Guest Blogger Ken
Hello, CEP listeners and the followers of these blogs. I have asked to write a guest post to address the issues raised by Nick and Andrew in the previous posts. In specific, I would like slip into my cardigan and sneakers and provide some thoughts that might calm their concerns about the future of car culture and their chosen canary in a coal mine, car shows.
My take on car shows differs from theirs in some significant ways. Being older, I feel comfortable stating that there are more car shows than previously, not less. They may be smaller and deal with more specific types of vehicles, but it’s possible to go to organized shows or gatherings on almost any weekend when the weather is good. Last weekend I saw a collection of Hudsons that would have been an extremely rare sight previously. I was not planning on seeing them, but I have run into, at this same hotel, without planning on it, a gathering of classic Fords and a gathering of BMW motorcycles that looked like they escaped from a museum. There are several reasons for this increase in these events. Not only has the increase in wealth and free time given many more people the means and time to engage in their passion for cars, but the value of the cars is also increasing, making them more desirable. The more commonplace shows that NIck and Andrew are describing are a reflection of the democratization of the hobby. And, yes, that means that the cars may be less interesting. To me. To Andrew. Perhaps, reader, to you. But not to the people who are so excited about their cars that they will bring them out to a parking lot or county park or a hotel far from home just to show them to others.
Andrew is not wrong. All of the stereotypes he discusses are quite apparent at these types of shows. But why is that an indication that car culture is dying? People so excited about their cars that they want to show them off? A person that spends hundreds of hours restoring a car is an indication passion, in my opinion. I have gone to dozens of these shows, old cars with their proud owners, little signs stuck to windshields or on little stands in front of the car and a poster board detailing the history of the car or the steps taken to restore it. And yes, they are usually old cars and also, usually, old men telling the stories of those cars, discussing the cars with other old people that remember them. That’s because you don’t have to go to a show to see a new car. They’re everywhere. Car shows are, often, populated by older people desiring to get a glimpse of something from their youth. I was taken to my first non-major auto show by my father-in-law to see his cars: 1920’s and ‘30’s Packards, Duesenbergs and the like. This was a much higher level show than I’ve been discussing. It was a juried concourse on the grounds of Allstate Insurance and some of the cars were brilliant. But the interest in these cars, although still significant, has started to fade. Cars from the 50’s and 60’s are now commanding the attention at these high end shows as the generation of depression era young men gives way to a generation of post World War 2 young men.
So, do I believe that the “circle of life” will continue? Will the generation that contains the CEP podcast hosts someday go to a show, big or small, to see cars from their youth? Will anyone sit in a lawn chair next to their meticulously cared for or restored Veloster, STI or C7 and turn their heads? I can’t guarantee it. Although every generation tends to turn against the orthodoxy of the previous generation, It seems to me that my children’s generation hasn’t just turned against the perceived “dad’s car” but cars in general. I could not believe how reluctant the kids were to GET THEIR DRIVER’S LICENSES! (OK, boys. I’m willing to show may age and admit that, in my generation girls were, for the most part, left out of car culture). We were tripping over ourselves to get our licenses. No details, but I literally blackmailed my parents into letting me get my license. I initially thought that I had personally failed as a father because my son did not seem to be in any hurry to get his license until I realized that 99% of his friends weren’t getting theirs either. My explanation was that by so demonizing the automobile, rightly so in many ways, there is an entire generation that has rejected cars as a general category.
But, am I correct? Perhaps not. There have been periods in history before where the enthusiasm for and the desirability of cars has faded. The Great Depression killed numerous brands, particularly high end and niche brands, and the following war completely froze the industry for a decade. But the revival afterwards created many truly iconic cars, not only in the US, but around the world. A couple of decades later concerns about the availability of oil and air quality in cities created another generation (mine) that was concerned that the automobile would disappear or be replaced by mundane appliances that would leave us with nothing to be enthusiastic about. In both cases, the industry reacted (eventually) by creating amazing products that are now cars that are showing up in shows. Will it happen again? Let’s face it, “enthusiasts” in the car world have always been in the minority. Most adults just get in their mundane transit options and rarely care much beyond getting from point A to point B. We, in the enthusiast community grumble about why we don’t have more exciting options but car companies exist to make money. But by of small groups of engineers, managers or marketing people, either by design or accident, the companies always seem to come up with cars that are amazing. I hold out hope that where there are amazing cars, there will be enthusiastic owners and admirers.
Is “car culture” dying? Certainly. Just like the car culture surrounding side valve engines, brass kerosene headlights and the debate between 3 speed manuals and 2 speed automatics. As the generations pass, the car culture will change to accommodate the interests and technology of the car fans. 30 years from now, no doubt, there will be a car culture around early Tesla, Prius and other early electrics. And grumpy, pre-electric fans will be the ones that are being ridiculed for wasting their time at shows of cars that are of no interest to the new generation. So it goes. The world turns and we either adapt or continue in our ways. But I feel confident that kids like the ones running the Check Engine Podcast will carry on.
I'm using my Editor powers to jump ahead of Tristan, because I need to explain to Nick and to everyone else where exactly his culture gone. As Nick pointed out in the opening of last week's blog, you probably haven't gone to a car show lately. And there's almost certainly one or more super good reasons for that. I would bet money that one of your reasons is that car shows are ass and are crammed full of people who are also ass.
Now, Nick started with the big shows, and he's mostly right about those, so we can cover them quickly: Brands aren't seeing a decent ROI from doing 2,000 car shows a year, so they're being pickier about which shows they go to. I think this is actually good, because I'd much rather have a brand not show up than have them half-ass some kind of two-car display, and I mean you, Lincoln and Mitsubishi. The point of the mainstream car show has shifted to be more consumer-focused. It's now about the people interacting with the actual cars they can buy more than it is about the brands stunting in front of each other with plinth-bound concepts that will never be realized. This change makes for a better car show, one that's more practical and more accessible for the consumer. There is one thing I would change though. I need every brand to BRING MORE SWAG. Thanks. Now, on to the main topic, the little car shows.
I've written a few blogs that circle around the fact that most of what constitutes car culture is cancerous. From the minor issues like all brands jumping on two-tone wheels, to the big, systemic diseases like grid girls, brands making a mockery of consumer choice, and the endless corpse-humping farce of appealing to the old crowd. Indeed, that's a big reason why I wanted to do a car podcast and a car blog, because I want to illustrate that things can be done differently, car culture doesn't have to continue to stagnate and die off. But that's what's happening. Nobody goes to car shows because they are a cancer.
Don't get me wrong, I love a good car show. But I have to stress the word good far more heavily than the word car. For example, Cars and Coffee events are not good car shows. The mortality rate is far too high for one, and for two the fact that there ALWAYS are people doing burnouts out of the parking lot illustrates that I don't want to know a single benighted soul who's cursed enough to even accidentally attend one of those things. I make a point to go to at least one little car show every summer, and I can't remember going to a good one. Ever. Some have been decent. Some have been okay. Most have been neutral, bad, or worse. It's all down to the people who go to car shows, both to show their car off, and to look at the cars.
First, the car bringers: They're the same people. All over the US, they're all the same. There's GTO guy. Oh and look he brought a goat Beanie Baby and it's sitting the side of the engine bay, how FRESH. There's ZZ Top beard Camaro guy. There's 26 Corvette guys, 9 of whom have the new-in-box die cast toy sitting on or near the engine from when they went to Corvettes at Carlisle. There's 50 or more handwritten "DO NOT TOUCH THE CAR" sign guys with the quotation marks actually on the sign (Like, what is WRONG with you people and punctuation?). There's "I Polished Up My Daily Driver Nissan 350Z" guy. There's a few "I won a car show in the early aughts and here is my plaque to prove it" guys. There are several 911 guys, but they aren't there for long. There's numbers-matching Mustang guy, and he's next to his son, 90s Mustang guy. There's "I own a Pontiac Tempest wagon but I call it a GTO wagon because I didn't get skin-to-skin contact as an infant" guy. There's a guy who got stuck in the 2 Fast 2 Furious age and his poor Ralliart Lancer has paid the ultimate price for it. There's SLAM NATION guy. Somebody usually brings a Boxster, like that's something the world needs to see.
It's no different with the attendees, fully 87% of whom are "I used to own this car back in the day" guy, with supremely uninterested wife in tow. There's a smattering of children, all of whom are being screamed at for almost touching the cars by "I tied my masculinity too closely to the car I drive, and now I drive an SUV" guy. There are people like me, the casual watchers, who typically get in and out in 20 minutes. There's the conversationalists like Nick, who want to talk about the cars with their owners. To me, that's never a good time either, mostly because half the time the owners don't know that much, and the other half of the time they want to tell some annoying street-racing story that likely isn't true. And...I'm honestly struggling to think of who else goes to these things. I suppose there are some REAL CAR FANS who go there because they LOVE THE ATMOSPHERE, but I tend to think that these people are actually attendee type 1 except they understand how gross it is to go to a car show and pine over a car you didn't bother to keep around. At this point, I have to push back on Nick's arguments a bit. It's not just Snapchatters who have stopped going to car shows, it's people like me who have stopped as well, and I love cars enough to personally generate media about them daily. But I don't go as often as I used to, because I realized that it isn't that fun.
Be real for a second. Does any of the above list sound fun? Of course not! Add in that all car shows occur on days when the air temperature is above 13,000° F, and you've got a miserable day out for the whole sunscreen-parboiled family! I think that if we're all very honest with ourselves for a moment, we can all agree that I'm not actually exaggerating all that much. Yes, there's a little bit of hyperbole for comedic effect, but if anything, those lists aren't funny because they hit too close to the mark. The people and the cars at most car shows are beyond stereotypical and firmly reach into the realm of the parodic, or even farcical. The worst part about this is that there's no reason for it. There's no purpose or explanation. For example, not all Camaro owners have beards, but all the Camaro owners at car shows do. They're also all wearing suspenders! What the hell! And of course you don't see people our age driving classic cars, Nick. How can we? Their current owners refuse to die or sell their cars for reasonable prices. Everybody at a car show thinks their car belongs at Mecum. Every single person would put the phrase "I KNOW WHAT I'VE GOT" in their Craigslist ad. I guess I still have Camaro on the brain because I'm going to use it as a real-world reference point once again. A brand new Camaro 1LS (with the V6) is $28,395. On the Milwaukee Craigslist page you can buy the rusted husk of a 60s Camaro with no back end, no engine, no transmission, and half the body panels for $3200, you can buy a fully restored and functional 1969 Camaro for $54,000, and you can buy a bunch of terrible Camaros that nobody wants for all the prices in the middle. In this extremely real scenario there's only one choice for any Camaro-hunter with a single brain cell in their family tree. You buy the new car, and you never take it to a car show because you're too busy driving it, using the CarPlay to listen to the music you want to hear.
There is no doubt that car culture as it was is dying. It has to die, because it was bad. So bad that it started to die. That's circular logic, but it's also the truth. Nothing was done to car culture. Nobody is sabotaging car culture. It's dying all on its own, exactly like Harley, Chrysler, Buick, and every other thing that couldn't be bothered to modernize when they had a two-decade-long chance. I see this decline to be very explicable, very transparent. Maybe it's because I wasn't brought up in car culture and I chose this on my own, so I have no attachment to what car culture used to be. Maybe it's because I don't have a traditional brand loyalty, and even though I root for Hyundai, I feel no call to defend their brand, no motivation to say that their cars are the best in anything. Maybe it's just because I'm so cynical that I don't much care what 16-year restoration timeline stands between suspenders Rick over there and his 1971. Maybe if he had buckled down a little more he could have gotten that shit finished in a tight 15, huh? I don't think social media is going to save car culture, but I also don't think it's going to kill it off completely, either. What I do know is that this is all transition. We can easily identify the pieces of car culture that are terrible and need to go, and we need to be brave enough to not just call them out as we see them, but also to let them wither and die on their own. I say we see what happens, and maybe we make up a little car show bingo sheet, too. That way we'll all have at least one reason to go to a car show this summer.
When was the last time you went to a car show? I don’t JUST mean a big, convention center-filling, week-long event, but even a classic car show at your local ball field or drive-in?...Don’t remember? I don’t think you’re alone with that answer. Unfortunately, I feel like the 2 most popular answers to that question are “I don’t remember” or “Never.” Hi folks, Nick here from CEP. For this edition of the Hot Blog, I’m going to expound upon a topic that my co-hosts and I touched on briefly in one of our Spark Plugs awhile back: car shows. More specifically, the decline in interest and why this is a small piece of a much bigger issue in the automotive universe.
Back in the day, car shows were the focal points of a calendar year in the motoring world. Geneva, Chicago, Beijing, Los Angeles…these were the places that the entire auto industry, and the general public, would flock to for major news and announcements, space-age concept cars and to keep their respective fingers on the pulse of everything that was happening with their favorite brands. Nowadays, while the shows are still a great networking opportunity for people WITHIN the industry, it seems as if the general public’s reactions have been lukewarm at best. The car companies are taking notice. All over the place, major car conglomerates are pulling out of these once revered car shows in favor of “new marketing efforts.” It all comes down to this: ROI. What is the return on investment going to be for my company? Through my day-job, while not in the auto industry, I have been involved in quite of few of these trade shows and they are mighty pricey. First the company has to pay to reserve it’s booth, then they need to design the booth, a lot of times with outside help from a marketing/brand company, then they need to staff the booth for up to a week (along with food and lodging for the staffers), not to mention shipping all the products to and from the trade show location. When it’s all said and done, some of these major companies will spend well into the 6, maybe 7-figure range for ONE SHOW….and how many extra cars is that going to sell? Is it really worth all that effort? Companies are learning quickly that they can reach as many people at a fraction of the cost by using an avenue that may also turn out to be one of the auto industry’s biggest competitors: tech.
Yes, “tech” is a general term. I meant it to be so. It encompasses a lot of things. How can a car company be competing with tech, you ask? Why wouldn’t they just use technology to their advantage? They do, and I’ll get to that, but ponder this for a minute: it’s no longer just a Ford vs. Chevy vs. Mercedes vs. BMW world out there. These folks are competing against companies like…Google, for instance, who are working on a self-driving car. Or how about Uber or Lyft, companies that are making apps for carpooling? Heck, my esteemed co-host Tristan put it best in our episode Nikola, Elon and Jeff when he said that “Tesla is a tech company that happens to make cars.” The point is that new people with new ideas on how transportation can work are invading the space long dominated by the automotive giants…and the people who embrace these new ways of thinking just happen to be the people who are currently in the car-buying “sweet spot”: 20-30 year old young professionals. Think of the impact that social media has had on EVERYTHING in the last ten years. Why would a car company spend a million on a trade show when they could utilize Insta, The Tweet Box, The Book of Faces (I think that’s what they call them) and others to launch a new car? They can get a thousand times LARGER reach for a thousand times LESS spend. The people who the big auto manufacturers need to get are these young adults, fresh out of school with their shiny new degree who are ready to make their first car purchase. But these same people are the ones who grew up on cat videos, Tosh.O and LEEEEEROOOOOOYY JEEEEEEENNNNKKIIIIIIINNNNSSSS!!!!! Why would they pay for admission to a convention center when they can look up reviews online for free? Short answer: They wouldn’t. And car manufacturers are starting to realize this, so they are choosing social media over presence on a trade show floor. Now, if you’re the director of a convention center, you shouldn’t worry too much because the vacancies left by car brands are being filled rapidly by parts suppliers eager to show off their wares. So you are still meeting your quota. But let’s face it, The North American International AUTO Show sounds better than The North American International FLOOR MAT Show, don’t you think? Bottom line is, the automakers are starting to realize that they need to change their approach if they want to keep selling, and big auto shows might be one of the casualties before too long. But this leads to a bigger point that I want to get to: it’s not just car SHOWS that are in failing health…its car CULTURE.
I remember wandering around the local classic car shows with my dad when I was little. I still get to them from time-to-time when I can. I grew up in a gearhead family, so I appreciated the time and effort it took to restore some of the pieces I was looking at. But to be honest, the best part about these shows is talking to the owners. I love to hear the stories about the blood, sweat and tears it took rebuilding a 1934 Ford hot rod they found in a barn. Maybe there’s a car on the property that’s an old converted race car, which used to run with Mark Donahue and Dan Gurney back in the 1960’s. There might be an owner showing a vehicle that has been in his/her family for generations and they reminisce about the summer road trips they used to take as a family. THAT’S what car culture is. It’s getting to hear why these pieces of iron mean so much to somebody. But these Snapchatters don’t give a shit about any of that. They view a vehicle as a means to get from Point A to Point B so they can start tweeting again. One thing I’ve begun to notice recently is this: car show crowds are getting older. I am 30 years old, and rarely do I see someone my age or younger at one of these get-togethers. 20-somethings who are actually showing a classic car don’t even exist in the wild, to my knowledge. But even if they did care to do so, what kind of car would a millennial show? Their modded Honda Civic? A Focus ST? Cars today (with the exception of high end sports cars) aren’t even WORTH showing anymore. Car companies are designing everything to look the same, not different. They themselves are contributing to the decline of car culture. At a show, you should be able to walk up to someone showing a car and ask questions like “Is this the version that came with the 427 engine?” But in the very near future, those questions could change to something like “This thing have Apple Car Play?”…just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?
After all that, I must say I’m not sure what the answer is. How do we preserve car culture? Obviously, all of you reading this or listening to our podcast are level-headed individuals who don’t need reminding of what car culture is. Your version of a good drive is downshifting a couple times setting up for a hairpin turn, and feeling sublime mechanical grip and perfect throttle response as you clip the apex, as opposed to being able to scroll through Fail Army videos while the Uber driver gets you to the grocery store. YOU know why cars are important. YOU still get goosebumps at the sound of a Lexus LF-A. YOUR jaw still drops when you watch an F1 car pound up Eau Rouge at 200mph. Unfortunately, THEY are outnumbering us, people. As somber as this may sound, we may just be the last of our kind.