Car buyers are swept up in the same trends running through popular culture right now: near-past nostalgia and infatuation with the mundane. Yesterday I was balking at a bidding war over a 1999 Nissan Pathfinder, but it actually makes perfect sense.

Many of today’s automotive enthusiasts, or at least the ones actively commentating on the internet, grew up riding to school in cars from the 1980s and ’90s. And of course we also had pictures of that era’s supercars on our bedroom walls and Trapper Keeper covers.

The supercars never really became “obtainable”, but not all car enthusiasts are super wealthy. And so now, even examples of basic cars that simply managed to survive being hand-me-downs or college beaters, are coming around to being cool again.

I’ll admit that what seems like the “near-past” to people my age (30ish) actually was a long time ago. But it’s only been over the last few years and months that the used car market seems to have become acutely aware of that. Vehicles that were practically being given away as recently as the early 2010s–the Jeep Grand Wagoneer and early Honda Civic Si come to mind–are now generally beyond modest means just like when they were new.

Except to buy one now, you really need to be drunk on nostalgia since you could get something newer, safer and technologically superior for similar money.

Advertisement

But car collecting was never about making practically sound decisions, right?

It’s all about emotion, and that’s why people were clamoring to cough up more than $10,000 for a car as objectively unremarkable as a ’99 Pathfinder earlier this week. Its banality, combine of course with showroom-level preservation, makes it interesting. How distinctly it embodies the era it’s from makes it “classic.” And indeed, the buyer got themselves something unique–a twenty-year time capsule from the genesis of the McMansion years in Anytown, USA.

Besides that old Pathfinder popping up on a car collector auction site, the rise of Radwood is all the evidence you really need to see that the ’80s and ’90s are now officially classic eras for automobiles. And in case you haven’t been to a Radwood show yet, let me assure you, the most celebrated cars on the “concourse lawn” tend to be exceptionally clean versions of decidedly unremarkable cars–I do believe a mint third generation Accord was voted Best Honda at Radwood 2 a few months ago in Anaheim.

Advertisement

Prepare to see a lot more cars you can’t remember caring about selling for relatively large sums of money, because backing the emotional nostalgia is a healthy dose of earnest “they don’t build ’em like they used to”. That ’99 Pathfinder was a defined, truckish, body-on-frame SUV with a solid rear axle. Today’s vehicle with the same name is bloated looking, numb to drive and difficult to discern from every other crossover on the road.

As cars in general move towards being anonymous and autonomous, forget “save the manuals”... basic features we associate with a communicative driving experience like rear-wheel drive and hydraulic steering are going to start to seem like commodities.

Will all cars from the ’80s and ’90s and maybe even today be worth a lot of money in the future? Negative–just ask the people who mothballed a Mercury Marauder as an investment. But I’m pretty confident that any car, if it’s kept original and clean, will be ogled and adored if it survives long enough.