Commentary: Somewhere Beyond the Headline…

Back To The 50s 2014
Photo by Randy Stern

They – being everyone with a newsworthy portal – have been saying that Millennials are not interested in car ownership.

If you read these reports, you will find a pattern amongst them. These stories of a generation abandoning the automobile focus on twenty-somethings living in urban enclaves. It is easy to do that. With no disrespect to my colleagues in the media, if you work in a city where there are plenty of opportunities to run into a young person coming off of a bus or train, heading to work.

Not every young person lives in Uptown Minneapolis, Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Hollywood, Wicker Park in Chicago and so forth. They also live in neighborhoods where public transportation does not entirely exist. They also live in smaller communities – ranging from a Des Moines, Iowa to the littlest town in rural California. In those places, a car is necessity.

I am witnessing the opposite from these reports. Millennials are embracing the automobile. They are doing so quite differently.

This past weekend, I attended my first Back to The 50's at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. Never mind the 12,000-plus cars on display engulfing the fairgrounds itself – and encircling the property to try to get in. It is the largest event of its kind in North America, as put on by the Minnesota Street Rod Association.

You get to see everything – mainly cars until the mid-1960s ranging from hot rods to Concours-quality original examples with low miles. You also get to meet various owners – a diverse group based on age and interest. The spectators also range in age and diversity, as well.

One group of enthusiasts stood out amongst the multitude at the fairgrounds. The Ignitors are classic and hot rod enthusiasts and owners under the age of 28, developed in concert with the MSRA. The local group had a lineup of their cars – a couple of classic street rods based on the 1932 Ford to classics that are works in progress.

What intrigued me about these young people is the fact that they have embraced this part of the carmmunity. They have done so either through their family's experience with cars or working around them. Some have acquired their enthusiasm independently through internet exposure and subsequent experience with the cars themselves. It is definitely assuring that these younger enthusiasts are embracing classics and street rods gives relevance to these carmmunities for more decades to come.

The Ignitors are not the only ones debunking the argument of Millennials not interested in cars. If you search through suburban shopping malls, drive-in restaurants and other random hangouts, you will find other young car enthusiasts embracing various other forms of car culture. Modified sports compacts may be the main driver of this enthusiasm, but less so newer models than older ones affordable enough to do the work towards their specifications.

This is not just about Honda Civics, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolutions and Subaru WRXs. Name any brand, country of origin, level of performance and modification, and you will find its young enthusiasts showing of what they can do. This is nothing new, but it appears every time we focus on Millennials, we forget about those who are involved in this carmmunity. Rather, we older folks would rather avoid them. This is something we advise not doing.

We watch new car sales with a blind eye to the pre-owned market – that is where the Millennials are showing up. It is not just about the money aspect, as it is cars they work on and the ease of access to modified parts for them. The picture seems a bit clearer, does it not?

Perhaps, the reality is that Millennials are making less at their age than Gen-X and Gen-Y and not investing in the new car market as readily as their predecessors. Yet, there is one factor we are also missing that needs repeating. Look at smaller metropolitan areas, suburbs and rural communities. If you do see a Millennial buying a new car, it is in these places where the transactions are happening.

All is not lost in the larger cities. You will find younger consumers looking for inexpensive cars to work on – or, just use for transportation until they could afford something more reliable. You will also find divergent ideas of what transportation is – and that is valid. That supports the headlines, but is not the entire picture.

Lastly, have you taken a look at the automotive media corps lately? It is not about Boomers, Gen-X and Gen-Y that are already in the midst of our careers. The Millennials amongst us are coming up the ranks – whether they are working in new media or at the print houses. Talk with someone from the Millennial generation covering the industry and its products and you will find the same divergent opinions and interests as their older counterparts.

Take a step back a moment and think about this: Has it always been this way with every generation? Well, yes, but there is recognition that today's economic reality is different than twenty, forty or sixty years ago. Still, there will always be a common thread of a want for wheels. The Internet fuels this want and there has to be a form of stewardship to embrace and take responsibility towards fostering automotive enthusiasm and ownership. This may take an assist from their parents, family members or the community they live in – rather the carmmunity that is close by. It may also have to come from within the generation itself.

If you take a full view of the generation, explore where they live, how they need to get around and their actual love for the automobile – that truly completes the generational picture. Granted, one will dismiss all of these points as "part of the minority" of the whole picture. We, in this business, are reminded that there is "more to the story than you think."

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