Back in the day, the primary goal of most kids in high school – especially the boys – was to own a car. When I was young, driving your Mom’s car was said with an embarrassed duck of the head. Kids today just don’t love and appreciate cars the way we used to.
Annoying generalizations, but ones with a ring of truth for all but the last few generations. It’s a topic that comes up more and more often in a variety of conversations, and it was raised recently in a meeting I was in. Why aren’t teens and young adults clamouring for a car the way previous generations were?
Each year in Detroit, manufacturers roll out something that has been deliberately designed to appeal to this sector’s tastes. As if this sector’s tastes don’t change each Tuesday. But the problem isn’t just about the cars; it’s about a litany of things that can’t change, and some that could but probably won’t.
A colleague noted that in urban centres, transit rules out the logic of cars. The degree of electronic connectivity we have today has also removed the pressing need of a car to join your friends, to see that girl, or to escape family game night. So many teens rarely look up from their texting, it’s probably just as well they’re on a subway or bus. The urge would be hard to fight, as everybody who drives knows well.
The same way some kids can rip apart and assemble computers, we used to work on cars. It was a hobby and skill often passed around in families, from weekend oil changers to the devoted hotrod builders. There are far fewer of us passing on those skills, with cars essentially becoming a giant computer covered in massive warnings that you will void your power train warranty if you try to change a bulb in your headlight assembly.
Not to sound like I just stepped out of a time machine, but I knew a lot of $500 cars kept on the road by the owners. Were they show cars? Of course not. But they ran and were safe with a little (or a lot of) TLC and were usually sold for close to the same $500 to the next kid in line. A motorcycle mechanic friend of mine had a saying: “if it runs, it’s worth 500 bucks”. He had a little Ranger pickup he drove for years, back and forth to work, as well as to Saskatchewan twice a year. He’d paid $500 for it.
I spoke to a woman upset that her son was “driving foolishly” – her words. He had a 2 door Honda that was tricked out; “rice rocket” is the slang. She was upset that the car was loud, and fast. Of course it was, I told her. That was the whole point. I asked if he was a mechanic, and she said he wasn’t, but every cent he earned went into the car. He also lived at home rent-free, and she didn’t understand why I was confused about her dilemma.
For many young people in Ontario, our insurance rates are usurious. They are violently inflated across the board, and I’ve written before about my oldest son’s real stats on an imaginary old boat: a ’92 Caddy he could have purchased for a thousand bucks or so. He is nearly 21, has a blemish free record, and the insurance rate was $350. A month. This leads to a lot of parents lying about who the principal driver on a car is (though if you try to insure two cars with the same principal driver, bells go off, so don’t bother), a practice that may seem to work until something happens, then you find out your company will just void your policy.
I went to high school with a young man who had an awesome ‘66 Mustang. He’d built that baby from the ground up, working nearly full time hours at a grocery store in addition to going to school to support it. That car was his love, and while he definitely had the Best in Show at the school, a lot of kids were working on similar projects, or dreaming about them, to varying degrees. We still had an auto shop.
Now, kids can scout around for a car they can actually afford to purchase, but unless a parent or someone close to them can lend some knowledge, tools and space to help learn the maintenance, they’re forking out repeatedly to pay someone else. And anything beyond routine maintenance? Specialized tools and diagnostic systems.
It’s a lost art, and it was always about more than the car. I know some Dads who only knew how to talk to their children with a motor between them. Far from what some might think, this was a great thing. A close friend shakes his head when his father, to this day, opens every conversation with, “so, when did you last get your oil changed?”. I patiently explain it’s got nothing to do with the oil. It’s a man talking to his grown son, with the only lead he has.
All things change, as they should, but car makers are facing a much bigger dilemma than styling. If you’ve passed down the love affair, I salute you. While I hope future incarnations offer up as much to later generations as the past ones have, I’m not holding my breath.