free original paint. He mainly uses the car to commute up Woodward to his summer job at a local tailor but admits to detouring every so often down a nearby tree-lined two-lane.
“I’ve never been to England, but when I wear a Barbour raincoat and drive the MG down that road, I feel like I’m almost there,” relates Henry.
As long as cars can do that, can still transport people as much in their heads and hearts as they do down a road, we’ll be just fine.
From: Sterling Heights, Michigan
Ride: 2018 Ford Mustang GT
Dream car: Lamborghini Huracán
Mark says “We came here from Iraq in 2005. We were just poor. I worked a couple of jobs—at a smoke shop, sold contracts for the newspapers, and was always cutting hair. I saved $3000 and got a crazy WRX—400 horsepower. It was totally trashed but was my absolute dream. I opened my own barbershop when I turned 18, bought the Mustang. I’m also into old-school cars: C5 Vettes, ’69 Camaros. I cruise with friends, customers, too.”
From: Long Beach, California
Job: Assembly technician and client relations assistant, Singer Vehicle Design
Ride: 1990 Range Rover
Dream car: Ford GT40 (“I actually want to build a replica”)
Elise says: “I had jobs that wouldn’t take me seriously when they found out I was a girl. That’s another reason I like Singer. I haven’t seen too much, ‘Oh, it’s a girl.’ I mostly do ‘fine works’—intake plenums and some interior pieces. I try to learn from other departments. I want to be able to do anything—mechanics, welding, interior, whatever. I don’t like to sit around.”
From: Montebello, California
Ride: 1981 Toyota Starlet
Dream car: 1989–91 Honda Civic (“Booger green, with a B18 engine”)
Julian says: “I was always part of my dad’s builds. He was always asking me, ‘What color? What wheels should we put on here?’ (and I would point at the mag-blue TE37s). First motor I ever built, I was 13. I’m in the auto shop program at Schurr High School in Montebello and was part of the Shell Eco-marathon Americas contest. Now I just want to get my license. My dad always tells me to stay away from the canyon—that’s where I want to go.”
SAIF MASOOD ANSARI
From: New York, New York
Job: Medical student
Ride: 2017 BMW M2
Dream car: Porsche 911 (“I recently drove a Mercedes-AMG GT S, and that’s made me think twice”)
Saif says: “I grew up north of New York City, by Bear Mountain. That’s where I got my love of driving. Before graduating college, I got the M2. My cousin has an M6, and it’s got, like, 900 horsepower. That’s great—it makes him happy. What makes me happy is being able to take a corner and enjoy the feeling of it.”
From: Grosse Pointe, Michigan
Job: Student, YouTube presenter
Ride: 1995 Lexus LS400
Dream cars: 2011 Porsche 911 GT3 RS 4.0, Pagani Zonda, manual swap Ferrari 430 Scuderia (“The list goes on”)
Grady says: “I enjoy talking about cars, but even more special than putting the stuff on a camera is to get behind the wheel. I had the opportunity to drive a Ferrari F430—the most raw experience of my life. The 2001 Toyota MR2—my most successful video—was nimble, organic-feeling. Every car is so different.”
Chris Nelson and Max Prince also contributed to this story.