America's once magical — now mundane — love affair with cars

 06 Sep 2015 - 0:00

America's once magical — now mundane — love affair with cars

By Marc Fisher
STERLING, Virginia: Chuck Mecca plops his lawn chair down in the parking lot of the Chick-fil-A at the Dulles Town Crossing shopping center, smack behind his lipstick-red 1956 Ford F-100 pickup, primped and polished for its turn under the Friday night lights.

Mecca, his beard long since gone white, is a regular at the Cruise-In, a weekly gathering of guys whose enduring love is a set of wheels that delivers them back to the time when customizing and showing off your car was the ultimate expression of self.

Now 72, Mecca was 18 when he worked the biggest newspaper delivery route in McLean, Virginia, to amass the cash to buy his first car, a '53 Ford that didn't have a working second gear. He pumped gas to pay for wheels to cruise over the bridge to Washington, or impress the girls at a local drive-in.

Back then, he could name the make and model of anything that zipped by. Even now, cars speak for him: "When my wife beat ovarian cancer," he says, "I bought her her dream car," a '56 Chevy Nomad station wagon.

On Friday evenings at the Cruise-In, Mecca and his buddies cluster behind the '72 Dodge Challenger and the electric-blue '65 Corvette. They check under the hoods and trade stories about cars and where the years have gone.

For nearly all of the first century of automobile travel, getting your license meant liberation from parental control, a passport to the open road. Today, only half of millennials bother to get their driver's licenses by age 18. Car culture, the 20th-century engine of the American Dream, is an old guy's game.

"The automobile just isn't that important to people's lives anymore," says Mike Berger, a historian who studies the social effect of the car. "The automobile provided the means for teenagers to live their own lives. Social media blows any limits out of the water. You don't need the car to go find friends."

Much of the emotional meaning of the car, especially to young adults, has transferred to the smartphone, says Mark Lizewskie, executive director of the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum in Hershey, Pennsylvania. "Instead of Ford versus Chevy, it's Apple versus Android, and instead of customizing their ride, they customize their phones with covers and apps," he says. "You express yourself through your phone, whereas lately, cars have become more like appliances, with 100,000-mile warranties."

At the Cruise-In, 30 miles outside Washington, Mecca and a cluster of other collectors, all men past the half-century mark, trade laments — for the days when cars had more fanciful designs, for what they fear will be the loss of the Washington Redskins' team name, for their children's lack of interest in cars.

"The world's changing too fast for me," Mecca says. "I'd like to be back in the '50s." The old guys' conversation turns to blemishes — not on the sparkling cars before them, but on their own, less painstakingly preserved bodies. "It's benign, thank the Lord," Mecca says of the spot on his scalp.

"This is what we talk about," says Gary Fanning, 58. He tried to give his son his '65 pickup. Gift declined; not interested.

Across the parking lot, though, a few much younger men take a stand for their generation. Kevin Kurdziolek, 26, and his friend Conner Walsh, 25, match their elders in passion. Their Mustangs — Kevin's '03 SVT Cobra and Conner's '04 Mach 1 — are buffed to a showroom gleam. They, too, have dewy memories of how their love of cars began. Walsh grew up collecting Hot Wheels, and Kurdziolek's father was into drag racing. They, too, know how to rebuild the suspension. They, too, believe a cool car is a fast track to a woman's heart.

"There's something to be said about picking up a chick in this car," Kurdziolek says. "It's cool and loud and aggressive. You don't even have to hear her. You don't even need music."

The young guys realize they are the anomalies in their generation. Coming up behind them are people like Kurdziolek's younger brother, who is 21. "He can't afford most cars," Kevin says. "He's looking for something that has a long warranty on it, good fuel efficiency, Bluetooth, all the odds and ends for his phone. It's just about utility for him."

Kurdziolek and Walsh don't quite fit with Mecca and the old regulars, and they're already nostalgic for a time when teenagers rushed to get their licenses. As car buffs, their road forward looks lonely, and the way back is crowded with another generation's memories.

The number of vehicles on American roads soared every year until the recession hit in 2008. Then the number plummeted. Recently, it's crept back up. Similarly, the number of drivers has leveled off.

"In the near future, cars will control the driver instead of the other way around," says John Heitmann, a historian at the University of Dayton who studies Americans' relationship with automobiles. (He also is restoring a 1971 Porsche 911T Targa.) "And the way we live now, especially on the coasts, it's a bother to own a car. For young people, and not just the urban elite, there's not even a desire to drive."

Americans drive fewer miles per year — down about 9 percent over the past two decades. The percentage of 19-year-olds with driver's licenses has dropped from 87 percent two decades ago to 70 percent last year. Most teens now do not get licensed within a year of becoming eligible, according to a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

"Their priorities are different — they have Mom and Dad to drive them around, and some frankly say, 'I don't need to drive; I can walk to Metro,' " says Jim Snow, a retired Montgomery County, Maryland, police officer who teaches driving at the I Drive Smart school in Rockville.

As cars have become more automated and reliable, teens have lost their connection to the mechanics of the vehicle. "I don't see kids who know what's under the hood anymore," Snow says. "A lot of them don't even know how to open the hood."

Why this disconnect is happening is very much subject to interpretation.

It's all about a craving for simplicity, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said, a reluctance to jump into the trappings of adult life — marriage, children, car. Just as millennials delay buying houses, so too have they found other ways to get around — Uber, Zipcar, public transit, texting friends to see who can offer a lift.

No, it's the economy, stupid, some car industry analysts and executives say. The recession hit this generation just as it was about to put down roots. Fewer jobs meant less money, which translated into an inability to buy, insure or maintain a car.

Now, as the economy bounces back, auto sales are up 4 percent in the first half of this year. Americans are choosing big vehicles again. Thanks in part to low gas prices, sales of SUVs and light trucks are up. Sedans, subcompacts, hybrids and electrics are down.

"This is all actually economics, not preferences," says Sean McAlinden, chief economist at the Center for Automotive Research, a nonprofit group funded by government and industry grants. When the cost of owning a car drops below 10 percent of income, "young people will stop telling pollsters they can do without cars. You say you're not interested in owning something if you can't afford it," he argues.

Millennials increasingly telecommute, use public transit, connect with friends digitally without always having to meet in person, and live in big cities. About 40 percent of them say they intend to stay in cities, though previous generations said that, too, before marriage and children.

"With tuition and student loan debts, young people can't afford a car," says John B. Townsend II, longtime spokesman for the AAA Mid-Atlantic. Plus, there's the sky-high cost of car insurance, an average of $1,100 nationwide.

But McAlinden is confident they will return to the auto fold. "It's completely un-American not to like motor vehicles," he says, and he is both joking and not joking.

Or maybe what it means to be American has simply changed.

"Digital enticements are displacing the pleasures of driving," says Matt Crawford, a political philosopher at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture who also fabricates components for custom motorcycles. "So that whole sense of getting in the car and finding out what's beyond the next town is less powerful."

Crawford, 49, fell in love with cars back when drivers often had to deal with mechanical problems. His first few cars were "real beaters" that broke down frequently, requiring him to bang on a stranger's door and beg for help. "You'd end up interacting with people you wouldn't otherwise meet," he says. And knowing your car paid dividends. Braking was a skill. Parking did not involve cameras or computers.

Now, he says, "cars have become virtual reality boxes," infantilizing the driver. BMW even pipes phony engine noises through its cars' sound systems to make drivers feel like they're in charge of a machine that mostly runs itself. Driving these days, Crawford writes, "would seem to promote a kind of regression — back into the womb."

Maybe car culture is waning, he suggests, because "parents are less authoritarian and want to be your friend." In other words, the need to rebel isn't what it used to be.

Through the 30 years he spent as an Oldsmobile dealer, Steve Moskowitz saw this coming. "In my early days, I saw how romantic the idea of buying a car was," recalls Moskowitz, 67, now executive director of the Antique Automobile Club of America. For many years, people dressed up to visit the showroom. But in later years, "people were looking for dependability and value and weren't concerned with looks and romance."

Unsurprisingly, the nation's car museums and auto clubs now struggle to attract a younger audience. "We're trying to figure out what we can present that people can't get from a website," says Terry Ernest, president of the National Association of Automobile Museums and director of the Wills Sainte Claire Museum of Classic Autos in Marysville, Michigan. "Certainly, some museums are going to fail."

Cars are just one more aspect of life hit hard by the digital culture's corrosion of local ties. Retail shopping, the news business and politics have taken on a more national character because the Internet lets people connect along interest lines rather than by geography. In that way, car culture is losing its local structure — the clubs, museums and meets that brought people together.

The thriving platforms for younger car buffs tend to be virtual — the Jalopnik blog (slogan: "Drive Free or Die"), or autoextremist.com. But perhaps the most visible sign of car culture these days is on cable TV's Velocity channel, which runs reality shows about restoring, collecting and selling cars, all aimed at "men in their mid to high 40s and above," says its general manager, Bob Scanlon.

There is a younger audience for shows about designing and building cars, "and there's a direct correlation between the number of tattoos on the builder's arms and the youth of the audience," he says with a wink. He adds that the channel is "not in a position to develop the next generation" of car buffs.

If the audience is graying, Scanlon says, blame Detroit, which shifted from the fanciful fins and muscle cars of the '50s and '60s to a focus on reliability. Americans still love to tinker, and father-son bonds over mechanics can still pack an emotional wallop, but "cars don't seem to resonate in scripted entertainment like they once did," Scanlon says.

Scanlon, 63, grew up in a car family; his father was a mechanical engineer, and father and son tinkered together. One of Scanlon's adult sons has followed him into car TV, as a manager on "Overhaulin'," a car-customizing show. His other son also is a tinkerer — the new kind: He runs a video-gaming site.

A century ago, a good way to reach the bestseller list was to publish books featuring boys and girls having adventures with cars. From "The Motor Boys" and "The Motor Maids" through the iconic Hollywood hits of the '50s through the '80s, the car was every bit as important to the great American dream machine as the best-known writers and actors.

Cruising and drag racing were the real stars of "American Graffiti" (1973). Chases inspired car love among viewers of "Thunder Road" (1958), "Smokey and the Bandit" (1977) and "The Cannonball Run" (1981). On Hot Rod magazine's list of the 40 greatest car movies of all time, only two were made in this century. The car's heyday in pop culture featured the Beach Boys and their little old lady from Pasadena and their little deuce coupe; James Bond's omnipotent sportsters; Steve McQueen's legendary chase through the streets of San Francisco in "Bullitt"; Herbie the Love Bug; and on into the '70s and '80s with Springsteen's "Pink Cadillac" and Prince's "Little Red Corvette."

Cars had their own TV shows — "Knight Rider," "The Dukes of Hazzard," and for one season, in 1965, "My Mother the Car," a sitcom in which a 1928 Porter turns out to be the reincarnation of its owner's mother. Really.

George Barris built the Porter (a made-up make) out of an old Ford Model T. He put a stunt man on the floor of the car to drive it using mirrors so the vehicle would appear to be driven by the invisible mother. Barris, 98 and still customizing cars, also built the Batmobile, the family hearse on "The Munsters," the rickety jalopy on "The Beverly Hillbillies," "General Lee" on "The Dukes of Hazzard," and the red Torino on "Starsky and Hutch."

"You had to design the car to be one of the stars of the show," Barris says. He also customized cars for celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Sonny and Cher. But over the past two decades, he says: "The interest in cars seemed to slip out of the industry. The car isn't how the stars express their personality. John Wayne told me he wanted to just slide in, not climb into his motorcar. So Pontiac sent me a wagon, I raised the roof six inches and lowered the floor four inches, and he just slid in.

"You don't get calls like that anymore. Can you even think of a TV show now that has cars doing things or being fun characters? For most people now, it's just transportation."

The argument over whether the nation is reaching Peak Car — the point after which permanent decline sets in — will continue for years, but it's already clear that the quality of Americans' relationship with cars has shifted.

The spirit isn't gone — check out one of Chrysler's elegiac ads appealing to patriotism and nostalgia to stir love of Detroit's signature industry — but a utilitarian attitude is becoming more pervasive. Symbols of the car's central role in American life are fading. Fast-food chains are building fewer drive-through windows; schools are offering fewer drivers' education classes. Automakers are studying how to make money in a time of car-sharing, driverless vehicles and a growing aversion to owning stuff.

Ford's resident futurist, Sheryl Connelly, points to data showing that millennials often like to rent rather than buy products. Ford research finds that 74 percent of adults try to use their time in motion "to accomplish something else." So the automaker is dreaming up vehicles that let users do something — anything! — in a state of "global gridlock," chief executive Bill Ford's term for a world in which more than half of people live in megacities.

The return of young people to city centers brings a permanent pivot in how people think about getting around, says Gabe Klein, a Zipcar founder who went on to run the city transportation departments in Chicago and Washington.

Klein, 44, says cars have become a burden, a symbol of a model of living gone sour. "We were sold a bill of goods by the government," he says, "by real estate developers who wanted to sell tract housing far from the city, by car companies who sold us this new lifestyle of living in the suburbs and commuting in."

That suburban model is not something to rebuild from the ravages of recession, but rather a lifestyle that technology will let Americans discard, Klein argues. "Car culture is really a brief 50- or 60-year blip in history," he says.

Klein has become an evangelist for a future that sounds utopian to some, nightmarish to others. It's a vision in which pods of driverless, on-demand cars roam city streets, ready to pick you up for half of what Uber charges. It's a future with less traffic and far less parking. And little need for car ownership.

At 22, fresh out of college, Regina Catipon finds herself a commuter, traveling on weekdays from her parents' place in Shady Grove, Maryland, to her downtown Washington office. It's a 90-minute trek each way — a bus, a train, a walk.

She has no car, no license, no immediate intention of getting either. Her sister, who is 26, has no license either (not for lack of trying; she's failed the test five times). Her brother was 22 when he finally got his.

Living at the far reaches of a Metro train line, Catipon realizes that a car would make life easier, but it's just not a priority. If her bus is delayed or doesn't show up, she summons Uber or Lyft, or texts friends to catch a ride.

Catipon isn't averse to cars, though she did delay learning to drive after a good friend in high school was hit by a car at 16 and died from head injuries. Despite that trauma, "I actually love cars," Catipon says. She's a fan of "Top Gear," the British TV show about car buffs, and she always wanted a motorcycle. For a time, she was into a guy who rally-raced a Subaru.

But her social life mostly takes place in the city, where parking and traffic make cars a hassle. And both Catipon and her boyfriend have big student loan debts, "so it seems almost irresponsible to take out a car loan when we're either looking for work or getting established," she says.

At the University of Maryland, where Catipon was a journalism major, one of her professors was appalled to learn that a majority of students in her class didn't drive. How would they go out and cover a story without wheels? "You're not going to be employable," the teacher warned.

"But I have a job," counters Catipon, who works at a small journalism start-up, though her position doesn't require her to leave the office.

For now, her plan is to find a way to move into the city, in part to reduce the need for a car. Rebellion plays little role in her thinking about cars. "People talk about the open road," she says, "but in my experience, the road is tolls and traffic cameras."

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