Go online to Pinterest, the newest social network for sharing photos and other content and you’ll see. The automobile is far from dead – even on a site supposedly dominated by females. Economy cars are largely absent. Exotics, luxury cars and most importantly, classic cars make up the majority of the posts, or “pins”. BMW 2002s, vintage Ford Broncos, Porsche 356s, muscle cars of all types and stripes and of course, the ineffable coach-built Ferraris of the 1950s and 1960s comprise a substantial portion of the automotive photos being shared on Pinterest as well as Tumblr, another content sharing service.
This isn’t completely off-base. Generation Why is hopelessly aspirational. And if you can’t have luxury goods, the next best thing is “vintage”. A substantial subset of young people have reverted back to the styles of the past, whether it’s the shaggy hair, beards and Wayfarers among the stereotypical “hipster” or Mad Men-themed parties. Nostalgia, and a nagging feeling that life was simpler and better despite unprecedented advances in quality of life, health, socioeconomic mobility and technology, are the perpetual themes among youth. Vanity Fair recently ran a multi-page essay on this phenomenon, and how it remains manifested in our consumption of goods with aesthetics rooted in the past, claiming that we are “consuming the past, instead of creating the new.”
In the automotive space, our latest high tech, fuel efficient cars inspire little enthusiast among youth. But ask a random sampling of young people, and I promise you that they will have a strong reaction to the Chevrolet Camaro, the Ford Mustang or the Dodge Challenger. The Mustang has decades of interrupted history on its side, the Camaro has the (un)fortunate tie-in with the Transformers movie and the Challenger looks like it stepped out of Dazed and Confused. Do young people know about Hurst shifters or Hemi V8s? Not necessarily. But they’re such a radical departure from the apologetic, self-concious, eco-friendly amorphous blobs of hyper-connected socially networked subcompacts that people can’t help but take notice – and harbor some kind of desire. Young men naturally see them as symbols of virility, masculinity and a throwback to another era. Women tend to regard them with the same fondness as they do for vintage fashions – and going for a cruise in a ragtop Camaro or Mustang has a unisex appeal that makes one suspend all rational decisions about wasting expensive gasoline or incurring penalties for moving violations.
Part of the whole “young people buy used cars” phenomenon is likely a bargain between the desire for a classic and the practical realities of vintage cars; they don’t accelerate, brake, steer or corner anywhere close to a modern car, and their utter lack of crash safety, while scoffed at with a devil-may-care attitude amongst peers, is a very real concern in private. Something from the 1980’s, like a Fox Body Mustang isn’t as much of a death trap compared to a ’65 ‘Stang, and cars from the Reagan era are now being looked upon with rose tinted glasses by a generation that was in diapers when Vanilla Ice rolled in a 5.0 The other side of the coin is that when every kid with wealthy parents can buy the “aspirational” luxury car (whether it’s a 3-Series or an M3, depending on how spoiled they are) the vintage car becomes a way of establishing one’s high status by subverting the traditional hierarchy of luxury in favor of something unique (excuse the sociology professor lingo) that’s the antithesis of contrived luxury, ostentatious wealth. Young people are starting to grasp that the techno-laden cars, like their beloved electronics, are in danger of “bricking” and becoming useless talismans of waste. Older cars, even those from a decade ago, are seen as far more resilient. A friend of mine who is close in age and fortunate enough to drive a brand-new Audi A8 spoke of his desire to get someone older next time around “In 30 years, you’ll be able to fire up your Miata in a storage warehouse,” he said. “Do you think my car will be able to do that? Hell no. None of the computerized crap will be working.”
Today, Jeep unveiled two concepts in advance of their annual Moab Safari, which I feel will resonate very strongly with Generation Why. The first, called the Mighty FC Jeep, is loosely based on a Wrangler, but modified to look like the Forward Control Jeeps built from 1956 to 1965. It’s a rather outlandish, Unimog-style vehicle that has little hope of production. But the second car, the red J-12 Concept, dubbed by the engineers as the “Old Man’s Truck” has some legs. Using a stretched Wrangler Unlimited with a pickup bed, the J-12 adopts a very 1950’s looking fascia, dog dish hubcaps and an interior that blends vintage design with modern details like an in-dash LCD screen.
A variant of the J-12 would likely be easy and cheap to produce, due to the commonality of Wrangler components and could be sold at a slightly higher price point than certain Wrangler models. The Wrangler is already very popular with younger buyers, and I am confident that with such distinct styling, not to mention the benefits of a modern car, Jeep would be able to sell every example they made. Of course, retro design leads to an inevitable trap of making it difficult to evolve the product, but the point is to get them to move up from a J-12 to a Grand Cherokee.
Note that the above picture, supplied by Jeep, seems to have been taken with Instagram, a popular iPhone photography app that takes crisp, digital pictures and applies filters to make them look like they were taken with vintage manual film cameras, complete with oversaturated colors, dark vignetting and Polaroid-esque borders. (Edit: Turns out it was taken by another journalist, Automobile Magazine’s Phil Floraday. My mistake. DK)
Old man, take a look at our lives, we’re a lot like you were