The beginning of the end of a 60-year era?

If you love modifying cars, be sad

By Julian Edgar

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I am starting to think that the recreational pursuit that we share – modifying cars – is dying.

A whole bunch of things leads my thinking in that direction.

I went to a country hot-rod show the other day. It was very well attended – literally, hundreds of cars on display. And the quality was pretty impressive. It was obvious that many thousands of hours of careful work had been done – on everything from the engines to the suspensions to bodywork. Owners were arriving at the wheels of their hot rods, smiling and proud. There was a real buzz among the participants.

But there was one aspect that fascinated me above all others: the age of the car owners. I would say that at a guess, the majority were past retirement age.  The rest, if not over 65, would have been to a man (and women) over 50.

Now there’s nothing wrong with older people enjoying their hot rods – nothing. But it made me start thinking about the future.

Hot rods were invented in the late 1940s and early 1950s – many of the cars then modified were from an earlier era, but the idea of ‘souping up’ cars really started at that time. As did drag racing, salt lake racing, cruising and a bunch of other car cultures.

And many of the people happily showing their rods at the country day I attended would have been around (although perhaps only as infants) at the time that hot-rodding began.

But I didn’t see a single young car owner - not one. When the hot rodders at this show go to the big place in the sky, I don’t see anyone around to pick up their baton.

And then we move to the other end of the age spectrum – young people. It’s a truism to say that the young today are not like we were when we were young. But in automotive terms, the young today are increasingly unlike any of the young people of, again, the last 50 years.

Today, many young people don’t like cars. Or, even more disconcerting, many are simply indifferent to cars.

Whether it was the 1960s, where the car was a symbol of personal freedom – drive-ins, beaches and the like; or the 1970s, when the first thing any young guy did was put ‘mags’ on his car; or the 1980s, where the technologies of turbos and engine management took off; or the 1990s where cheap power and continuing low fuel costs meant everyone could play, in the 2010s young people are more likely to be social networking or simply catching up with friends.

I work for four or five days a month with a guy in his early twenties. He’s in a secure, decent-paying government job and he’s fit and personable.  He doesn’t own a car – and he doesn’t even have a driver’s license.

“Yeah, gotta get around to that one day,” he says when asked about driving. But it’s obvious he doesn’t care much one way or another.

That is a radical change from an era when people showed up for the Learners Permit on the day of their birthday – something almost universal in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

General Motors in the US is so concerned about the lack of interest that many young people display in cars that they have experts studying its implications.

The great new move in automotive modification that I thought might occur - with the potential to interest a lot of young people – is the modification of hybrids.  But here in AutoSpeed is the only turbo Prius I’ve ever seen, and modifying hybrids has not fired the popular imagination in the slightest.

However, chasing fuel economy is one area of growth in car enthusiasts. Hypermilers comprise the only group of ‘new’ car enthusiasts that I have seen come about in the last decade – and they have a vibrant (but very small) community.

But I don’t think it’s the move to green cars that has diminished the enthusiasm of those who would otherwise have become car modifiers. Nor do I think it’s the increasing complex technology. I think it’s the laws, rules and regulations – and their enforcement – that has taken away much of the joy of owning a modified car.

Why give a car more straight-line performance if taking someone on at the lights can put you into jail? Why give your car more cornering grip if going fast around corners is regarded, legally, as street racing?

For many, the only place they can drive their car hard is on a track. And it’s a vastly smaller group of enthusiasts who want to run a track car, compared with those who (once) enjoyed their cars on the road.

The amount that the driving world has changed would amaze many. Here in Australia, back in the 1960s we had unlimited country roads – yep, no speed limits. And that wasn’t just in the Northern Territory. In my younger days I drove flat-out in the NT – and often in lots of other places as well. I can remember averaging 160 km/h across twisting South Australian country roads, seeing 260 km/h in my Skyline GT-R, and ‘playing’ around urban roundabouts every single day of the week.

I am not saying that, from the perspective of overall societal wellbeing, the above behaviours are good; but I am saying that as a car modifier, you could immediately and very pointedly experience the outcomes of your modifications!

Jeepers, I remember, late at night, finally getting the turbo 660cc engine into my Daihatsu Handi and racing round the suburban block, sans exhaust, with the car torque-steering wildly across man-hole covers because of the (undiagnosed) many millimetres of toe-out that the swap had given it! Now the policeman’s list would read: street racing, excessive noise, dangerous driving, unapproved engine swap – and so on.

If you were a current young person, brought up entirely in a world where every public utterance is that ‘speed kills’, or that you should not ride in a car with your mates because your danger of dying is vastly higher, where there are peak speed cameras and average speed cameras and redlight cameras and numberplate recognition cameras – where driving is a highly regulated environment where enforcement is well funded and a policeman’s discretionary judgment has long gone – well, would you want to drive with pizzazz on the road?

And, if not, why bother spending money and time and energy modifying a car?

I reckon there are a few things we can do. It won’t change the tide but it may slow it.

The first is to talk to the non-believers.

Cars represent an extraordinary pastiche of social history, culture, mechanical engineering, styling, manufacturing technologies and innovation. Many people are utterly – utterly – blind to these ideas.

I work every day with people who know nothing of the challenge of modifying cars – people who would immediately agree that a creative product like a play or novel is a benefit to society, and yet are dismissive of the notion that creativity, skill and intellectual challenge can also all be shown in a modified car. Tell them!

The second is to actively encourage young people to get involved.

These days, the vast majority of modified car information is sought through the web. Typically, some young guy, often full of confidence and his own importance as young people are (and have always been), will pop up on a discussion group and ask a question.

Equally typically, a bunch of bored, expert and jaded old farts will slap him down.

Instead of doing that, be bloody glad he – or she – is there asking questions! Did you never ask stupid questions when you were becoming interested in cars? If you’d been publicly humiliated, would you have kept asking questions?

And if the world does move onto different things, you and I can be thankful that we were part of that amazing period when we were allowed to make (almost) whatever engineering and styling changes we wanted to our individual motorised transports; where imagination and skill and perseverance late at night in the shed could transform the next day commute to work….

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