18 months after the first ever Generation Why column debuted on TTAC, one of the buff books has finally latched onto the whole “kids don’t drive anymore” meme. Road & Track’s feature on today’s youth and their lack of enthusiasm for the automobile is much grander than anything I’ve ever done. In an ideal world, I suppose I would fly a friend of mine to California on an all expenses paid trip where we’d sample a Rolls-Royce Ghost, a Lamborghini Gallardo, a Porsche 911, a Ford F-150 SVT Raptor and the talents of two race car drivers. In the real world, the best I can do is initiate a low-speed four-wheel drift in my Miata while asking them if they still think it’s a girl’s car. Such is the life of a blogger.
Despite an absence of Jack Baruth in Road & Track’s May issue, I eagerly purchased a copy, if only to read about how the mainstream media would treat the issue of young people’s supposed aversion to the automobile and car ownership. I recommend you do so as well. Don’t read it at the newsstand. It’s imperative that we support Larry Webster, Sam Smith and the rest of the gang in their attempts to create an American car magazine that we can all be proud of.
Unfortunately, R&T’s article stumbles out of the blocks and never recovers. Their test subject, Ellis Gibbard-Maioriano, appears ordinary enough, clad in a Nike t-shirt with a neon slogan and looking suitably disinterested in all photographs. But there’s something not quite ordinary about Ellis, and scribe Brett Berk does a good job of burying the crucial detail:
Raised in Manhattan’s East Village, his liberation from parental purview arrived early. “When I was 11,” he says, “I could take the subway everywhere by myself.” Ellis is attuned to grit and graffiti, but he has no driver education, no license, no vehicular mojo. “I don’t really pay attention to cars,” he says as we board our flight to Los Angeles.
This right here is what we can call selection bias. Berk didn’t pick somebody from Omaha or Birmingham or Buffalo, places where someone might conceivably want to own a car but might not be able to afford one, or where a car may in fact be an expense they’d rather not incur, but one that’s necessary to maintain employment or get to class. Instead he picks someone from Manhattan, where owning a car is not just unnecessary, but borderline idiotic. Why bother, when the mere act of walking around the island repeatedly exposes you to some of the most beautiful, history-laden geography in the United States? If there is one place in America where residents are correct to not giva a shit about cars, it’s Manhattan.
Berk’s plan for instilling a love of the automobile in young Ellis is equally fantastic – in the sense of fantasy, as in “Fantasy Island”. Working with what appears to be an unlimited budget, Berk constructs an automotive experience that IS as remote from reality as life in Manhattan is from life in the rest of America. Cruising in a $365,000 Rolls Royce (which costs as much as a luxury home in many culturally acceptable parts of flyover country, like Austin, Texas), driving Raptors on a private off-road course and enjoying a track day in a Porsche 911 with Patrick Long might be the stuff of fantasy for car guys, but for someone not in tune with the significance of these events and how they relate to the automobile, they’re about as exciting as a modern interpretive dance recital would be to your average shade-tree mechanic.
The real way to do it would have been to find an interesting vehicle in the press fleet – something Berk is obviously capable of doing – and give Ellis the keys to the car. Of course, one of Ellis’ friends with a license would have to do the actual driving, but the exercise might be closer to the way we all experience cars. He might come to love cars the way we all love them. A love of cars and driving itself can only be created organically. A lot of it has to do with the memories that are created behind the wheel, things that unfold spontaneously, not in contrived situations that have been planned and executed with a Hearst budget behind them.
Of course, Ellis isn’t entirely impervious to the charms of the automobile.
“..as we waft westward in the Ghost en route to the airport, we notice Ellis taking stock of the vehicles around him. Suddenly, he points to an E46-chassis BMW 3-series.
“How much would something like that cost?”
“About $18,000,” we respond. “But that’s the high-performance M3. You don’t need all that.”
Ellis nods. “What about an older BMW . . . like, from the Eighties?”
Mental fist pump! He’s hit upon the modern gearhead’s quintessential first car, the BMW E30. We can barely contain our elation; we tell him he could get a decent runner for three grand, even offer to help him find a good one when he’s ready. So does this mean he’s one of us now? At the very least, will he get his license?
“It’s definitely more of a priority now,” he says. “Maybe this summer.” Then he turns back to the hazy Los Angeles afternoon, endless freeways stretching out before him.
“But I get lazy in the summer, so who knows?”
Ah yes, the vintage car. It’s cheaper to own, maintain and insure and it has the cool, authentic credibility of being retro. For Ellis, his primary concerns are both maintenance and parking. But he still has the subway, so he could afford the luxury of unreliability that also comes with standard with every cool, authentic, retro old car. Plenty of young Americans don’t have that option at all, and they must also deal with $4 gasoline, insurance premiums every month, repairs, inspection, vehicle taxes and the other costs associated with motoring.