Is America’s love affair with cars really hitting the brakes?

SOME young guys still love cars: This is my grandson two years ago, when he was just learning to stand.

SOME young guys still love cars: This is my grandson two years ago, when he was just learning to stand.

…Mom&Dad&Buddy&Sis in the suburbs… There they go, in the family car, a white Pontiac Bonneville sedan— the family car! —a huge crazy god-awful-powerful fantasy creature to begin with, 327-horsepower, shaped like twenty-seven nights of lubricious luxury brougham seduction— you’re already there, in Fantasyland, so why not move off your snug-harbor quilty-bed dead center and cut loose—go ahead and say it—Shazam!—juice it up to what it’s already aching to be: 327,000 horsepower, a whole superhighway long and soaring , screaming on toward…Edge City, and ultimate fantasies, current and future…Billy Batson said Shazam! And turned into Captain Marvel.

— The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Dear Millennials,

As sick as I am of hearing about y’all (when everyone knows the only truly fascinating generation was the Baby Boom), come on home. All is forgiven, if you are truly ushering in an era when America will be a little less crazy about cars. From The Washington Post over the weekend:

Cruising toward oblivion

America’s once magical – now mundane – love affair with cars

… For nearly all of the first century of automobile travel, getting your license meant liberation from parental control, a passport to the open road. Today, only half of millennials bother to get their driver’s licenses by age 18. Car culture, the 20th-century engine of the American Dream, is an old guy’s game.

“The automobile just isn’t that important to people’s lives anymore,” says Mike Berger, a historian who studies the social effect of the car. “The automobile provided the means for teenagers to live their own lives. Social media blows any limits out of the water. You don’t need the car to go find friends.”

Much of the emotional meaning of the car, especially to young adults, has transferred to the smartphone, says Mark Lizewskie, executive director of the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum in Hershey, Pa. “Instead of Ford versus Chevy, it’s Apple versus Android, and instead of customizing their ride, they customize their phones with covers and apps,” he says. “You express yourself through your phone, whereas lately, cars have become more like appliances, with 100,000-mile warranties.”…

Personally, I have my doubts that folks who are in the time of life when hormones rule most dominantly are really satisfied with, say, interacting with the opposite sex via text rather than in the back seat.

But whatever the cause, if there’s an opening here for public transportation (which I love) and bicycles and walking, a chance at a less Hummeresque future, well then good for you, young people! The Energy Party salutes you! (But I think you boys should maybe get your T-levels checked, just to be on the safe side.)

I’ll close with a couple of pictures of my family’s (that is, my parents’) favorite car ever, the 396-horsepower 1965 Impala Super Sport (cue the sound of Tim the Tool Man grunting). This isn’t the actual car, but it looked just like the one(s) in these photos. I never got to drive this one (I was only 11 when we got it), so I feel like I missed out:



20 thoughts on “Is America’s love affair with cars really hitting the brakes?

  1. Mark Stewart

    My best friend in high school drove that car – the Impala SS. I think I have still never seen a bigger truck on a car; I think the thing held at least 6 kegs…

    Turning and braking were a little scary though, as was the knife-edge metal dash daring the passenger to distract the driver.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, that was the 1963, which was different from the ’64, which was so different from the ’65 that you wouldn’t recognize it as the same model. By modern standards, they looked more like 20 years apart.

      That was such an amazing, dynamic time

      Anyway, my parents thought the black-leather bucket seats on the SS were extremely comfortable.

      Of course, they weren’t conducive to boyfriend and girlfriend sitting close…

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Yes, the 63 was the last of the flat bone-breakers. Apparently in periods of high winds those models would be banned from highways in the flat breadbasket of our great land because of the tendency they had to get picked up and tossed about….

  2. bud

    I had to take a defensive driving class at work recently and the instructor showed us a crash test video of a 1959 Chevy Impala crashing into a fixed barrier. Then we were shown a similar test with a 2009 Chevy Malibu, a vehicle of comparable size. The crash dummies in the old Chevy were deemed fatalities with extremely high stress readings recorded by the sensors. Conversely, although the dummies in the newer vehicle did sustain some injuries, notably a broken ankle, all were certain to have survived to crash another day. In a world with many hazards we can be thankful than humans are very adept at improving the safety of their machines. So while we can wax nostalgic at the supposed wonders of older cars it is important to note that we have indeed come a long way.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      Yes–Tom and Ray Magliozzi often pointed out the benefits of a newer vehicle, and bewailed the practice of giving the teen driver in the house the oldest car, the one no doubt that lacked so many newer safety features. While it may make more financial sense to have the crash-prone in the least valuable vehicle, it certainly does not make sense in terms of maximizing safety!

      1. Mark Stewart

        My parents gave me a 1966 Mustang – with the V-8 and a four speed Hurst stick.

        They also threw in the insurance – liability only. The message? I had but one opportunity to walk or take the bus for the next three years if I wasn’t careful. While I had a lot of fun in that car, the only accident that I had was a hit from behind by another driver running a red light.

        The thing about young drivers is they need to learn (quickly) good, anticipatory decision making – and also that they are kids and they are going to fail at times. Accidents are almost unavoidable; and I think for my kids, I would rather go with the late-model safe car than with a “cool” car. Sorry boys!

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          I also understood that my wheels (the use of the family’s 8 year old Chrysler) depended on not having accidents, and behaved accordingly, but I suspect you and I had somewhat better developed brains w/r/t consequences….

          1. Rose

            I got my parents’ 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale. Dark blue. I learned to parallel park in that beast. It’s still my favorite car! Some dinky little compact smashed into the side of it one morning on my way to school. It just dinged the door a bit but his car looked much worse.

            1. Kathryn Fenner

              I learned to parallel park (sort of) in a 1968 Chrysler 300, which was only slightly smaller than the newer other car, a 1972 Chrysler Newport. I think the first half of the 1970s was peak size for cars, until the SUV craze hit….
              Man, can you even parallel park a Hummer?

              1. Norm Ivey

                I taught my daughters to parallel park in a Dodge Grand Caravan, which is a bit longer than a normal minivan. Both learned it well. We also have a Smart Car and were sorely tempted to let them take the driving test in it, just for giggles.

              2. Kathryn Fenner

                In a SmartCar, you’d have to sit so close to the driving test giver–in my case, a fat, old patrol officer—ew

            2. Brad Warthen Post author

              Rose, I’ll see your ’73 Olds, and raise it by 15 years.

              The first car that was sort of, kind of mine was a 1958 Olds 88. It looked like this one.

              My Dad bought it from another officer when we arrived in Hawaii in 1970. I want to say he paid $175 for it. You have to understand that in 1970, a car from 1958 was absurdly old. Only antique collectors drove cars that old. Today, I drive a pickup that is three years older than that Olds was, and doesn’t really seem old to me at all.

              My Dad went to sea shortly after we got there, and was gone for about seven months of the year that I lived in Hawaii. So for most of the time we were there, that was my car while my Mom drove our almost new Impala.

              It was unbelievably huge and heavy; the chrome on it alone probably weighed more than some cars today. It had a backseat that you could hold a reception in. The suspension was such that it bounced heavily up and down on the hilly roads of Hawaii, and the effect was maximized in the back seat, where you could experience brief instants of weightlessness. I remember particularly driving over the hilly contours of Salt Lake Drive with several of my friends in the backseat going “Woo!” the way people did at the end of The Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” grooving over the wavy bounce.

              It didn’t have a working gas gauge, so I had to keep track of mileage on the odometer to know when to add gas. It got about 5 miles to the gallon, or less. The tank held at least 20 gallons, and if I didn’t fill up by the time I had gone 100 miles I would run out. I wasn’t particularly attentive to the mileage and ran out of gas several times. But hey, on an island you’re never far from home.

              One reason the mpg was so bad was that it didn’t idle well. When stopped at intersections, I had to keep my foot on the gas ever so slightly to keep it from cutting off, which usually necessitated holding my left foot on the gas at the same time.

              It had its flaws, among them the fact that it was not the Earth’s best friend, but I enjoyed that behemoth…

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                Oh, and when we left Hawaii in 1971, my Dad sold it to another guy for the same amount he’d bought it for. I think it had been passed from sailor to sailor that way for years…

          2. Norm Ivey

            My use of the family car was dependent on my maintaining a B average in high school. That requirement may have made the difference between my graduating on time or not at all.

            I was allowed to use either a 1976 Pinto or a 1970 half-ton Ford pickup. I chose the truck on Friday nights. Otherwise it was the Pony.

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