Hey, why are you reading this website right now? Haven’t you heard car culture is dead? America’s love affair with the car is over, according to the ultimate arbiter of culture in this country, The Washington Post, and the Cialis commercial extras they asked about it.
Yes, we’re here because of another “these damn Millennials aren’t into cars” trend piece. I thought we settled this matter back in 2013, when these hot takes seemed to be at their peak. But The Post — a publication most notable these days for their inexplicable continued employment of Richard Cohen — has decided to come to the party late so reporter Marc Fisher and his aged story subjects can lecture us on how The Youths’ car culture doesn’t exist.
If you’re sick of this happening, good. It’s time to stop letting the car culture from decades past dictate and define the car culture of not even the future, but the reality of the world right now. For too long, modern enthusiasts have allowed the media narrative on cars to revolve around experiences from the 1950s and 1960s. The result is this dumpster fire of a story, and it needs to end.
There’s a ton of problems with this particular piece but the biggest one is that Fisher didn’t appear to have talked to a significant number of young people, let alone young car enthusiasts. In fact, it looks like he talked to just a handful of people under the age of 45 for a story about – wait for it – young people. And his idea of car culture is a hilariously dated one centered around decades-old experiences. It defines car culture as making out with your best gal in the back seat of your Bel-Air behind the malt shop, and pretty much nothing else.
(Speaking of girls, in this version of car culture, they need to shut up because this club is for boys only.)
It’s like saying music doesn’t exist anymore because nobody does sock hops these days. Everything was better back when we had more nukes than Russia. Yes, everything, AND THAT TIME PERIOD SHALL NOT BE QUESTIONED.
This would be funny if it weren’t such an abject failure of journalism. What you have is a writer who has already decided what is true, and then goes off in search of and voices to support that truth at the expense of anything that might say otherwise.
Not only does the Post not know what youth car culture is, they didn’t even bother to look in the right places or ask the right people about it. If they had, they would have found some incredible things. Let’s start with what the story gets right.
What It Gets Right
At least Fisher had the good sense to bring up economic factors that in recent years have presented a barrier to new car ownership for young people, like student loan debt. That’s better than these things usually go, but he could have gone further and noted that new cars are more expensive than ever as well.
Fisher also notes the trend of some Millennials wanting to live in cities and not needing cars (because their Boomer parents brought them up in soul-killing suburbs), as well as the rise of telecommuting in some fields. This is a serious issue and one worth discussing. There are clear numbers that, for the moment, show a decline in car ownership among younger people who have circumstances that make it unlikely they’ll own a car. People are obviously less likely to depend on a car in that situation, though if taken too far that risks conflating car culture with commuter culture, a very typical mistake.
What It Gets Wrong
The piece opens with a cruise-in outside of D.C. where old men in old Corvettes and old Challengers alternate between lamenting how they can’t live in the 1950s anymore and trading stories of Eisenhower-era sexual conquests:
Now 72, Mecca was 18 when he worked the biggest newspaper delivery route in McLean to amass the cash to buy his first car, a ’53 Ford that didn’t have a working second gear. He pumped gas at Tuthill’s Texaco to pay for wheels to cruise over the bridge to Georgetown or impress the girls at Tops Drive Inn in Falls Church.
[...] On Friday evenings at the Cruise-In, Mecca and his buddies cluster behind the ’72 Dodge Challenger and the electric-blue ’65 Corvette. They check under the hoods and trade stories about cars and women and where the years have gone.
Then it goes into the “expert” opinions:
“The automobile just isn’t that important to people’s lives anymore,” says Mike Berger, a historian who studies the social effect of the car. “The automobile provided the means for teenagers to live their own lives. Social media blows any limits out of the water. You don’t need the car to go find friends.”
Yes, Twitter has replaced all forms of transportation. Now add evidence that is at best anecdotal:
“This is what we talk about,” says Gary Fanning, 58. He tried to give his son his ’65 pickup. Gift declined; not interested.
Who turns down a sweet ‘65 pickup? You should have raised him better, jackass.
If the audience is graying, Scanlon says, blame Detroit, which shifted from the fanciful fins and muscle cars of the ’50s and ’60s to a focus on reliability.
You heard it here first. Reliability killed the tail fins!
Car culture, the 20th-century engine of the American Dream, is an old guy’s game.
It is, if you only go out and talk to old guys about it. Among the only young people Fisher speaks with are two 20-something Mustang bros at the cruise-in at the Dulles Town Crossing shopping center (a mecca for car culture if there ever was one!) who offer us the following insight:
“There’s something to be said about picking up a chick in this car,” Kurdziolek says. “It’s cool and loud and aggressive. You don’t even have to hear her. You don’t even need music.”
Yes, these are the young people the Washington Post somehow chose to represent youth car culture. Bros who literally say their cars are a means to silence women’s voices. How’s that for inclusiveness, or cars being for everyone? Gentlemen — and I use that term very loosely here — you are not helping, and please go fuck yourselves. I suspect you do quite a bit already.
Only one other younger person is quoted in the story, a woman who lives in D.C. at the end of the piece and says she doesn’t need a car because she uses Uber and public transit, and that she delayed getting her license because a friend was killed in a car accident.
That’s all the representation young people get.
Pictured: Car culture, as seen by the Washington Post
Indeed, there are very few female voices at all in this story. Besides that woman in D.C. and Ford’s futurist Sheryl Connelly, the perspectives that own car culture in the Post’s view are entirely male.
Hey Fisher, did you know there are women race car drivers now? Maybe you should have talked to one of them. Then again, that would have meant allowing them to talk in the first place. If you knew anything about modern car culture you’d know it’s a hell of a lot more inclusive than it used to be, and that’s a good thing.
The rest of it is an extended lecture, the kind of ill-informed rant that lands in your inbox from your father with the subject “PLEASE READ!” and a Snopes-disproven chain email about Jade Helm ‘15 that you quickly send to the trash. Only with better quotes.
Much of the emotional meaning of the car, especially to young adults, has transferred to the smartphone, says Mark Lizewskie, executive director of the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum in Hershey, Pa. “Instead of Ford versus Chevy, it’s Apple versus Android, and instead of customizing their ride, they customize their phones with covers and apps,” he says.
How the hell would the 54-year old director of an antique car club know that? (Update: Turns out he’s alright!) I swear to god the “smartphones are the new cars” thing was invented by clueless parents and grandparents at a loss as to why their kids are engrossed in phones instead of listening with rapt attention to their endless streams of bullshit.
Originally it was used to explain why the Millennials weren’t buying new cars as much as their parents, but as the economy has improved that trend has definitely changed, so I’m not sure why anyone hangs on to this myth. It’s not as if the car was the only means of transportation or social interaction until the iPhone was invented. Besides — new car sales figures are not the same as car culture as a whole.
Fisher does give the website you’re currently reading a shout-out, which I appreciate, but also says:
The thriving platforms for younger car buffs tend to be virtual — the Jalopnik blog (slogan: “Drive Free or Die”), or autoextremist.com.
If you don’t know, AutoExtremist.com is the website of veteran writer and ad guy Peter DeLorenzo. I think he’d be shocked to learn he’s at the forefront of youth culture — especially since he’s probably old enough to be Fisher’s dad. The fact that Fisher thinks it’s somehow a site for “younger car buffs” pretty much proves he’s either lazy, full of shit, doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or all three.
By the way, Fisher, if you wanted the “young person” perspective on cars, we at “the Jalopnik blog” would have been happy to talk to you had you reached out. But you didn’t. You could have also asked anyone at Hooniverse, or RoadandTrack.com, or Autoblog, or Motor Authority, or Right Foot Down, or The Smoking Tire or any of the other fine publications that are staffed and read by — holy shit! — young car enthusiasts!
But talking to us “youths” isn’t really Fisher’s thing. That might invalidate the point he already settled on, and why bother talking to people and asking questions when you’re a reporter?
There’s more pain to come:
But perhaps the most visible sign of car culture these days is on cable TV’s Velocity channel, which runs reality shows about restoring, collecting and selling cars, all aimed at “men in their mid to high 40s and above,” says its general manager, Bob Scanlon.
Come on, the Velocity Network? That isn’t car culture. Most of their shows are closer to psychological torture than entertainment. Besides, the guy from Velocity even says they don’t care about the next generation of car enthusiasts, which sounds like a truly winning long-term business strategy. Besides, Fisher, don’t you know “the youths” don’t have cable because it’s all crap and a waste of money? Don’t you read your own newspaper?
It gets worse. Here are his touchstones for the automobile’s representation in larger culture:
Cruising and drag racing were the real stars of “American Graffiti” (1973). Chases inspired car love among viewers of “Thunder Road” (1958), “Smokey and the Bandit” (1977) and “The Cannonball Run” (1981). On Hot Rod magazine’s list of the 40 greatest car movies of all time, only two were made in this century. The car’s heyday in pop culture featured the Beach Boys and their little old lady from Pasadena and their little deuce coupe; James Bond’s omnipotent sportsters; Steve McQueen’s legendary chase through the streets of San Francisco in “Bullitt”; Herbie the Love Bug; and on into the ’70s and ’80s with Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” and Prince’s “Little Red Corvette.”
Well, when your cultural knowledge ends about the time Purple Rain came out, your culture story might be in trouble. What about Top Gear? What about the great stuff on YouTube? What about video games? What about the new Mad Max movie? What about The Fast and the Furious, for goodness’ sake? Last I checked those movies were raking in cash, even if they’re more about crazy vehicular heists now instead of street racing.
The selection of sources here is unforgivable. He talks to antique car club directors, but no young tuners. He talks to famed builder George Barris — now 98 years old! — but he doesn’t talk to Ryan Tuerck, or the guys behind Singer or ICON, or anyone involved with Red Bull Global RallyCross. He quotes Hot Rod magazine but not anything Millennials actually read.
How can you say America’s car culture is fading if you don’t ask any of the people keeping it alive and bringing it into a new century?
Youth Car Culture At Work
The Post’s entire thesis is emblematic of how the dialogue around cars and car culture continues to be framed by the experiences of Baby Boomers, many of whom are clinging to a nostalgia-driven era of cars that maybe never really existed at all — or if it did, it was killed unceremoniously during the Malaise Era. It’s a dated idea, one that makes cars into little more than a boys’ club.
The Boomer version of car culture had its time and its place, but also its flaws, many of which have been remedied by time and the march of progress. If people want to gather in their Bel-Airs and old Corvettes and relive glory days real or imagined, more power to them. But that’s far from being the only version of car culture, or the only narrative around which car experiences should be framed.
The Post’s story falls into trouble because Fisher didn’t go to a local car club meetup beyond the cruise-in; had he been to a Volkswagen or a Subaru or Honda meetup, he’d find tons of young and enthusiastic car fans who use the Internet to connect with each other and deepen their knowledge. He would have found his young people who know how to open a hood, and work on the engine inside, and reflash an engine computer for even greater performance.
Had he gone to Katie’s Cars & Coffee in Great Falls, Va., he would have met car fans of every stripe, young and old, having a great time with one another. Had he gone to a Global RallyCross race (they just had one in D.C.!) or a Formula Drift event, he would have met a new breed of motorsports fan passionate about speed.
Had he talked to the spectators at a stage rally, he would meet fans of incredibly fast, amazing machines the likes of which the Boomers never could have dreamed of in their heyday. Had he talked the devoted players of games like Forza or Gran Turismo, he would have understood why car companies unveil real cars in those games now.
Had he gone to the 24 Hours of Lemons he would have found racers male and female, young and old putting junkyard iron to work on the track in one of the funniest, most engrossing spectacles anywhere. No wonder it’s said to be the fastest growing race series in America.
Had Fisher gone out and talked to some younger vintage car enthusiasts, he would have learned it’s not just about new cars or American classics, either. That there are young people passionately into old BMWs and Datsuns and VWs and Hondas. Had he talked to someone who wasn’t just an older white man, he would have met so many passionate young black and Latino car guys and gals with a unique, thriving car culture all their own.
In short — had he done his job as a reporter, he would have had a better story.
So since the olds can’t be bothered to get the story right, it’s up to you to do so. As car enthusiasts, especially younger ones, we need to take control of the conversation and stop letting our parents define who we are, what we do, what we should drive and how we should enjoy it. Just because you’re stuck on the idea of Two Lane Blacktop being the apex of car culture doesn’t mean car culture is dead.
If you’re into cars, be vocal about it. Go to meetups. Go to races. Go to the track or the autocross course. Play your favorite car video games and see your favorite car movies. Celebrate old and new, but do it in your own way. Write about what you see, make videos about it. And call bullshit when you see how much ink media outlets like the Post spill spreading untruths.
And if you think car culture is dead, look harder. It won’t look the way you think it does, but it’s alive and well.
Top graphic credit Jason Torchinsky
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.