Avoidable Contact #92: Gates and ladders—all the ways old people kill young enthusiasm

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Everything I need to know about life, I learned from my father and an anonymous psychiatrist. From Dad I learned that “People do what they want to do, and what they say they want isn’t important.” From the infamous Internet blogger “The Last Psychiatrist” I learned that “You’re not a ‘good person’ because you have good intentions. You are the sum total of your actions.”

Put those statements together, and you have a working philosophy applicable to almost every part of life. It doesn’t matter if you care passionately about homeless animals; if you spend all your money on “Funko Pops” instead of donating it to animal shelters, then you’re really a Funko Pop person, not an animal-welfare person, and that’s what you wanted to be all along. My brother is a better musician than I am, and I’m a better writer than he is. That’s because I spent my university years reading 500 pages a day and he spent his time practicing and gigging on a daily basis. He’s in better shape than I am, and I have won a lot more car races. If you could see our personal schedules for the past 20 years, you could easily guess this.

With the above philosophy in mind, I’d like to sharply criticize a lot of the older automotive enthusiasts who read this website. (By “older,” let’s say I mean “over 40,” which includes me.) There’s a chance that what I’m about to write doesn’t apply to you. If that’s the case, don’t bother to get offended. If it does apply, I want you to be offended—and I hope that we can use “that same energy,” as the kids say, to fix the problem.

We are going to talk about the two primary ways that older people kill automotive enthusiasm: Gates and Ladders. I’m almost certain you’re guilty of these practices; I certainly have been, too many times to count. The problem is that we are running out of time to let these habits go. If we can’t let them go, then we will suffer the following penalties:

  • Our cars will shortly be worth little more than scrap metal.
  • We will find that automotive enthusiasm has been relegated to the same social-pariah status currently accorded to littering, the smoking of cigarettes, and listening to Toby Keith.
  • Our cherished hobby, driving, will be smothered beneath a veritable blizzard of legislation designed to get the gasoline out of the pumps and the cars off the streets.

I assume you don’t want to see any of that happen. I certainly don’t. Let’s look at the causes, in reverse order.

Ladders are what we pull up behind us after we’ve used them to climb to a desired place, in the hopes that the people behind us will therefore be prevented from doing what we’ve done. I’ll give you a few examples of ladder statements as they apply to car enthusiasm:

“I used to drive really fast on the freeway and drag race on Woodward all the time, but the roads were different then, so today’s young enthusiasts need to quit the 40-rolls and street racing.”

“I spent 30 years pulling smog crap off my car—but global warming is real, so we all need to make sure that emissions controls can’t be defeated, for the good of our planet.”

“I got a Defender 90 for $15K in 2002, but when I see an obvious UK-chassis illegal Defender on the road, I like to put pictures of the truck, and the license plate for that truck, on the Internet.”

“We all had a great time with gasoline-powered cars, but we need to understand that the time for those cars is coming to a close. Pretty soon it will be electric and autonomous, and we need to recognize that.”

There are two primary reasons for ladders in our community. The first is age-related anhedonia, which sounds like something that should have its own pharmaceutical ads but is really just the fact that we become less passionate about things as we get older. When you’re 18 years old, you want to drive 200 miles an hour and show off for every girl in the town square. When you’re 60, this stuff doesn’t seem as important.

Which is totally normal—but if you lack the self-awareness to understand that, you confuse anhedonia for wisdom. “Oh, I’ve learned that driving fast on the freeway isn’t worth it.” No, you’ve simply aged out of wanting to do it. You’re perfectly willing to pursue all the stupid things you want to do now, like starting the construction of a multi-million-dollar showcase home that you’ll live in for three years before moving to a single-story ranch, or collecting the art of Jeff Koons. You just no longer have the free testosterone in your bloodstream to contemplate the prospect of drag racing a Hellcat down a sidewalk.

The other reason for ladders, and this isn’t totally unrelated from the first, is plain jealousy. You’re 49 years old, driving your blue minivan (sadly, my Lincoln MKT is a minivan, twin turbos notwithstanding … and so is a Porsche Cayenne, even if it’s a Turbo GTS Burgerkingring RS-R) to the Home Depot, when you see some hair-gel 23-year-old in a ratty 15-year-old Infiniti G35 coupe on the bumpstops, swerving through traffic. He’s got his tatted-up alt-punk ModelMayhem/DeviantArt girlfriend with him, and you just know that long after you’ve settled into bed for the evening with a John Fowles novel and a bottle of TUMS in case 6:15 p.m. is still too late in the evening to have eaten a slice of pizza, this punk kid is going to be “clubbing” and “popping bottles” and causing the people in the next hotel room to call the front desk with complaints about endless rhythmic percussive noises.

I hate that kid. Because I’m not that kid. Obviously. So naturally I’m not going to put my weight behind anything that helps make his life better, like right-to-repair laws or an easing of various emissions-inspection grafts. I’m going to denounce him as “irresponsible” and “stupid,” since he’s doing all the stuff I used to do, or wanted to do, but can’t do now. I’m going to ban his car from my track day because he’s wearing a DOT motorcycle helmet, not the carbon-fiber $1500 “lid” that I have in my office. If someone talks about “getting the old cars off the road to save the planet,” I will nod my head, knowing that I can putter around in a new Infiniti Red Q99 or whatever while his G35 goes to the crusher. I’m going to pull the ladder up behind me—and pull it up hard.

A while ago, a writer whom I respect tremendously wrote an opinion piece that went something like, “Yeah, I’ve driven around the world and experienced every automotive pleasure known to man—but that stuff is no longer appropriate given today’s climactic and economic conditions.” All I could see was a ladder being pulled up. Hey, I drove an Enzo in Italy! But that kid on the street with the G35 needs to trade it in on a Prius—for the planet! I don’t respect that viewpoint and will never endorse it. Not now, not 30 years from now.

OK. Let’s say you don’t do any of that ladder stuff. You wouldn’t dream of stopping the party just because it’s time for you to go home. What about gates? What gates do you put up for young enthusiasts?

Here are some examples of gates:

  • You have a Saturday-morning gathering of cars in a parking lot—and you gripe when the “slabs” or “stances” roll up. “Let’s try to discourage those people,” you say, in private.
  • Your neighbor’s kid tells you that he just bought a sports car. When you walk out, it’s a V-6 Mustang. You frown and start talking about the Shelby GT350 or Fox 5.0 you had at his age. By the time you’re done talking, that kid really knows where he stands.
  • You rage on the Internet about people whose taste in cars doesn’t match yours, or isn’t “appropriate for today.” You have a real personal beef with: slabs, bro-dozers, stance-rs, domestics, rolling coal, throwing sparks, imports, drifters, autocrossers, club racers, spanks, LMP3 racers, automatic transmissions, radial tires, roll-up windows, alternators, and pressurized oil systems.
  • You see someone trying to run a modded car on a budget, and you humiliate them either publicly or privately.
  • You insist that any appreciation of a certain car has to be ironic.

Let me be the first to admit that I’ve been hugely guilty of this “gate-keeping” behavior, particularly when it comes to Porsches. I personally despise: Audi-built “Porsches,” Tiptronic Porsches, water-cooled Porsches, RWB Porsches, “Safari” 911s, four-cylinder Porsches made after 1971, Cabriolets, four-wheel-drive Porsches … the list goes on. I can remember being 30 years old, driving my Grand Prix White Carrera 2 with limited-slip to a club meet, and just … snarking my way down the line of cars.

“Oh, look … someone brought a Tip Cab. Does the golf club know they’re missing a cart?”

“If you look closely at the plastic in that Boxster 2.5, you can still see where it used to say ‘Pepsi.'”

“Good thing they got a Carrera 4; last year we had to use a Pinzgauer to recover someone who got stuck in the parking lot.”

“Gosh, Gulf colors on a 944! Someone must be a two-time winner of the 24 Hours of Clutch Swaps.”

Naturally, it was no fun making these comments unless the owner was sitting there to hear it. Chances are you’re not a natural sadist/sociopath, so you’ve never done this. But I’m willing to bet hard currency that you’ve done something similar online or within your circle of friends. A little bit of good-natured (or even ill-natured) ribbing is fine, but when it becomes prevalent and/or coordinated, it destroys the enthusiasm of the people who have to receive it.

It doesn’t help that today’s young enthusiasts are climbing a tougher hill than you or I ever had to climb. They’re making less money, they have access to less storage space, they pay vastly more for insurance and registration. The available pool of enthusiast-friendly cars, which teemed in my youth with everything from Plymouth Road Runners to five-speed Celicas, has dwindled to a creek trickle of overpriced used Miatas and Mustangs. Tools cost more, as does labor. In some states, they have to pass smog and other vehicle inspections on a regular basis just to stay rolling.

To make matters worse, they no longer have a social infrastructure to support their hobby. The cruise nights are gone. Everybody’s at home with a screen. That was true even before we decided to turn off the global economy on a whim, and it’s doubly true now. SCCA chapters are running out of parking lots for autocrosses, thanks to a generation of attorneys who have forgotten how to say anything but “No.” Sure, there are track days, more than ever. The average cost of running a track day is somewhere between 500 bucks and a grand, depending on what you wear out. The average salary of a 30-year old is $47,736, and as a great man once said, the rent is too damn high.

If we manage to pull up the ladders before the next generation of enthusiasts can climb them, and if we gate-keep what they have left, then we can be totally assured that automotive enthusiasm will come to a screeching halt. At which point we will be confronted with an America in which the majority of inhabitants do not like—or see the need for—automotive enthusiasm. I assure you that such an America will use every means, legislative and otherwise, to impose their will on us, the same way we imposed ours on them.

Ideally, we would all reach out and mentor a young automotive enthusiast today—and I’m not talking about having tween-agers judge a concours, although that’s wonderful and necessary. I’m talking about reaching out to your ratty-looking neighbor kid with the slammed Jetta, the young fellow at work with the embarrassing stickers on his old G35, the one dude at the track day who is in everyone’s way. Share your passion and your positive outlook with them. Try to restrain your natural impulse to tell them how much better it used to be, or why we need to lay off on the bad behavior nowadays. Just support them.

Do that, and you’ll satisfy my father’s rule, as well as the rule of “The Last Psychiatrist.” You will be a true automotive enthusiast, in your actions. Truer, and more valuable, than the person who owns 100 Ferraris or 50 invaluable race cars. You will ensure there’s a future for the cars and for the people who love them. If you play your cards right, I might even forgive you for having Gulf stripes on your Tiptronic C4. But I’m not making any promises. Some gates are as rusty, and as inflexible, as the men who maintain them.

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