Is our love affair with our vehicles dead?
Cars are like clothing. Life would go on without them, but it wouldn’t be the same. Almost as soon as they started rolling off the assembly lines, automobiles became synonymous with freedom. Our relationship with our cars boomed after WWII. It was about horsepower, status, being American, and for young people, rebellion. For generations cars inspired countless songs, books, and movies. The iconic 1973 film American Graffiti celebrated the deep relationship between teen culture and the automobile back in the early 1960’s. But that was 40 years ago and a lot has changed since those days.
The love affair between Americans and their cars has lasted for more than a century. Like most affairs of the heart, those years have produced triumph, tragedy, creativity, innovation, and not an insignificant dose of laughter and lunacy.
After rising for decades, total vehicle use in the U.S. – the collective miles people drive – peaked in August 2007. The US Transportation Dept. reports that the average miles drivers rack up individually peaked in July 2004 at just over 900 per month. By July of last year that had fallen to less than 820 per month.
America’s so-called love affair with cars peaked in the 1960s, the product of several unique and never-to-repeat factors. After they popularized rock ‘n’ roll, a torrent of baby boomers began to reach driving age and become fascinated by a means of transportation that hadn’t been available to their Depression-era or war-constrained parents. America was building the Interstate Highway System, which made long distance travel accessible and even glamorous. Highly stylish cars with chrome and tailfins were pouring out of Detroit, and television commercials that celebrated them were blanketing the airwaves.
You know most of what happened after tailfins. Technical advancement after technical advancement came along, arguably culminating in the cup holder. We’ve seen a lot; fuel injection, remote rearview mirrors, electronic speed control, antilock brakes, and so on. With the average price of a new vehicle more than $31,000 it now costs the average consumer more than 50 percent of his or her household income to buy a new vehicle. That’s up from 33 percent in 1974. Add in the high price of gas and car insurance and the price of owning a car is simply too expensive.
Meanwhile, the share of people in their teens, 20’s and 30’s with driver’s licenses has been dropping significantly, suggesting that getting a driver’s license is no longer the teenage rite of passage it once was.
The New York Times reports that millennials – young people in their 20’s and 30’s – aren’t interested in cars or even, in many cases, getting a driver’s license. They are happy to ride a bike, take the bus, or walk. One expert is quoted as saying, “The millenials don’t value cars and car ownership, they care about what kind of devices you own.”
With the constantly changing technology available in today’s vehicles, cars have morphed into computers on wheels that few people dare to tinker with. The days of the teenager working on his car to increase performance are gone. Gone also is the emotional investment that teenager created with his vehicle while he was busting his knuckles breaking loose bolts and dripping blood in the engine compartment.
The automobile has shifted from a subject of adoration from most of the public to something that’s adored by a portion of the public. Micheline Maynard who oversees the website “CurbingCars.com” says “what we’re seeing now is a move of the car out of people’s hearts and into the garage – perhaps where they should have been all along.” Even Bill Ford, the great grandson of Henry Ford laments that “the love affair has in some ways become stale. People used to write songs about T-Birds and Corvettes; today they write regulations.”
So it’s goodbye to “Mustang Sally” and our “Little Deuce Coupe.” No more “Hot Rod Lincoln” or “Rocket 88.” It appears the days of getting our kicks on Route 66 are gone!
At Simmons 4×4 Auto Service Center several of us are still in love with our vehicles. Rick loves his Ramcharger, Mike is planning on keeping “Big Red” forever and Wade will probably be buried in his 1990 Chevy.