Featured: Talkin' 'Bout My Generation

Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation

By Benjamin Shahrabani
October 10, 2014

Photography by Afshin Behnia, David Marvier, and Yoav Gilad

I’ve been attending Monterey’s “Car Week” and other such events for years now, and my keen observational eye tells me a shift is under way. You actually don’t need to leave the comfort of your own living room to witness it either, clicking on this Petrolicious article from late August will suffice. A Ferrari 375 MM, bodied by Scaglietti won the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance’s Best of Show. Usually one hears about a pre-war car named Packard, Mercedes-Benz, Duesenberg, or Bugatti crossing the stage, but not this year. The Ferrari was the first post-war car to win in forty-six years. A fluke? I’m not sure. I think it reflects a generational shift.

Go to any car auction, or watch one on TV, and you’ll see that boomers are the ones driving the bidding now. The market for the older 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s cars (with exceptions) has been in decline as the Silent Generation and older boomers (now getting up there in age) are starting to sell off their collections. People within the automotive auction industry confirmed this too. Post-war Ferraris took nine of top-ten prices paid at this years auctions. That’s no coincidence. The shift in the generational gap is causing waves in the marketplace too. The auctions are mixing many more cars from the ’70s, ’80s, and even ’90s into their sales mix as Generation X members are becoming more successful, and their purchasing power grows.

This generation–my generation–doesn’t want the cars of old, or even their dads’ cars. Unless they had extremely good taste, of course. No, for the most part, and with exceptions of course, they want the icons that adorned their bedroom walls as kids. Amongst them, the Porsche 959, Ferrari F40, Ferrari Testarossa, BMW M1, Lamborghini Countach, Dodge Viper, and Acura NSX. These machines were up there on the wall next to the centerfolds. And if not those exact cars, the more common “garden variety” versions of those machines will substitute. The auction houses are including more early and relatively affordable Mazdas, Toyotas, and Nissans in their lineups too. And these are selling strongly.

What’s perhaps more worrying from an enthusiast standpoint is that while owners may die, the cars will live on. That’s a shift we can all agree is occuring. The older classic cars certainly won’t be going to the crusher anytime soon, but I do wonder what will happen to the concours’ lawns and that wonderful knowledge base that will disappear when their owners do. What will Pebble Beach’s green or the Goodwood Revival look like on a Sunday morning in the year 2040? Will it still be adorned with Packards, Studebakers, and other classics…or will another generation’s idols take their place?

I’m also talking about mechanics, and restorers. What happens when they too leave us? Generation X and the millennials have not been as enthusiastic or willing as the boomers to learn the craft. Too many things to distract them–internet, and social media amongst them. Who is going to know how to work an English wheel for metal work? Adjust points? Rebuild an old Becker radio? Who will pick up the mantle? Car collecting won’t disappear, but maybe some of the old adages about what defines a collector car, what’s available to us, and the history of the hobby will.

What generation are you, and do your automotive tastes lie within or out of your generation? What do you collect, and why?

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Scott Lockhart
Scott Lockhart(@mhisstc)
6 years ago

Gen Xer. I lust for the knowledge and ability to do classic restoration work like creating a gleaming, seamless, flawless and fluidly flowing body panel out of a flat sheet of bare metal, or the ability to turn a locked up and rusted lump of an engine into something that looks and ticks along like a swiss watch. I know it takes years to learn, so maybe I’ll have enough time left once I retire from my real job to at least try to do some of that. I agree the highpoint of the collector market may change as the focus of the collectors’ nostalgia changes. However, I feel there will still be enough folks interested in the art of the older vehicles to continue to care for those that may fall out of favor. The thing I am most concerned about is when the restoration and collector market begins to shift to the age of cars that incorporate a plethora of plastics and other products that so easily deteriorate and are purposefully designed to be biodegradable. If an early 30s Mercedes is missing a fender, a craftsman can reconstruct one out of metal. But how do you go about recreating a plastic seat reclining lever in a Chevy Cavalier or the plastic A-pillar trim in a Cadillac CTS? Am I neglecting the fact that if there is enough desire or demand for a part, someone, somewhere will find a way to make it happen? Will actual artful skill be replaced by technology with laser scanners, CAD, and 3D printers taking the place of the english wheel, bucks, and body hammers? How will the transition be made from restoring degraded mechanical systems to restoring failing electronic systems and computers?

Lee Hower
Lee Hower(@lee88)
7 years ago

My greatest fear is that self-driving cars and/or ride sharing fundamentally change the relationship most people have with automobiles in 20-30 years. If/when the vast majority of people never drive a car themselves then owning, driving, maintaining, restoring could become the domain of a small passionate lot (including me). The automobile didn’t mean that people stopped owning, riding, even racing horses but today owning a horse is a lot more of a niche thing than being even a mild petrolhead.

For the record my tastes span both before and after my birth. I’m a Gen X’r born in the late ’70s, had car posters on my wall as a kid in the ’80s, started driving in the early ’90s. I collect 911s (’74 Euro/MFI Carrera, ’77 930 Turbo, ’96 911 Turbo) but also passionate about cars from the late ’50s and ’60s (’58 Tojeiro Climax – British sports racing car, recently acquired a ’58 Lancia Aurelia).

Jeff Lannigan
Jeff Lannigan(@fedge)
7 years ago

Inevitably the supply and demand curves or older cars will adjust over time – whether that means that any of us can afford the great cars of those eras remains to be seen.

As for keeping them working, I see it as more of an issue of expectation rather than knowledge. I’m not convinced that older cars require some truly unique skillset to keep working, but they certainly require a greater appreciation for that maintenance and upkeep. With several generations now having been raised in the era of six-sigma and the personal transportation appliance, it seems there will be many who simply won’t have the patience to deal with older vehicles. But that’s fine – bring ’em over, and I’ll do it.

Christopher Gay
Christopher Gay(@christophergay)
7 years ago

To be honest, I think the skill set, knowledge, and general determination to undertake most of the tasks requiring “old technology” will become fewer and farther between, despite the seemingly growing interest in craft and excitement over all things vintage.

Although snippets of knowledge can be passed along, the big picture of hard work, time and commitment, and the “whens, whys, and hows” are what I believe will not endure in the long run. These are the intrinsic assets that cannot be learned on YouTube, or from any manual. They come from experience. From what I have seen, they generally come down the generations through the osmosis of family businesses, should they be lucky enough to survive and carry forward.

Time will tell.

I would have no problem making parts for any of the older cars that are “hand made”. While the second list from the article which includes the “super cars” from my generation is more about finding a replacement part from a donor car to “hand assemble”. I’m not saying one is better than the other, just different.

Paul Harvey
Paul Harvey(@foxhunter)
7 years ago

The cars that will be collected are the cars that can be driven by ordinary people on modern roads.
Some pre-war stuff ticks that box, and some doesn’t.
The cut-off date will be when analogue was replaced by digital.
Ferarris after the 550 and 355 are just not the same – you know the car is doing the driving.

Jonathan Royal
Jonathan Royal
7 years ago

I totally agree with the author on questioning what is going to happen to the older cars as millennial begin to take over the market for classic cars. From observing the car market, it does seem like car enthusiasts are naturally drawn to the cars of their youth. For the boomers, it was American Muscle and the occasional european import gem, for my generation (millennial) I feel like we to are drawn to the cars of our youth, many of my restoration friends including myself are working on cars from the 80’s (1983 Porsche 944) and our passion stems from this. What will happen to the older cars as the older generations begin to not be able to upkeep them the way that they were? I think there will always be a subset of the car enthusiast population that is drawn to automobiles of a bygone era, but will it be big enough to fill the void of a shirking generation?

7 years ago

If the younger generation is exposed to old cars then they would appreciate them. Unfortunately most pre-war cars are hidden and not driven, it seems to me that the current trend for ratrods has occurred because they are seen, affordable and viewed as cool. If the same was true of pre-war Bugattis, Duesenbergs, or Rolls-Royce we would all be having them .

Derek Entesano
Derek Entesano(@derek)
7 years ago

I think there will always be great appreciation for coachbuilt cars. Agree that the younger (rich) generation will gravitate towards more ‘driveable’ cars e.g don’t have a crank handle. Just look at the rise of the early 911’s as an example.
I am late 30’s and am personally drawn to cars my age or older. I also have an Italian thing, hence I have a 66 Super, 67 GT Veloce, and 72 Montreal from project to driver. I do however covet a 70’s Countach, Miura, 250GTO… etc.

Robert Stewart
Robert Stewart(@ukauto)
7 years ago

Born in 1961.

Oldest collectibles I have ever owned? 1961 Vauxhall Victor and a 1961 MGA.
Newest collectibles I have ever owned? 1985 TVR 350i FHC and 1994 TVR Griffith 500.

The majority of cars that are older than me just don’t pull at my heart strings enough to have me consume my limited parking spaces and budget. I very much admire and appreciate these cars as well as those who restore and conserve them.
Pre-Rob era? Nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.
(I would make an exception and take a Jaguar C type thank you).

I also find it hard to look at the vast majority of cars from this century as being (potential) collector cars. They may well be collector cars to some – but, to me at least, they just aren’t special enough to be collector cars. I am not sure they ever will, I think they lack soul.

Robert Stewart
Robert Stewart(@ukauto)
7 years ago
Reply to  Robert Stewart

Right after clicking ‘submit comment’ I realized, yes, I am responding to your question;

“What generation are you, and do your automotive tastes lie within or out of your generation? What do you collect, and why?”

But the article is about the future – not me. That is when I realize my one son born in 1991 is driving a 1979 Austin Mini, and will be doing a full rebuild with me over the winter. My younger son born in 1996 is driving a 1983 TVR Tasmin, and he has done re-veneering of the dash, and other work on its interior…

there is hope.

7 years ago

I’m a millenial (shock, horror, I know…). Yet I think it’s sad that all the prewar Packards and Duesenbergs or Bugs are falling to the wayside at the Concours, relatively speaking. Make no mistake, a Ferrari 250 GTO, or a Countach will also hold the reputation of being classic car porn. However, they are still no comparison for the sweeping lines of a Duesy, or even a Mercedes Benz 500K roadster. These cars are time machines. They transport their passengers to a different time, one which the average person can only hope to relive by watching movies like the Great Gatsby. I sincerely hope that the pre-war machines continue to make an appearance as time passes.

7 years ago

Now I’m also a millenial and am personally as interested in modern cars, youngtimers, old timers, 1960s sports car as anything. While I do love the Mclaren F1, the Ferrari F50 or the Veyron, i can just as well revel in the raw beauty of a Mercedes SSK or a pre-war Delage V12 racer.

Paul Thompson
Paul Thompson(@valvebounce)
7 years ago

There’s so many different aspects to this I think this is a bit of a one dimensional (and top down) view of old car culture. Loving old cars doesn’t mean you have to exclusively lust after exotic European sports cars. Most are happy putting their time into more regular stuff.
I might just qualify as a boomer too, and I only own cars from the sixties, because that’s what I like. My own interests are moulded by my generation but I think as you get older your horizons, and your spending power, change. I’m finding pre-war cars very attractive nowadays (!) Plus, you shouldn’t forget people also tend to get married and have kids… suddenly saloons and wagons seem like a good idea.
Prices also need a mention, it comes down to scarcity and demand. Sixties GT cars are gorgeous and fast and fun but there aren’t many of them so not many people can afford them. The skills to look after old cars will always be in demand so people will always fill that gap. In the UK we have an incredible network of people looking after old cars. Events like Goodwood and Pebble Beach just stoke the fire and get more and more people interested in all these things.
1960s Minis, VW Beetles, Camper Vans, Morris Minors, Volvo Amazons, Triumph Heralds, A35s, MGBGTs, Mk2 Jags these are practical characterful cars that will always be cherished will always have people looking after them and will always be on the road no doubt being converted to battery power when the petrol runs out.
Look at the very healthy custom bike and traditional hot rod scenes in the US and in the UK, working with your hands is still cool.

Evan Bedford
7 years ago

I’m hoping that intrinsic beauty will win in the end. I’m hoping that homo sapiens will always see more beauty in a Jaguar E-type or an MV Agusta motorcycle fairling from the 60’s, than they will in all of the angular (or “reptilian” as I’ve heard it described) lines we see in most of the vehicles that have been made in the last generation.

But as the old poem goes: “if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride”.

Fraser Wright
Fraser Wright(@fb_672759427)
7 years ago

The wave of what makes something a valuable car is more to do with what it represents. While I am not questioning the asset worth of concours car or its artistic appeal the reality is that apart from eccentrics or special rally events – like pebble beach, you don’t see them being used. Alot of people in the classic car industry are looking at the car for what they think it appeals to someone not to themselves.

TJ Martin
TJ Martin
7 years ago

BWTM – Interestingly enough … all this Technological Age and over Dependency is spawning backlash in the form of a revival amongst the younger generations in the Old School technologies , crafts and skills . With many currently sorting out how they can make a living from the skills of their forefathers .

So … despite the down turn in the automobile and its surrounding hobbies among they younger set …. methinks there is a fair amount of hope out there for the future . Everything that goes around .. comes around .. coming into play as is its consistent want

TJ Martin
TJ Martin
7 years ago

Boomer ! And damn proud of it . Funny being a [ mid ] Boomer myself that I’m pretty much in disagreement with some of your conclusions . Though not unfounded … a little [ ok .. a lot ] too overly generalized and more than a bit inaccurate .

Many Boomers are carrying on what their fathers or earlier may of started . Many of the younger generations are following suit .But theres one simple point you absolutely need to remember when it comes to the dreaded ‘ Collectors ‘ Market . The value and popularity of the cars [ or any ‘ collectable ‘ ] is strictly dependent on the whims and fancies of what ever might be in vogue … today . What will rise and what will fall tomorrow … is anybody’s guess . A prognostication made only by fools .. delusional’s .. and those with a specific agenda they’re trying to push

But as Shel said … quality and the classics will always remain . Regardless of the whims of the moment . Sometimes they’ll be worth more . Sometimes their value will fall . But unlike the ‘ trend of the day ‘ .. the classics will always be with us .

In closing [ apologies for the length ] The problem with ALL the cars you’re mentioning is … they were hardly ever used as daily drivers [ the dreaded Collectable status having been imparted from the moment of sale ] and built in strong numbers … guaranteeing the survival of many … thereby diminishing any long term collectable status one might wish for

7 years ago

Truly fine cars will always be in demand. Prewar Alfas, Bugattis and so forth are continuing to increase in price
(unfortunately for us mere mortals). Model As on the other hand can be had for chump change.
You are right on about younger generation not getting into classic car restoration work, this is worrying.
Many of the people working on old school technology are past retirement age.