It is so easy to be a cynic when you reach middle age. Once you're 40 years old, the wide-eyed idealism of your 20s and even the cheerful optimism of your 30s fades to a general disgruntled acceptance of the way things are. You may not like the current administration's fiscal policies, or the increase in the prices of oil or ice cream, but you aren't likely to take to the streets and join in a protest march-not when it's much easier to grumble and complain and bore everyone with stories about how things were different when you were young.
I grew up knowing how to time distributors and set carburetors and now I have a hard time understanding how the younger generation can know anything about cars. For a long time, as car guys got grayer, it didn't seem like there were any new car enthusiasts. But there is hope and strong evidence that we're seeing a new generation of kids who like cars.
I was in my 20s during the late '70s and early '80s, hitting the big 3-0 just before the '90s. Now superimpose those rough dates over the history of the automobile. In my formative late teen years, an affordable car was from the early '60s. It was easy to understand and even easier to maintain and repair. Is it any wonder I still fancy British sports cars from the '60s? Points ignition systems and S.U. Carburetors hold no mysteries for me.
The first oil embargo and exhaust emissions legislation strangled the life out of performance cars during my last few years of high school and into college. By the time I graduated, in the early '80s, automotive design and technology was at a low ebb, and the few remaining sports cars on the market were disempowered and transformed into overweight slugs. It was not a great time to be a car guy.
Gradually, though, things got better. Throughout the '80s, engineers figured out how to make engines that were clean, economical and powerful, and designers began creating smaller, lighter packages for better performance. Our friends in Wolfsburg were at the forefront in 1985 with the second-generation VW GTI. Honda helped things along with a variety of small, nimble and quick models. Then the Mazda Miata reintroduced the idea of an open, affordable sports car.
Against all predictions and expectations, the '90s ended up being a golden age for the well-heeled car enthusiast, with a plentiful supply of modern performance-oriented cars from the likes of Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Saab, Volvo and Porsche. At the same time, the Japanese carmakers discovered the value of small, high-revving multi-valve engines in lightweight and, more importantly, affordable cars. The lower-priced performance market fell to the Asians and a variety of small coupes and sedans that were both fast and economical. These weren't the cars that make a ton of money, but they were the sort that could be used to build brand loyalty among younger buyers.
This broad spectrum of automotive development has had a significant effect on the formative years of car enthusiasts, creating distinct groups. Let's play a game. If you are a 45-year-old in 2004, what was your first car? Assuming you got it when you were 18 in 1977, it was probably something from the late '60s, 7 or 8 years old. Your memories are going to be of cars that could be fixed with a screwdriver and a roll of bailing wire. They weren't terribly reliable, but they were easy to fix and fun to drive. Cars were a challenge, but it was one you were up to.
Okay, now you're a 35-year-old. Your first car was probably something from the late '70s to early '80s, not high points in technology. Your early automotive memories are of high gas prices, poor performance and poor build quality. They ran badly, broke down a lot and were expensive to fix. For you, cars were, and maybe still are, a pain. Yours is the automotive enthusiast's lost generation.
Now let's say you are a 25-year-old. Your first car was from the early '90s, just when things were starting to get good again. You may not know much about changing ignition points, but then you don't have to-cars have become so reliable and user friendly that drivers of your generation have a hard time remembering when they last broke down. Sadly, most of the affordable cars that you're used to come from places other than Europe. The high-end strategy adopted by most of Europe's carmakers, abandoning the lower end of the performance market to the Asian manufacturers, has backfired for those looking to capture part of the youth market. When today's 25-year-olds turn 30, will they buy new cars from the manufacturers they know best? The whole "sport compact car" movement got started with affordable used cars from Japanese makers, as there weren't many suitable pre-owned cars from the European manufacturers. Aside from the popularity of the VW and Audi 1.8T engine, young people play around almost exclusively with Asian cars.
Our favorite European makers could challenge this dominance. It's not that they don't have these smaller performance cars for their home markets. But, for marketing or economic or self-image reasons, they have chosen not to send them here. Change won't happen overnight. It requires a long view and patience, something very few major companies possess. The sad news is that if you are an 18-year-old and in the market for a 7-year-old used car, aside from maybe a used VW Golf, the Europeans have little for you to consider. Few 18-year-olds can afford a 7-year-old Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz. And that 1997 Honda, Subaru, Nissan or Toyota is not only affordable, it fits into the sport compact performance image created by your older brothers and sisters.
Going after the latest generation of drivers requires hooking them first with a used car. If you don't have any cars that are desirable entry-level used cars today, you're looking at 7 to 10 years before your latest offerings will meet that need. The wake-up call is loud and clear. Middle-aged drivers are getting older, and new buyers will have to come from somewhere. A few carmakers are waking up: Saab is bringing in the 9-2X, a close relative of the Subaru WRX, Mercedes-Benz will introduce the smart, and BMW has the MINI and perhaps the 1 Series, and Audi's giving us a new A3.
The good news, at least from the big picture for the car enthusiast, is that the latest generation is into cars again. It's true that the sport compact scene, drifting competitions and import drag racing may not be what a string-back-gloved sports car enthusiast instantly recognizes as performance motoring. But money is changing hands, cars are being built and late nights are being spent in garages and shops across the country as young people discover what previous generations of car enthusiasts already know: Cars are cool.