When did automakers start hating young people so much?

The Hagerty home offices in Traverse City recently received an absolutely wonderful gift: a comprehensive selection of Big Three dealership brochures spanning the period from Woodstock to the Vans Warped Tour. I was drawn to it like the proverbial moth to the proverbial dumpster fire, flipping excitedly through promotional materials for the Chevette and the mid-1970s Mercury Monarch as if I could rekindle the rabid automotive enthusiasm of my youth just by seeing a few carefully-staged pictures of young people ooh-ing and aah-ing over a beach-stranded Jeep CJ-7 or Ford Ranchero. 

I have to admit, it kind of worked. If anybody knows where I can find a nice Cadillac Calais coupe at a can’t-miss price, please feel free to email me care of Hagerty magazine. Suddenly it’s 1970!

After about an hour of greedily consuming the old dealer books, I realized that there were two fundamental differences between the marketing of way back then and the Brochures Of What’s Happening Now. First difference: they were not afraid to appeal to adults operating in a functional society. The trope of “two well-dressed 45-year-old couples attending a dinner party at someone’s home” is omnipresent; one has no trouble looking at a Lincoln book from 1975 and imagining the people in it attending the sort of black-tie residential affairs which litter the pages of novels by John Updike and John Barth.

The second difference: the automakers were not afraid to appeal directly to young buyers. Not just through the photos or descriptions but through the products themselves. There was never any shortage of cheap-and-cheerful options from everyone up to and including Cadillac, whose aforementioned Calais was expressly marketed to young strivers looking to get behind the wreath-and-crest just a few years before the rest of their graduating class. Almost any car you could order from 1968–88 was available with what I’ll call Youth Equipment: stripes, loud colors, cheap interior, nice wheels. From Plymouth Road Runner to Ranger Splash, there was a deliberate and calculated attempt to catch the eye of first-time new-car customers. 

You will search in vain for that mindset today. By the time the bodies hit the TARP in 2008, automakers had more or less consigned the under-40 crowd to the waste bin of history. New product offerings went from cheap-and-cheerful (think Chevette Scooter, Toyota Celica ST, BMW 318ti) to cheap-and-drab (think the entire Kia lineup, the insipid ninth-generation Civics, the Dodge Caliber). The purpose was no longer to get young people in the showrooms. Instead, it was to offer bailout-weary Baby Boomers a chance at buying a new car with a warranty.

It makes me think of a spring day in 1987 where I pointed a finger out the window of my grandfather’s Rolls-Royce-grilled, canary-yellow Eldorado at a Hyundai Excel with an aftermarket vinyl top and Continental kit while driving toward Clearwater Beach. The old man chuckled, “That’s for grandparents who are down on their luck.” Well, virtually every “affordable” car on the market today, from the Honda HR-V to the Ford EcoSport, feels like it was made for grandparents who are down on their luck. Surely no young man out there feels his heart beating faster at the sight of a Toyota C-HR, and no young woman dreams of driving A1A or Highway 1 in a Hyundai Tucson. It’s the Buick Encore’s world now. We’re all just living in it.

No doubt a few of my auto-industry insider friends have made it to this point in the column and are now sputtering, “B-b-b-b-but we are busting our tails to provide electric vehicles, and ride sharing, and mobility-solution sidewalk-trash scooters!”

To which I respond, “What does that have to do with making cars for young people? Who told you that young people don’t want cars? A focus group made up of Manhattan-based media people? A bunch of Chicago apartment denizens?”

The oh-so-predictable response to that is, “Young people can’t afford cars anyway!”

To which I say, “No, young people can’t afford $24,000 HR-V EX-L AWD automatic-transmission transportation pods with all the charm of pre-chewed gum. Why don’t you try making a car a young person would actually want to buy?”

And my friends will say, “Well, we can’t risk a billion-dollar program on a product that young people might not want when it actually debuts.” 

This would be laughable if it wasn’t pathetic. The same companies that think nothing of wasting nine-figure sums on electric boondoggles and bizarre social engineering projects all of a sudden have a case of the shorts when it comes to actually making a car? Why do you hate your buyers so much? Why will you spend money on scooters, glorified golf carts, ride shares, rental cars, historic buildings, political party fundinganything and everything BUT building the next Mustang or Celica or S-10?

I don’t know exactly when it became hip for car companies, razor companies, video game companies, and nearly every other kind of American industry to express obvious contempt for their own customers through their marketing, their PR, and their product choices, but I can tell you this: the first player to get off that particular brain-dead Ferris wheel will reap huge benefits. 

In a perfect world, I’d close this column with a completely bankable description of the perfect car for young buyers. I can’t do it; I’m too old and I don’t have access to enough data. I can, however, suggest some ideas:

  • It has to be cheap, small, and useful. Think Dacia Duster, think Dodge Rampage, think Issigonis-designed Mini, think first-generation Renault Twingo. 
  • It has to be classless, the way the Beetle and the aforementioned Mini were. It has to be such a brilliant and iconic design that rich people will also want one. 
  • It has to be dead reliable and easy to understand. 
  • Most importantly, it can’t be electric, and it can’t be a “mobility product.” That’s been tried over and over again, at a cost that makes the F-35 look like microwave popcorn, and it’s never succeeded. It has to be a real car that people are not ashamed to own.

The next group of potential new car buyers—the “Zoomers,” or Generation Z—are not scaled-down versions of Baby Boomers. They might be perfectly happy with hard plastic seats, or 80-horsepower engines, or infotainment systems consisting of nothing but a Bluetooth module and a volume knob. You won’t know until you give them a chance to vote with their wallets. But you have to stop thinking of them as spoiled brats who just want to ride a scooter around Venice Beach. They are real people. They have money problems, health problems, parents to support, sometimes even children to feed. Take them seriously, and they’ll return the favor. 

If there’s an automaker out there that wants to jump-start their face time with Gen Z, I do have one suggestion: Make a $9999 front-wheel drive mini pickup truck. Equip it like a 1984 Toyota half-ton, which is to say, a vinyl seat and a single-layer bed and no frills whatsoever. Give the kids a chance to haul their paddle boards and dirt bikes and whatnot to the lake, the beach, wherever. Give them something aspirational but affordable, cheap but cheerful, basic but usable. Bright colors, big stripes, fun names.

Who knows? You might sell a million of them. Even if you don’t, it will make one heck of a brochure for my successors to read in the Hagerty archives, some pleasant July weekend 30 years from now.

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