Statistically speaking, it’s a little early to be ragging on the baby boomers. In addition to numerical advantages, the boomers also haven’t slipped fully into retirement, meaning mainstream culture will be stuck for a little longer in the era of unrepentantly rosy nostalgia. And though the pasturing of America’s second-greatest-by-default generation will be ruinous for little things like government entitlement programs, the benefits to important stuff like car design will be profound. Unlike subsequent generations, the baby boomers still had the privilege of living during the golden age of the automobile, a time before Detroit’s decline, the massive government regulation of safety and emission standards, and the general blandifying of the car. As a result, boomers bring a bizarrely retro-sensibility to the modern car market, not just for restored classics, and retro-muscle cars, but for the vehicles that brought an end to the era of Detroit Baroque. Which is where things get interesting.
In many ways, the parallels between the current market and the market which was turned on its head by the popularity of the VW Beetle are eerie. The growth in size, weight and complexity of modern automobiles is a more sophisticated parallel with Detroit’s longer, lower, wider obsession. Sure, chrome, tailfins and power have been replaced by cupholders, heated seats and shadetree-proof engines, but the essential problem remains: as car companies have given us more of what we think we want, we become disconnected from the pure, elemental experience of motoring. More weight, more expense and more features are sold as the tools of freedom, but in fact their main contributions tend to be in the forms of greater costs, mechanic dependence and debt.
The Volkswagen Beetle was launched into a market that, like our own, was caught in a runaway spiral of more. Seen by Detroit’s executives as a rolling joke, the Beetle’s appeal was rooted in its otherness. Designed as a tool of transportation and social liberation rather than as an expensive, complex consumer good, the Beetle tapped into a growing dissatisfaction with the culture of more. The gruff, underpowered engine, the lack of creature comforts, the liberating ease of repair work, and the quirky design were all direct rejections of what was then the Detroit Way. Did the boomers make the Beetle one of the most successful modern car designs, or did the Beetle show the boomers that another way was possible, thus setting them on their quixotic course? An easy answer isn’t obvious.
But one thing is for certain: somewhere along the way, the boomers, like the Beetle, lost their desire for revolutionary simplicity. Even the Beetle succumbed to the siren song of more, yielding puffy embarrassments like the Super Beetle before giving way to more modern designs. Though it soldiered on in the developing world, America’s baby boom discovered that Japanese cars offered more while still providing a rugged simplicity that has evaded Detroit to this day.
But Crowns and 210s gave way to Camrys and Accords, which gave way to bigger, faster, more complicated Camrys and Accords, which in turn spawned Acuras and Lexuses. Caught up in the self-reinforcing cycle of more, the Japanese firms expanded the size, weight, and content of their cars until the distinctions between Detroit and the transplants were no more. And then they added even more.
And yet, despite pushing the auto industry back into the cycle it once gleefully rejected, the baby boomers maintain an unhealthy obsession with the automotive forms that captivated them during their turbulent youths. Cars like the Wrangler Unlimited, New Beetle and MINI make huge money for their parent brands by selling simplicity nostalgia for huge markups, by offering the look of the rugged, counter-cultural past, without any of the downsides [see this NYT [sub] review of the Wrangler Unlimited for a taste of this dynamic]. Which, of course, means that these nostalgic cars offer little to none of the attributes that actually made them popular.
Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with this. Everyone’s entitled to a little nostalgia, and if it sells at a profit, so much the better. The problem, as usual, is that baby boomers have a hard time seeing past their own needs. What consumers younger than baby boomers are missing from the market isn’t a car that looks like a Beetle, but a car that shakes up stale market assumptions the way the original Beetle did. A car that competes at the low end of the market, but will still be desirable in 30 years, like the original Mini. Will anyone be lovingly restoring a Hyundai Accent several decades from now?
Meanwhile, industry insiders scratch their heads and puzzle as to why “the kids” don’t buy cars the way they used. They blame computers, the internet and video games, and try desperately to include the techno-gadgets they think will renew fresh enthusiasm for their products. But kids don’t not buy cars because they fail to integrate Twitter properly, or require stepping away from a computer or Playstation for five minutes. Rather, why should young people get excited about cars, when the lessons of the car industry’s last great youth movement have been so thoroughly perverted and caricatured?
This rant was inspired by some news about the forthcoming Volkswagen New Beetle replacement. The news (as such) is wildly predictable: the New New Beetle will be built on a Jetta platform, offer the same engines, and possibly come with a hybrid option. Otherwise, the changes will be largely stylistic. Having imagined a much smaller, cheaper and fundamentally different Beetle based on a single cruel rumor, news that VW wouldn’t fundamentally change the Beetle’s design came as an (in retrospect, predictable) disappointment. But expecting the poster child for the boomers’ betrayal of their automotive rebellion to reignite an automotive counter-culture was never realistic.
Nor would it be appropriate. Breaking with the past requires something new, unbeholden to nostalgic profit-mongery. Otherwise, what will the car companies re-sell parodies of to us young folks when we grow up, decide that our revolution is over and start demanding four-zone climate controls and tomb-like interiors? Certainly not the Beetle. The boomers ruined that one.