By on March 20, 2010

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 Sure, chrome, tailfins and power have been replaced by cupholders, heated seats and shadetree-proof engines, but the essential problem remains: as car companies have given us more of what we think we want, we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.

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45 Comments on “Will No One Rid Me Of These Troublesome Baby Boomers?...”

  • avatar

    Spot on Edward. My generation spent it’s youth railing against the materialism of it’s parents.

    Then Boomers adopted their parents materialism times 10 : station wagon? Hell no. My parents had one of those. Can’t be like the “establishment” check out my SUV.

    Live in the suburbs ? Like my parents in a 1200 square foot ranch house that looks like everyone else ? Can’t do that.Only a gated community with a 5000 square foot Mc Mansion will do.

    And it’s celery. NOT avacado.And it’s a gourmet kitchen with real granite countertops and slate flooring. Porcelain tile and linoleum shall never darken my professional grade kitchen, even if there’s no one ever home to cook in it and all we use is the microwave.

    Edward, I still love the simplicity of the VW and what it symbolized:low cost, ease of repair and maintenance, bolt on fenders front and rear,small and efficient.

    Personally I still live the dream, still want crank windows and as little gimmickry as possible.

    I love the idea of the Tata Nano and that someone would engineer that sort of simplicty today. It’s why I love the Saturn SL 1. Something honest. Something not trying to be “upscale”, but exactly what it is.

    But given my own demographic I am a freak. I am repulsed by my generation’s gluttony and self absorption.

    But no one cares what I think, so I will live my life on it’s own simple terms and let others live their in a way they deem valid.

    I still reject the boomer establishment’s mores, standards and materialism, where evryone is a gourmet, an expert, a professional, whose sensitivity to hard plastics in an automobile gives them a rash. Or the pressed faux stitching in a door panel is a “deal breaker”.

    What you want to see, I do too. The manufacturers never got it with the New Beetle, the Mustang, Camaro, Mini, Rabbit. Those are just caricatures of the originals.The closest VW came to the old Beetle was the Brazilian built Fox.

    Unfortunately what the industry thinks you want is the Aveo…. Or the Spark.

    • 0 avatar

      so true, I have been searching the market for a simple small cheap rwd car, and the closest thing I can find is a miata, but I dont want a miata. modern small cars are also terribly ugly(focus, civic, versa). I guess I’ll be buying the base Lancer it seems to be the closest to what I seek. One feature I want is ease to repair. I look under the hood of modern cars and all I see is plastic coverings and incoveniantly placed pumps, filters and other componets. I believe it to be a truth, that simple is better.

    • 0 avatar
      Mark out West

      Very astute and accurate posting about the excess of the Boomers.

      Maybe VW should do a tie-in with Viking and SubZero, and offer granite dashboards.

  • avatar
    A is A

    “Designed as a tool of transportation and social liberation rather than as an expensive, complex consumer good, the Beetle…”

    The Beetle was designed as the kdf-wagen by direct orders of Adolf Hitler.

    You must have extremely peculiar ideas about the meaning of “social liberation”.

    Regarding the “blandeness” of current cars, I suggest you to read “car crashes and other sad stories”…

    Those wonderful hairy chested cars of half a century ago were lethal, unforgiving machines, ready to kill its passengers at 25mph crashes.

    “Unlike subsequent generations, the baby boomers still had the privilege of living during the golden age of the automobile”

    It was the “privilege” of dying impaled against the steering wheel in a 25mpf crash, or the “privilege” or dying under your own car after a rollover, or the “privilege” of Lift-off oversteer to be the last thing in their minds before departing this earth.

    I agree with you in carefully avoiding superfluous frills as electric seats, moonroofs and automatics in my rides. But IMO good suspensions, ABS, ESP and all-around airbags are a must.

    Oh, and that “frugal” Beetle had a dreadful mileage, as a consequence of its “simplicity”.

  • avatar
    crash sled

    A stunningly insightful essay, Mr. N…. you clearly know us.

    “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.”

    Yes, but the baroque era had to end eventually, didn’t it? I sometimes forget what color driving appliances I own. We boomers are getting old and forgetful, yes, but I think baroque got old as well, and then we went after feature and function. Plus safety and environmental came to the fore, as you mention. And we wound up with… blandification. Sad, but inevitable.

    It’ll next get interesting again, when we tear up vehicle architecture and start strapping elec motors to those wheels. But the sound will be gone. It’s like unlimited powerboat racing, with turbojet engines instead of RR Merlins… a whiny jet engine just don’t match the thunder and thrill of that Rolls. All things must pass.

  • avatar

    You could take this piece back 60 years, substitute the Model T for the Beetle, lament the switch from hand-cranked engines to “trouble-prone” starters and batteries or the loss of open air road feel when passenger cabins were enclosed, and most of the piece could still hold. For every time that I reveled in the engineering simplicity of my ’65 Beetle, I would regret twice the lack of “modern” sophistication like a heater/defroster or 12 volt power. Purity of design means limiting function to bare essentials that can make no nod to comfort or safety. Technology advances, tastes change, get used to it.

  • avatar

    Two things-


    “…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. …”

    Are you laying this on us boomers? If your generation was demanding a car that shakes up stale assumptions, you’d have one.


    You are too young to be channeling Andy Rooney.

  • avatar

    And I hope that someone (your son?) will make you re-read this piece years from now when you have entered the “nostalgia” demographic. Boomers are no more self-absorbed or self-indulgent than their children and grandchildren; they just have more wherewithal to indulge fond memories. Marketers and designers are all too good at appealing to those memories, and thus we have cars like the New Beetle and New Mini, which are merely reminiscent of the distinctive and revolutionary vehicles that they “re-imagine”.

    No, I doubt that in 40 years anyone will search out an Accent to restore (if one even survives), but I guarantee that there will be a “re-imagined” Scion 1st gen xB, outfitted with neural implant GPS, infinitely adjustable lumbar support and side bolster seats that swivel for easy entry/exit, powered by a sealed unit electric power plant that requires a state licensed technician to even open without violating Federal transportation safety laws. And you will at least consider getting one.

  • avatar

    My main mode of transportation is a 1993 Toyota pickup. The doors are cardboard with a vinyl covering. Manual roll down windows, no power steering. It’s hardly Baroque I was born in 1957–the peak Baby Boom year. I have been working since June of 1971–helping to prop up the Ponzi scheme called Social Security–something I’ll never see…

  • avatar

    Very good piece Mr. E. Niedermeyer. If you allow me, you should try this more often. As a break from the usual.

    Well, I think everybody gets old. And power steering and air con (not to mention other things, the more you have the more you want remember?) start looking major. I joke sometimes that nowadays I buy an air con, then I think about the car.

    And it’s not just me. Down here we have many cars that are seperated from the Beetle by the skin of their teeth. Tiny, 1.0L engines, but now most are sold w/ 4 doors, not to mention power windows and locks. And even something which is very expensive down here, in these rock bottom cars (Fiat Palio and Uno, VW Gol and Fox, GM Corsa and Celta, Ford Fiesta and Ka among others less sold), are now present in at least 40% of them: air conditioning and power steering (by contrast ABS and air bags are in less than 5% of them).

    This would be unheard of even 10 years ago. I guess people just got a little richer and “demand” and can pay through their noses for the privilege of some comforts.

  • avatar

    Yeah, we were harsh on our parents’ generation too. You’ll find out…
    Still, it’s a good read and you make some interesting points.
    But surely you don’t see kids today rejecting materialism or creature comforts as so many of us did (and still do, at least in my circle). It seems kids today are all about the “bling”, sadly. If they can’t spend it or sell it they don’t see any value. But then again that might just be me falling victim to “old fart syndrome”, I dunno…

    It’s a shame the next beetle will be on the Jetta platform, would have loved to see it join the Up! (cringeworthy name) family. In any event the day of simple, elegant ICEs is long gone. I remember well the smell of my air-cooled VW’s exhaust!

    Maybe there will be an electric car someday that is the model T/Beetle of it’s day.

  • avatar

    In what way does Wrangler Unlimited “offer little to none of the attributes”? It’s still the live front axle. Or do you mean the folding windshield? I would contest it added little to Jeep’s popularity, because being hit in the face with road debris was not very appealing even to boomers. You are clearly getting carried away with your own rhethoric here.

  • avatar

    ” . . . . a rugged simplicity that has evaded Detroit to this day.”

    Ford Model T anyone?

    I think this essay is spot on. Our 17-year old son has no interest in cars or even driving (well, sometimes when a girl is involved). His only concession is that he will argue the superiority of our manual transmission cars with his friends who only know automatics–but I think this more being able to do something (anything) most kids his age can’t do than an interest in cars per se. The local high school still has parking permits to sell now in March! This generation does not care about cars like boomers.

    I suspect that the change will not be one of the form or function of automobiles, not of the way they look or how they are featured, and not even how well they satisfy dream visions or convey identity.

    The big shift will be in the way cars are owned–they way drivers think of themselves as people who sometimes USE cars rather than HAVE them. We’re already seeing it with ZipCar. We’ll look back in 15 years and realize the start of the shift was under our noses during the first decade of the millennium.

    • 0 avatar

      My son was likewise not interested in getting his drivers license, and many kids his age were similar. I don’t think it’s the cars per se, but the fact that kids today don’t have the freedom to roam like we did. From elementary school age I used to disappear with my friends all day, first by bike and later by bus. Getting a drivers license meant we could do all these things faster and easier. Kids now are barely allowed to leave their front yards unsupervised, so what advantage does a car give them?

      PS: I’m with you about being sick of boomers, though. Even though some lists lump me with them, I’ve been hearing about them all my life and am tired of it. To me, boomers are those hippies in the 60’s who actually drove VW’s when they were new (I was a little kid in the 60’s).

    • 0 avatar

      Well said. Neither of my sons (18 years old and 16 years old) has done the work to get their driver’s license. In spite of pressure from my wife and me, who still have to drive them around.

      When I turned 16 (over 30 years ago), I was at the motor vehicle office for my driving test on my birthday. My siblings and friends were the same.

      Times have changed. As has how we use our cars. For better or for worse.

    • 0 avatar

      Neither of my sons (18 years old and 16 years old) has done the work to get their driver’s license. In spite of pressure from my wife and me, who still have to drive them around.
      “Have too”?

    • 0 avatar

      Neither of my sons (18 years old and 16 years old) has done the work to get their driver’s license. In spite of pressure from my wife and me, who still have to drive them around. 

      “Have to”?

      Good point. We chose to drive them around. They chose to beg rides rather than drive themselves.

      Now, a year later, I can report that both my sons now have their driver’s license. (My insurance rates doubled.) The older son is off to college. The younger son now drives himself everywhere, and considers my car his. I now borrow my wife’s car when I need to go anywhere.

      Times change. But in our family, in the past year we’ve moved more towards the way things used to be. We’re all drivers now. My sons became drivers a couple of years later than when I was young. But driving, and having a car, still seem to matter to my sons, and their generation.

  • avatar
    Beta Blocker

    It has been said of us that as boomers, our lives revolve around our automobiles. I am now 57 and have been driving motor vehicles since I was twelve years old, growing up in Montana where the unofficial state motto is “drive free or die.”

    The following list of vehicles, dating from the late 1950s, includes those owned among my immediate family members, vehicles that I drove often enough to form an opinion about concerning their suitability, their quality, their reliability, and their value as transportation solutions. Many were GM vehicles of various brands, a lot of them Pontiacs. I think one can trace the path of GM’s eventual decline through examining this five decade long inventory:

    Beta Blocker’s Five-Decade Family Tie Vehicle List:

    1958 Pontiac Chieftain:
    Sedan / Used / Mother / 1959 -1970 / Junked at ~220,000 miles.
    COMMENTS: Drove like a tank, but was comfortable and generally reliable.
    DISPOSITION: Scrapped in 1970 because of severe corrosion in the frame.
    GOOD: Engine. BAD: Handling, brakes. VERDICT: Good car for its time.

    1964 Pontiac Grand Prix:
    Coupe / Used / Father / 1967-1970 / Sold at ~120,000 miles
    COMMENTS: Big engine and a four-speed manual transmission – a zoommobile.
    DISPOSITION: Too much car for my mother, sold to a Pontiac enthusiast in 1970.
    GOOD: Engine. BAD: Peripheral components. VERDICT: Good car for its time.

    1964 Fiat 1100D:
    Sedan / Used / Father / 1966-1971 / Wrecked at ~110,000 miles.
    COMMENTS: Spartan and simple, comfortable and easy to drive.
    DISPOSITION: Father collided with a horse in 1971; car and horse were totaled.
    GOOD: Utility, economy. BAD: Electrical system. VERDICT: Good car for its time.

    1968 Pontiac Catalina:
    Sedan / Used / Mother / 1970-1978 / Junked at ~275,000 miles.
    COMMENTS: 21 mpg (highway) out of a 400 cubic inch engine – simply amazing.
    DISPOSITION: Scrapped in 1978 because of severe corrosion in the body and frame.
    GOOD: Engine, drivability, reliability. BAD: Rust. VERDICT: Very good car for its time.

    1969 Pontiac Grand Prix:
    Coupe / Used / Me / 1975-1980 / Sold at ~145,000 miles
    COMMENTS: Great styling, variable ratio power steering was outstanding.
    DISPOSITION: Sold to Pontiac enthusiast mechanic/vehicle restorer in 1980.
    GOOD: Engine, drivability. BAD: Reliability. VERDICT: Good car, a few issues.

    1971 Fiat 128:
    Coupe / New / Father / 1971-1985 / Sold at ~160,000 miles.
    COMMENTS: Simple, comfortable, and easy to drive.
    DISPOSITION: Sold to a college student in 1985.
    GOOD: Fuel economy. BAD: Electrical system. VERDICT: Generally a good car.

    1977 GMC ½ ton 4×4:
    Truck / New / Me / 1977-1991 / Sold at ~155,000 miles.
    COMMENTS: A solid, simple, reliable ½ ton 4×4 stick shift truck with a 350 V8.
    DISPOSITION: Sold to a farmer in 1991, still seen occasionally in 2001.
    GOOD: Utility, reliability. BAD: Too few gears. VERDICT: Best GM product I’ve owned.

    1978 Pontiac Catalina:
    Sedan / New / Mother / 1978-1985 / Sold at ~100,000 miles.
    COMMENTS: As good as the ‘68, but my parent’s need for a large car diminished over time.
    DISPOSITION: Sold to a neighbor and his young wife in 1985 as “a big family car.”
    GOOD: Generally solid. BAD: No Issues. VERDICT: Very good car for its time.

    1981 Chevrolet Citation:
    Coupe / Used / Me / 1980-1982 / Sold at ~45,000 miles.
    COMMENTS: My first rude awaking to where GM was headed with their products.
    DISPOSITION: Traded it in for a 1981 Pontiac Firebird.
    GOOD: Utility. BAD: Quality/reliability/drivability. VERDICT: a POS by any standard.

    1981 Chevrolet Camaro:
    Coupe / New / Wife / 1981-1991 / Sold at ~160,000 miles
    COMMENTS: Had a V6 engine, car was generally reliable, no major problems.
    DISPOSITION: Sold to an individual in 1991, still seen on the road as late as 2003.
    GOOD: Utility/drivability. BAD: No issues. VERDICT: An exception to the GM-is-Junk rule.

    1981 Pontiac Firebird:
    Coupe / Used / Me / 1982-1987 / Sold at ~65,000 miles
    COMMENTS: My second personal experience with a “GM builds junk” type of car.
    DISPOSITION: Sold to a mechanic in 1987. Most of its paint had flaked off by then.
    GOOD: Styling. BAD: Quality/reliability. VERDICT: Mostly a POS, a few redeeming points.

    Note: In 1987, after selling the Firebird for a pittance, I decided that never again would I ever purchase another General Motors product. It was obvious that GM management had fallen into the mode of Creeping MBA-ism and they were deliberately engineering the quality and reliability out of their products to save a few dollars on every car. However, my parents and my in-laws remained loyal GM customers to the end of their days.

    1985 Buick Skylark:
    Coupe / New / Parents / 1985-1985 / Lemon-lawed at ~400 miles.
    COMMENTS: Transaxle disintegrated completely the third week after initial delivery.
    DISPOSITION: Parents returned it to the Pontiac/Oldsmobile dealer for a new Pontiac.
    GOOD: Nothing. BAD: Quality/reliability. VERDICT: An egregious example of the GM-is-Junk rule.

    1986 Pontiac Grand Am:
    Sedan / New / Parents / 1985-1990 / Traded at ~60,000 miles.
    COMMENTS: Parents need a smaller car after their retirements. Fit the need perfectly.
    DISPOSITION: Father got the new car itch, traded it in for a 1990 Grand Am, to his regret.
    GOOD: Utility/drivability. BAD: No issues VERDICT: An exception to the GM-is-Junk rule.

    1988 Mercury Sable:
    Wagon / New / Wife, Me / 1988-2002 / Sold at ~145,000 miles.
    COMMENTS: Needed a wagon for a growing family. Fit the need perfectly.
    DISPOSITION: Sold to a local Ford salesman in 2002. Still on the road in 2010.
    GOOD: Utility/drivability. BAD: Reliability VERDICT: Very useful car, but had reliability issues.

    1990 Pontiac Grand Am:
    Sedan / New / Parents / 1990-1991 / Traded at ~15,000 miles.
    COMMENTS: The ‘90 was a de-contented, de-engineered ‘86, a certified GM-made POS.
    DISPOSITION: Father traded it in with low miles for a fraction of its new car price.
    GOOD: Nothing. BAD: Quality/reliability. VERDICT: Mediocre car with many quality issues.

    1991 Pontiac Grand Prix:
    Sedan / New / Parents / 1991-2004 / Given away at ~50,000 miles.
    COMMENTS: A faint shadow of what a Pontiac (any Pontiac) had been in the 1960s.
    DISPOSITION: The last car my parents owned, it was given away in 2004 after they passed on.
    GOOD: Comfortable. BAD: Quality/reliability. VERDICT: Mediocre car with many quality issues.

    1992 Ford 1-Ton 4×4:
    Crew Cab / New / Me, wife / 1992-Present / Now at ~120,000 miles.
    COMMENTS: Needed a big off-road four-door 4×4 for a still growing family.
    DISPOSITION: Still on the road, still reliable, still useful. We see no reason to sell it.
    GOOD: Utility. BAD: No issues. VERDICT: Has met all expectations for 18 years.

    1996 Chevy S-10 Blazer:
    4×4 SUV / Used / Mother-in-Law / 1997-2006 / Sold at ~30,000 miles.
    COMMENTS. Dexcool thoroughly plugged the engine block with a thick red sludge.
    DISPOSITION: Last car my mother-in-law owned. Sold to a GM mechanic.
    GOOD: Utility. BAD: Most Everything. VERDICT: Competitor for “worst GM-made POS ever”.

    1999 Honda Accord:
    Sedan / Used / Wife / 2000-Present / Now at ~170,000 miles.
    COMMENTS: From an all-around perspective, the best vehicle we’ve ever owned.
    DISPOSITION: Given to our youngest son in 2009 for a college car. Still reliable.
    GOOD: Everything. BAD: No issues. VERDICT: Excellent car even after ten years.

    2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser:
    Sedan / Used / Me / 2001-2007 / Wrecked at ~85,000 miles.
    COMMENTS: Reliable, comfortable, fun to drive, excellent utility, fit & finish flawless.
    DISPOSITION: Destroyed in crash. (Me: three days unconscious in ICU, a year recovering.)
    GOOD: Most everything. BAD: No issues. VERDICT: A great car, it saved my life.

    2008 Honda Accord:
    Sedan / New / Wife / 2008-Present / Now at ~28,000 miles.
    COMMENTS: Despite criticisms of it being “bloated” it is still a Honda Accord.
    DISPOSITION: Likely to be one of the last vehicles we purchase.
    GOOD: Most everything. BAD: Dash layout is goofus. VERDICT: So far so good.

    2005 Ford Ranger 4×4:
    Truck / Used / Son / 2008-Present / Now at ~30,000 miles.
    COMMENTS: Son needed a small 4×4 truck for outdoor activities, college, winter use.
    DISPOSITION: Given to the outdoorsman son for a college vehicle. Good choice.
    GOOD: Most everything. BAD: No issues. VERDICT: So far, so good.

    2009 Mazda 6i Grand Touring:
    Sedan / New / Me / 2009-Present / Now at ~8,000 miles.
    COMMENTS: Closest new car I could find that is similar to our 1999 Accord.
    DISPOSITION: Likely to be one of the last vehicles we purchase.
    GOOD: Excellent handling. BAD: Console is intrusive. VERDICT: So far, so good.

    At 57, I still have to work another ten years to put all those children we had through college. Future new additions to my Boomer Motor Vehicle Stable might include a Mazda Miata of some vintage, unless of course Mazda takes my suggestion to improve the Mazda 6 by mating a 6-speed manual transmission to their V6 engine, at which point the 6i would be traded in for a true zoom-zoom version of the same car.

    • 0 avatar

      Beta Blocker,
      My current daily driver is a ’99 Accord 5-speed. I’ve got you beat–188k. It’s my best car to date. I’m same age as you. The best car of my childhood was the ’70 Valiant. My parents had that one until ’86, twice as long as they’d had any previous car. If they’d kept it up–upholstery repairs and body repairs, they probably could have kept it a lot longer. Their last car was a ’95 Volvo 940, bought used in ’99. My parents are gone, but my nephew still drives that car. It’s probably the best they ever had.

  • avatar

    Yes, VW didn’t come close to capturing the spirit of the Beetle. It wasn’t all about a curved hood and fenders; it was about poking a finger in the eye of a fat, arrogant, bloated Establishment that had no idea what the public needed or wanted. Simplicity and honestly was what people wanted.

    Automakers have no idea what people want, and their assumptions are almost comical.

    A good example is Ford with their Edge, which was supposed to be a replacement of sorts for the Escape. They seem completely baffled at the fact that buyers prefer the scrappy, simple Escape to the Fat Bastard Edge (btw-the Edge dashboard is level to my chin — I’m 5’11’ — how do shorter women drive these things?).

    The automakers build vehicles by focus group, and so the gadgets increase, the vehicle grows bigger, and the engines more powerful. What focus group is going to say they want fewer features, less interior space, and less power?

    Where is the leadership? GM actually blames the focus groups for the Aztek, because they said they wanted these ridiculous features. Of course, a focus group is going to say “yes” when asked if a built-in tent is a good idea.

    Strong leadership needs to step in and say “enough is enough”. Enough gimmicky, overweight, over-featured, over-priced vehicles.

    • 0 avatar
      crash sled

      ‘Where is the leadership? GM actually blames the focus groups for the Aztek, because they said they wanted these ridiculous features. Of course, a focus group is going to say “yes” when asked if a built-in tent is a good idea.

      Strong leadership needs to step in and say “enough is enough”. Enough gimmicky, overweight, over-featured, over-priced vehicles.”


      Precisely, geo. The D3 turned over leadership to the Marketing and Design geeks, who flitted hither and yon chasing market share, and gimmicked up the offerings with whatever latest gimmick they could squeeze into the development cycle, always at a late date, and always with maximum risk.

      Hey, nothing wrong with including robust content, but no wine before its time. And when the final decisions are made, the most critical ones, you gotta chase the Marketing and Design geeks out of the room. They scurry around like ferrets on crack, and will destroy your business model, as we’ve seen, if somebody with some sense isn’t there to provide leadership.

  • avatar

    Very interesting, thought provoking editorial. (See my TTAC article on the beetle:

    In answer to your question: >>>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.

    It was both, except that boomers were not old enough to buy cars yet until the beetle had already become popular. the first boomers became of driving age in 1962, and they weren’t even the main car buyers when the Japanese econoboxes began invading. (Of course, we gave the beetle its hippie shtick.) But the beetle did show people that there were cars that could be driven a lot more cheaply than most American cars; that there was an alternative to all that expensive luxury. And people bought it, and the Japanese successors in droves.

    It was pre-boomers who first popularized the beetles, and who were the major people popularizing the original Japanese imports, people like Bob Dorfman, a Harvard economist who owned the first beetle I ever rode in (probably in the late ’50s), which was replaced with a mid-to-late ’60s Dodge Dart wagon. After that, they went to Japanese (Hondas and Toyotas). Boomers undoubtedly were among the major buyers of Japanese econoboxes but I have no idea what percentage of boomers bought them. It was probably a small %, simply because they took a while to sweep the middle of the country, and even now, well, someone rescue me here: what percentage of the US market do Japanese cars have? I doubt it’s ever even been half.

    I think one critical thing you missed is that people tend to be nostalgic not so much about the first cars they bought, but about the cars their families had during their childhoods. Thus, boomers are nostalgic about VWs, among other cars, and I am particularly nostalgic about the Peugeot 404 my family bought when I was 12.

    I would also say that if the current generation coming of age wants cars with all sorts of electronic connectivity, that’s a malign influence. In answer to the question of what the current young generation would look back upon with nostalgia, it could have been the original xB, if they hadn’t changed it. In this context, PN’s article on the original xB as the spirit of the old Beetle is well worth a look.

  • avatar

    @Beta Blocker

    I haven’t had nearly as many cars as you, but I’m almost the same age, and like you have a ’99 Accord (5-speed), 170k, which has treated me extremely well and which I love.

  • avatar

    In the prior 20 or so years I have read of more then one boot camp drill instructor proclaim of the number of recruits who had scurried through their oh-so protected childhood with nary a street fight under their belts.

    Buncha’ wimps.

    On my turf back in the 60s and early 70s, during the heart of the Baby Boom era, (“class of ’56, one year prior to the peak boom year of 1957) regular trips to the bike rack after school and various levels of pummeling were commonalities.

    I suggest you post-Boomers always think twice before messing with us old codgers.

    Many of us can still mess you up.

    Sure, 20 more years may slow us down but that can will be a fine equalizer.

  • avatar


    Please count me as an exception to the theory that folks are nostalgic for the vehicles of their youth. Being born right at the tail end of the baby boom, the vehicles of my youth were a bunch of unreliable, overweight, understeering smog-strangled rustbuckets that are missed by few. I look at the nineties and zeroes as the golden age – man, it’s hard to go too wrong any more. What do we have to complain about anymore, hard plastics? I’ll be shocked if someone finds a way to turn back the clock and still sell cars.

  • avatar

    Paul, you had me at Enginealia.

  • avatar

    Whoops… not only wrongly worded… in the wrong article. Curse you Firefox and your multi-tabbed goodness! Drat… the form loaded wrong and I can’t erase it, either.

    Oh well.

    The problem with modern cars is personality. And the problem with personality is customer clinics.

    Every time a manufacturer builds a car with personality… something so loveable and perfectly flawed out-of-the-box that it builds up a cult following, a manufacturer gets so excited over it that they decide to do their best not to copulate things up for its successor. They review market statistics, do surveys, hold consultations, host customer clinics (hey, the food is great) and come up with the same answer each time:

    “It’d be better if it had more x.” X in this case is something you get in mainstream cars that you don’t get in this particular car.

    So they build it with more x. Be it passenger space, engine , ride comfort, power or cupholders, they build it with more of it. It becomes a caricature of its former self. A new xB is a pretty nifty compact SUV, but it’s no longer a cheap and cheery economical xB. A new Honda Fit is a much more comfortable car than before, but it’s no longer the perky and eager little car it used to be.

    Of course, they still have more of what they used to have compared to their competitors, but the unique selling proposition is watered down in the mainstreaming of the cars.

    Which is why I’m looking at a first generation Honda Fit for a second car. Nostalgia’s sake.

    Everything gets older faster nowadays.

    • 0 avatar

      An xB is no kind of SUV or CUV.

      Its a compact, low slung, slab sided, sparce interiored, 4pass, box on wheels, with little to no ground clearance its closest competitor is the Element and or the Cube or Kia Soul.

      Only when its sold in the UK as the Urban Cruiser… is it still masquerading as something its not.

      Its marketed, designed and shown in concept form with game systems bulging out of its roof, with its only redeeming quality is its price, its ability to be spec built and for its youth culture / design.

      It utilitarian only with a unibody frame and that’s it.

  • avatar

    “Baby boomers” is a media construct. As though everyone within a certain age range uniformly holds the same opinions, salaries, and preferences of everyone else in that range.

    As though the years 1946-1964 construct a single generation, and not, actually two generations, since by the media’s own definition a baby boomer can have a child who is also a baby boomer.

    As though the ‘boom’ was really so big. Check out the actual birth figures for the last 60 years. There was an uptick after WWII, but it was not massive. And there have been additional years with similar birth numbers since then, including in the 90s.

    The youngest baby boomers are almost 50 years old. We’re still trying to say that boomers are responsible for car evolution over the last 30 years that non-boomers have been buying cars also?

  • avatar

    As possibly the only commenter here who has owned both a Beetle (1300 Special .. Special in that it had a glove box cover and a fuel gauge) and a New Beetle (the Turbo version), I find many of these comments hilarious and at best, woefully ill informed. Don’t let that stop you! The Internet would stop if folks didn’t post just because they don’t know the facts.

    There is NO way I’d every try to categorize air cooled ownership. The forum I run with 8000+ members has so many different types of owner, that it’s hard to figure out if there’s any one demographic that owns them more than any other. It’s such a classless and niche-less car.

    Most NB owners I know (and I know many through membership of and my local VW club) are young folks 25-40 years old. Most are women, but a few are men like me. Contrary to popular opinion, the blokes aren’t gay, just very sure of their sexuality. I went to the local haberdashery store and bought MORE gerberas so I could have a few of every color. When you can drive in your car with flowers in the dash vase, that’s when you’re swinging with the big kahunas in the trouser snake department.

    If you want to pick up chicks, buy one of these cars. Women approached me all the time I had it. A young lady even asked to be photographed in it (don’t worry, her parents were there – this is at a VW club event). Very few gay guys asked me about the car, so if you’re unsure how you’d handle talking to an openly gay man, don’t worry. They mostly drive big butch SUVs and for the most part are completely uninterested in the New Beetle.

    I loved that car, even if it was an unreliable PoS that had 21 dealer visits in the barely 24 months I owned it. It’s the ones that hurt you the most that you love the most after you get rid of them. I might even get one of the new ones. I was waiting for the new Polo, but I think I’ll wait for the New New Beetle.

  • avatar

    Worry not you youngins … once the USofA slips in to 3rd world status due to the collapse of our paper shuffling economy (think the UK after WW2 overlaid with teaming hoards of the “undocumented”) we will see plenty of Briggs & Straton powered “cars”. Rich folks will have a Nano SLS Executive Sportmatic DeLuxe and a top line SUV will be a Mahindra Scorpio. However, most of us will be lucky if we can see these drive by from our vantage point at the bus stop. One nice thing about being a boomer in addition to the sex, drugs and rock and roll was, until recently, always feeling like things were getting better.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Ok editor, you talked it (with considerable eloquence), now you gotta walk it.

    No more “snarky” pieces about wacky European cars that break boring American visual conventions — you want a rich market with unconventional niche cars, you gotta give em a break. Right? It’s all about character, personality is premium — it’s not about the mass market, isn’t that what you say?

    And no more car reviews that focus on the predictable. 0-60 in under eight seconds is a must? Says who? You said you want simplicity and unconventionality, well then don’t demand testosterone on four wheels. Every car needs a minimum of twelve airbags? Evidence, please that this is a must and not yet another nice-to-have.

    Judging from so many reviews at so many websites, not excluding TTAC, you’d think every single new car, to get a thumbs-up treatment (no: to penetrate the snark-wall), needs a) leather seats, b) a soft-plastic interior, c) minimum 300 horses, d) a clinic-proof exterior. Boring, boring, boring!

    You’re the editor, bring it on!

  • avatar


    I didn’t say I wanted to own one of these land yachts, and I’m not particularly keen to drive them (except for the Peugeot 404 of my youth). But I love the way they look–the ones specifically from my youth. But I’d much rather have my Accord than any car from my youth, for the reasons you imply, and because it is a wonderful car to drive. But that doesn’t keep me from being nostalgic.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    Being born right at the tail end of the baby boom, the vehicles of my youth were a bunch of unreliable, overweight, understeering smog-strangled rustbuckets that are missed by few.

    Amen. I love reminiscing about the style of the ’70s cars, but they sucked handling, mileage, and land yacht wise. I remember, as a tail boomer, when the ’74 Mustang II came out – I thought ‘brilliant’. While the donor chassis wasn’t Olympian (modified Pinto), the idea was quite bright. The ’73 Mustang was too big, too slow, and cramped, despite having it’s longest wheelbase yet. The II gave greater interior room in a much smaller footprint, with 4-6-8 cyl engine choices.

    And of course the nearly seismic shift in my car-driving generation when that original Accord showed up.

    I love simple cars (my only mandatory needs are power seat, power windows, a/c, cruise control, and a sunroof. Life is too short to live without a sunroof). All one needs in life is 150-250 hp, depending on the weight of your vehicle. It’s not how fast you go, it’s how you go fast. Give me a howling 4 cyl DOHC with good handling and I’m a happy man.

    These are the good old days….

    • 0 avatar

      DaveM writes:”I love simple cars (my only mandatory needs are power seat, power windows, a/c, cruise control, and a sunroof. Life is too short to live without a sunroof). All one needs in life is 150-250 hp, depending on the weight of your vehicle. It’s not how fast you go, it’s how you go fast. Give me a howling 4 cyl DOHC with good handling and I’m a happy man.”

      I’m assuming you wrote this as sarcasm, right?

      I mean that laundry list of power options and amenities would have made a pretty nice Buick or Caddy back in the timeframe we’re talking about. When the older of my two kids was just learning to drive, I struggled to find a 5 speed car that didn’t have all of the stuff listed above. I did find one eventually, but it was pretty hammered. I kept it anyway. It reminds me of my cars that I could afford back in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Beaters with no power assists at all.

  • avatar

    The New Beetle (if you read the story of its genesis in “Getting the Bugs Out” is primary source material. The design brief was for a simpler car than the eventual platform chosen – The Beetle One was built on the Polo platform, something not seen in the USA.

    Anyone who says that US drivers are looking for simple, honest, reliable, frugal transport just has to look at how poorly such cars sell, even in white box form (Chevy Aveo, for a bland and not so frugal example and the Smart for a not-so-bland, frugal example).

    Emissions standards require certain engine technologies to be employed – the days of carbs and straight through exhausts are gone even for the most bare bone cars. Safety standards require certain occupant protection levels – and rightfully so. Owners expect CD players, A/C, power steering, ABS brakes, ESC, hydraulic clutch, power windows, some airbags, and power locks even on the cheapest cars. And when a manufacturer only makes cars with these features, they’re not a lot more expensive to build in quantity than bare bones versions, such as the Tata Nano.

    Once you add these “basic” features into a $15k car, you may as well make it interesting.

    The New Beetle’s only real compromise was its trunk. Way bigger than a real Beetle, but still quite small compared to the Golf donor platform. At least being a hatch, you could fold back the rear seats for a good 40+ cubic meters of space (bigger than a Crown Vic by another trunk and a bit) … if you didn’t need to put someone in the back seats. Interior space was more than fine – it’s the only car I’ve ever owned that I could wear my Akubra in without taking it off before getting in.

  • avatar

    There are many reasons why Boomers rejected their parent’s cars, just as they rejected their parent’s food, coffee, houses, clothing, respect, class, and judgement. It has always been about them. They don’t know differently.

    If Boomer’s parents drove Beetles, then Beetles would have been rejected. If Boomer’s parents lived in downtown urban communities, then Boomers would have praised suburbia, (instead of living there and mocking it). If Boomer’s parents were atheist, then Boomers would be church-going. If Boomer’s parents had one child, Boomers would have had eight children. Boomers are who they are because they define themselves by what their parents were not. Since their parents were self-sacrificing, patriotic war heros that survived the Great Depression, Boomers do not display the same level of self-sacrifice or patriotism, patience or virtues, as their parents.

    Boomers believe that they are the most enlightened, most brilliant, clever, fair, unjudgemental, generous, peaceloving, and brutally honest generation in the history of humankind. They were raised to worship intellectuals, not results, professors, not businesspeople, government, not their neighbors. Nothing is ever their fault. Everything they think is right, they believe is right, unquestionably. They honestly believe that every idea they put forth is the greatest idea ever created by any previous or later generation.

    Boomers were born pampered by loving parents, nurtured in new schools, raised in new suburbian paradises, given college educations at level unprecedented in history, stalked by marketers to see what they wore, what they drank, what they smoked, what they listened to, what they watched on television, in the movies or on the stage. The size of the Boomers meant economic wealth for those who could tap into their egocentric world. So Boomers are our first spoiled generation, and today as they are retiring, they are still focused on themselves, and believe that everyone else is focused on them too, just as they were when Boomers were teens and young adults.

    They are the most self-absorbed generation this country has ever suffered under. I just hope we can outlast them so that we can repair what their arrogance and selfishness has wrecked, or will be wrecked before they are all gone.

  • avatar
    crash sled

    VanillaDude, you edited your post, but I read your original post on the email update, and frankly as a boomer I think it describes us collectively fairly well, so with apologies to you as necessary, let me reprint that more accurate ending to your post, however abrupt some might think it is (I agree with every word of it.). I don’t blame those who follow us for being bitter about what the boomers have done collectively. It’s shameful.


    “Boomers believe in free lunches paid for by those who can afford to pay for their free lunches. It isn’t surprising that the generation that had been given everything, believes that everything they want can be gotten regardless of whether they have earned it. What is their desires and wises, become “rights” to Boomers. Since they believe the world revolves around them, they now believe as they retire, that they should be able to get anything they desire to stay youthful and perpetually adored.

    As a guy born after the Boomers, I have lived off the crumbs they cast off. The sooner the Boomers die off, the better it will be for our society, because societies don’t survive when one of it’s generations feel as the Boomers do. We will be fortunate to even survive with our liberties and freedoms after they have decided they need to take them so that we can earn more for them to take.

  • avatar

    Strong leadership needs to step in and say “enough is enough”. Enough gimmicky, overweight, over-featured, over-priced vehicles.”

    Although not with cars, this is exactly what Steve Jobs does at Apple (and to a less visible extent at Pixar). Some people complain that “this or that” feature is missing from his products, but he has a vision that keeps things under control. It’s lucky for him that lots of customers agree with his vision.

  • avatar

    The niche formerly occupied by the Beetle is now occupied by a somewhat new invention: reliable used cars that can last for hundreds of thousands of miles.

    All these retro cars are just based on pure nostalgia. The only reason you don’t see Ford coming out with a new retro Model T is because most of the people old enough to be nostalgic about them are dead (I’d love to see a stylist draw up a new T though)

  • avatar

    Therein lies the problem. The New Beetle wasn’t a terrible car, but it was terribly compromised for the sake of style… which became its only unique selling proposition. The same can be said, to a certain extent, of the New Mini… which at least had the decency of being extremely interesting to drive… part of the original Mini’s USP that made it through to the remake. Unfortunately the new Mini sacrifices too much of the incredible interior space (incredible for its size, that is) that the old Mini was known for simply to be the best driver’s car it can possibly be.

    This isn’t a safety thing, mind you… the new Mini sacrifices a lot of interior space to fit the complex and bulky BMW Z-axle in the rear. This limits rear seat space and gives the Mini boot space that isn’t much bigger than the SMART ForTwo.

    Part of the charm of the old Mini was its ability to extract so much performance from such a simple suspension pacakge. BMW didn’t want to take such chances with the new one, and threw everything they had at the new one, in order to make sure it stuck.

    If you want quirky little cars that consume very little fuel, are fun to drive and are incredibly practical (as well as incredibly safe for their size), you have no further to look than the Honda Fit and the original Scion xB. Cars which are quirky, full of personality, have all of the “basics” people need and are much safer than the tinny little Mini or the “don’t drive on bridges in crosswinds” Beetle or even some of the body-on-frame relics that still populate our roads (both in terms of active safety and crash structure integrity).

    And yet these cars are becoming increasingly fatter as customers demand more space, more power, more features… at least Honda has avoided the temptation to fit a 1.8 liter engine to the Fit and call it a Maxi-Fit, though the new car lacks much of the spunk of the older one… Toyota, on the other hand, went the whole hog with the xB… turning it from a Gen-Y poster-child (almost as iconic for the anti-car generation as the Beetle was for its time) into a fancier looking RAV4.

    People think that it all comes down to safety. It doesn’t. You can still have cars that have charm and personality even with the smothering weight of safety requirements. It’s all the other things that customers demand… or seem to demand… that make cars today overcomplicated, fussy, and hard to love. Present them with an alternative that shows them that different can also be good, and they’ll buy it in droves.

    And then come the inevitable customer clinics… and the ruination of the product. Whoever mentioned Steve Jobs is spot on. I’ve long been an Apple skeptic, and I don’t own an Apple product… but every time I use one… it just feels so right. Apple focuses on making their products efficient, simple and user-friendly instead of trying to keep up with the joneses… and it works. Apple users may be damn smug… but they have a good reason to be. While the rest of us are stressing over multitasking ability, processor speed and storage space, Apple users are simply enjoying their products.

  • avatar

    Great article. Unfortunately calling for smaller and simpler goes no-where. The market is what it is, and baby boomers are a part of it just like enthusiasts.

    A new base Fiesta (or equivalent) is 100 times the car that the VW Beetle ever was, meets all our criteria for simple, cheap, light, sporty, is even safe, but none of us are buying them. It’s not sporty enough. It’s not light enough. Or it’s too light, not safe in an accident with a pickup truck. That’s how we justify it though it proves that we are hypocritical in our regular big appliances.

    What we should do is put our money where our mouth is. If we could convince 10,000 enthusiasts to buy a base Fiesta for $13K, start a whole nationwide community of get-togethers, forums, mods, aftermarket parts, etc, we would be living the dream within a year or two.

    Just the idea makes me smile and want to whip out the line of credit. But it won’t happen.

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