When it comes to cars, it’s easier to fall into the trap of blind nostalgia perhaps more than any other kind of consumer good. So many enthusiasts look at the machines we have available today and think of them as boring and anodyne; they write them off for not being as interesting or edgy or dangerous as the cars they grew up idolizing. This is the wrong way to think. Have you taken a look around and realized how good we have it right now?
Make no mistake: we actually live in a golden era of motoring.
I know you just said I’m wrong in your head, and you’re ready to leap into the comments to tell me as much, but I don’t think I am. The prevailing wisdom across the automotive landscape, on the blogs and in the magazines, makes it easy to just surmise that we’re on our way out. California has introduced legislation to ban combustion engine sales in just 22 years.
Elon Musk and a litany of startups are pushing the envelope on EV and autonomous tech, radically changing the very idea of cars as we know them—let alone how we’ll buy them. Uber is already shuttling around riders in driverless cars in Pittsburgh. Companies are putting in orders for self-driving semis to move around all the stuff we buy from big box stores, or online.
Despite all of this, we live in the best era for human driving, and mobility, in the history of humanity.
When you ask most people when the true golden age was, they’ll likely say the 1960s or ‘70s. Curvy Italian and British sports cars split the enthusiast market with American iron. Even Japan was starting to do interesting things on a global level for the first time, and emissions laws and electronic safety systems hadn’t yet choked out performance and made cars difficult for the layperson to work on.
It’s true that it was a wonderful time, at least from where we stand today. I wasn’t born until 1981, but I can imagine that the guy who was handed a brand-new key to an Oldsmobile 442 in 1971 thought things were pretty good. The question is, does he feel as good as the person buying a vintage 442 in 2018? Is what makes the enthusiast cars of the past as cool as they are the reality of them, or just the nostalgia?
Let’s be honest—a lot of our most loved old machines today are not great cars overall. They’re dirty, they often aren’t safe or super comfortable, and owning them isn’t necessarily a headache-free process. Everyone knows this.
But that isn’t why we love them though, is it? No one chooses to drive a Jaguar E-Type because it’s superior to anything else today, except maybe in the looks department. They’re popular and expensive now because of the contrast with what we have today. No one in the ‘60s or ‘70s would ever guess that what they were doing and driving would be considered as important and significant as we do today. It’s only in hindsight that we’re able to appreciate the cars of those decades.
So what about on the racing side? Even if the race cars are faster, the most ardent supporters of motorsports will still tell you things have gone soft over the last 20 years or so. The all-electric Formula E is generally seen as the future, and end of motorsport as we know it. This is hard to fathom because at present, it’s boring, and about as corporate-feeling as racing gets.
But motorsport has always been a test bed for the car manufacturers. At least some of their technology trickles down into consumer vehicles a few automotive generations later. Efficiency demands of governments worldwide have shifted the technology demands, and now we see hybrids infiltrating even the highest levels of motorsport.
Maybe the traditionalists scoff at this, but here’s some good news: in the wake of all of the apathy towards modern motorsport is the resurgence of vintage racing. Just a few years ago stands stood empty, and the old guys opined on how the younger generation was lost and couldn’t appreciate cars at all. As of late, vintage motorsport has seen record attendance. An organizer friend tells me the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion in 2016 had double the attendance it had a decade prior, and last year, it had nearly 67,000 people show up.
Furthermore, sales of vintage racing cars have skyrocketed, dominating the auction blocks. Budget racing on premium race tracks is a hyperlink and a couple grand away from any of us. It’s as pure as it gets. And all the while, new racing forms like drifting are popping up everywhere and inspiring a new generation of car enthusiasts.
Plus, the technology out there for the enthusiast couldn’t be better. Supercars have given way to hypercars. Even a seemingly pedestrian V6 Toyota Camry has enough grunt to dust most old sports cars. The tires alone on the Hellcats and ZL1s that roam the roads would have blown minds in the ‘70s. If you’re dissatisfied with your car as you bought it, wheels, turbos, software, can all be at your doorstep tomorrow. No more catalogs and parts stores; we have the internet now! Advice to install it is only a message board or Facebook group away.
Cars are safer, cleaner and more powerful than ever, and all at once. There’s something and some place for everyone, and that’s never been the case before.
We may sit on the precipice of a downturn for motoring enthusiasm, but we don’t even know when it will happen. Despite the push toward electrification and autonomy, today we’re still able to basically drive whatever we want to, wherever we want to. Study after study has shown that people may not even want autonomous cars, or that there may be better and more conventional ways to make traveling safely.
For now, we know the best motoring has ever offered. We have a unique vantage point to look behind us, and see the best, and in front of us, to see the final red light. I’m not sure where the top of the arc ends; anyone that says they do is lying. No company or tech evangelist even truly knows what our electro-mobility future will look like.
It will end, however. Combustion engines can’t last forever. They run on a finite and polluting resource, after all. And cars do kill people, unfortunately, and society may one day deem that completely unacceptable. Beyond EV and considering autonomy, the creep of government intervention to save human life can’t exactly be called criminal. (And on a cynical note, it is another revenue stream for carmakers, and they will chase the market.)
I’m not sure exactly what that means in the face of all of this, but at least we can take solace in the fact that we’re in the golden era of motoring. It’s never been better to behind the wheel, for however long that may last.
Kristopher Clewell is an international automotive journalist and photographer from Minneapolis. He is also the host of the motoring podcast Overcrest.