End the Debate about Car Culture

One of the upsides to getting walking pneumonia is that I have the all-day opportunity to scour the internet for all things car. I’ve shopped for E34 BMW 5 series wagons with manual transmissions, watched an electric Miata run a nine second quarter mile and a 300 SL go all out at the Bonneville Salt Flats, read up on the latest car app tech and seen countless amazing photos of the coolest cars from around the globe.

You don’t need to be sick to search these things out— rather, it was the time I had on my hands, and the seemingly unending rabbit holes of car-oriented specificity I discovered, that cemented for me just how much diversity and interest there is in car culture today. There are more venues than ever before for anyone who has an interest in cars to express their passions and discover new ones.

This doesn’t stop broad-spectrum pontificators, often baby boomers, many of whom felt that car enthusiasm began with drive-ins and ended with the oil crisis (tongue in cheek here— how does it feel to be generationally stereotyped?) from declaring that car culture isn’t what it used to be, and that America has lost its love affair with the car.

The latest assertion of doom and gloom is by NPR’s Frank Deford, who suggests that NASCAR’s decline is a broader indication of America’s turn away from the automobile as entertainment or lifestyle. The problem with this, as with many similar assertions, is the brush strokes these public interest commentators use. It’s very easy to cherry pick a statistic and use it as an indicator (without consideration to the causes of the statistic), and it’s frustrating when nothing else is considered.

The flaw with the NASCAR as indicator argument is readily apparent for anyone who’s taken the time to observe NASCAR’s product over its ascendency and subsequent decline. It became popular in the late ‘90‘s and early 2000‘s because of the marketing of personalities like Earnhardt, Stewart, and Harvick, and the strength of the battles between the car makes. Over time, that personality and strength was forsaken in the name of cookie cutter drivers who doubled as ad-men (and women), tracks that had little difference week to week, and cars that were unintelligible from one another. The quality of the racing didn’t help, nor did NASCAR’s changing rules on the fly, nor did the sinking economy. A weekend at the track had become incredibly expensive, and there was an aura of too much of the same. NASCAR hit its ceiling and arguably cared more about dollars than the integrity of the sport, and it is now where it sits today.

The answer about the strength of America’s car culture lies somewhere between the generalist and the auto enthusiasts who are clamoring to defend their hobby. The truth is that the automobile has a lot more competition for the American psyche than it did fifty years ago, lending some credence to the idea car culture isn’t the dominant force in America that is once was. Does that mean that car culture generally and cars as a part of lifestyle are on the decline? Not in the least. Economic data, specific trends, and the strength of the automotive community prove otherwise.

The Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) monitors the sales of performance and style accessories for automobiles. Market trends for this industry are a good indicator of the strength or weakness of car culture in America— after all, hot rodding one’s vehicle, whether making it look good or adding another 50, 75, or 100 horsepower, is an essential part American car culture. The news on this front points to a community of car enthusiasts that is thriving— the overall industry was $31.32 billion strong in 2012, a 4.4% increase from 2011. 4.4% growth in the 2012 economy is healthy no matter what industry.

The ability to personalize vehicles is not limited to aftermarket companies. Automakers recognize that personalization allows customers to differentiate their rides, which further builds the identity of the brand. Mass customization crosses many industries (shoes, for instance), but automakers realize that their products remain an expression of the identity of many of their buyers and have been able to capitalize on it. Scion was an early adopter of this concept of personalization, and Chevy is the latest to join the party with performance packages for the Camaro.

If enthusiasm for cars is waning, we wouldn’t see a $30 billion industry growing four percent in a lackluster economy. If it is waning, we wouldn’t see companies allowing buyers turn their cars into lifestyle accessories. The money and the trends show the strength of car culture in America.

The “sky is falling on American car culture” critics should spend a few minutes examining the breadth of car-based offerings on the web, they’d see countless vibrant communities (see the links in the first paragraph). It doesn’t matter if it’s muscle cars, off roaders, drag cars or corner carvers, any car that’s worth driving (and many that aren’t) have their own intense following, and more general interest sites like Jalopnik see millions of monthly page views.

That said, as car enthusiasts, we have to acknowledge some clear counterpoints. The data are clear that America is urbanizing. Cars and car culture become more of a challenge in an urban setting due to parking and storage costs as well as insurance premiums. Urban planners are rightly designing walkable and mass transit-friendly futures as cities grow. It’s great to see cities thriving.

We’ve also heard about Millennials and their qualms with cars, their love of urban communities, and tendency to prefer the smartphone. The man in the link above and the New York Times have provided statistics about the decline of driving, particularly among younger drivers, but came to the wrong conclusion. That car culture is dying is clearly wrong based on relevant economic data and anecdotal evidence that stretches across the internet, but car enthusiasts should admit that America as a whole is not as defined by the car as it once was. And that’s ok.

Is car culture what it used to be? No. It’s better, more accessible, and as passionate as it ever was. Whether it’s the kinds of cars coming out today, the thriving aftermarket industry, the mass customization that’s available, or the myriad ways to enjoy all kinds of cars afforded by the web, car culture is thriving even if the country is no longer as defined by four wheels and a full tank of gas as it was in the ’60’s. It’s still a great time to be a car enthusiast.


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