Is There A Future For American Motoring?S

The Dream Cruise was astounding-not merely the cars, but because cars were celebrated during a time of economic instability, environmental worries, and changing definitions of personal mobility. So what's the future of the Dream Cruise-and auto enthusiasts in general?

It's difficult to judge the attitude of a million people, even if those million people share a common interest in the form of tens of thousands of amazing cars. There was no question everyone was having a blast at Woodward. People were happily falling all over themselves to tell you when they'd bought their cars or where they'd found them, explain what they'd done to them, and tell you stories and lies about them. But although there was no question they were having the time of their lives, there was an undercurrent of pessimism, and perhaps even a little anger. In addition to the usual They-Don't-Build-‘Em-Like-This-Anymore and The-Golden-Age-Of-Cars-Is-Over-Forever harangues you get whenever classic car guys get together, there were a lot of angry jeers directed towards Cash for Clunkers, hybrids, environmentalism, safety measures, and other carpocalyptic trends in the broader society — not to mention a strong undercurrent of Kids-These-Days-Would-Rather-Play-Video-Games.

It hardly needs repeating that no — the evident immortality of the small-block and the solid rear axle aside — they don't build ‘em like they used to. And this isn't the place to go into how, with more reliability, efficiency, and survivability, this isn't all bad. What's worth discussing is whether any of today's cars are the sort of machines that will patrol Woodward in 30 years, God willing, and some folks just don't see it happening. A look at the showrooms is inconclusive, because while you can get a meat-eating monster of a Camaro or a Mustang, can you really afford it if you're just out of college, the way you could with many of the originals? Looking at it another way, in ten years the young rodders of the future will have the opportunity to buy and mod the cast-off new cars of today. What will they have to choose from? Next year's new Fiesta, maybe, but what else? And make no mistake, customization is key; even the folks behind the Scion offerings recognized that, never mind that their kits were oriented less to performance than making sure the driver was dramatically lit. If you can't make your car absolutely your own, demonstrate some creative ownership instead of just being a car owner, you aren't part of the scene.

And will there be a scene at all? You may have noticed that the Dream Cruise took place on an Ozone Action Day, an air-quality alert thing declared by regional governments; as forty thousand engines idled proudly beneath signs telling us not to fill up our car's tank during daylight hours. Easy to laugh it off, but you had to be prepared to do so coughing and with watery eyes, because the air was soupy with unburnt hydrocarbons and we don't mean the smell of bacon. Sure, gasoline is the next best thing to bacon for a lot of us, but not to everybody, and certainly not to the people who keep going on about how the petroleum is running out while we're trying to have a good time. Which is annoying, because so many of those people are so young, and so many people keep telling them cars are evil.

And in the end, that is the big worry. If we're honest, we care more about car culture than we do about cars; says so up top there. Will car culture survive all this?

We say yes, it will. It will get harder-face it, when gas was cheap and cars were somewhat cheap and they taught driver's ed and auto shop in almost every school, it was easier to be a gearhead, and you could fall into it almost by accident. But kids will always love cars. We're not all that worried about today's kids having nothing to work on, not after the love we saw Pacers and Pintos and Vega wagons getting at Woodward; people are adaptable, especially car people, and they will modify anything. We're not too worried about people giving kids the message that cars are evil, because kids love evil. But we're not worried at all, not the least little bit, about the "kids these days" because of this fact: Throughout history, whenever anyone's disparaged the "kids these days," they've been wrong. They've just been afraid of being out of touch, of the world going on without them, and of change, technological and otherwise. The car guy you hear complaining about Today's Youth at Woodward is feeling the negative part of nostalgia-that realization nothing stays the same-and down deep, he's probably just worried that someday they'll stop making replacement jets for his Holly double-pumper. Car guys don't get much more afraid of change than that.