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Punks and Geezers: Can aging car clubs get younger?

Is the lack of young people entering the hobby hurting the collector-car world? We asked the experts to debate that important question that has no answer.
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Spectators walking by this V-12-powered 1931 Cadillac
roadster represent the “veteran” end of the old car
hobby demographic. Concern within the hobby revolves
around younger generations having no knowledge of nor
interest in the cars of the past. There is consensus that
“something” needs to be done to attract more youth to
the hobby, but what that something is remains a valid

Whether a lack of young people entering the hobby is hurting the collector-car world more today than ever is debatable. There’s almost universal agreement that young participants are relatively few and that growing their numbers will require effort, but based on conversations with directors and officials of several national multi-marque clubs, that’s about all they agree on.

Some accept that young enthusiasts’ numbers have always been comparatively low, just as others maintain that that’s why it’s time to worry. Steve Moskowitz, executive director of the Antique Automobile Club of America, is one who believes the situation is serious and not something new.

“Ever since I’ve been in the hobby, they’ve been talking about youth movements and they’ve talked about this and that,” he said. “Well, what have we done about it? We’ve talked really seriously about it in the last 10 or 15 years and we have a youth program and the Automotive Restoration Market Organization’s got ‘Take a Kid to a Car Show.’ ”

If he’s right that the problem is critical, then existing programs need to be supported and strengthened. The AACA and ARMO programs are just two examples, and while other youth efforts, both large and small, are being made, all are important to the hobby’s continuing success. The AACA, Moskowitz said, has plenty of long-time members with 25 or 35 years of experience in collector cars, but not enough future replacements are joining.

“Our biggest problem is that we’re not replenishing the bucket as fast as we’re emptying out of it,” Moskowitz explained. “It’s not so bad that we are getting older, it’s the fact that we’re not adding to the bottom of it and getting younger at the bottom end.”

The same trend exists in the Horseless Carriage Club of America, even if the numbers involved might be less.

“It’s been a concern, probably not a fear,” said Skip Carpenter, an HCCA director. “It’s certainly been a concern because even the guys who started the Horseless Carriage Club, most of them were older guys.”

“That was 1937,” added Don Rising, another director for the HCCA. “And they were dealing with cars that were only 30 years old.”
“But if you go back and talk to really elderly guys in the Horseless Carriage Club,” Carpenter continued, “they’ll tell you that there’s always been the concern about younger people, getting people interested in the hobby to keep it perpetuated.”

One problem complicating discussion is that accurate age statistics don’t really exist. Moskowitz said he doesn’t even have information on the average age of AACA members.

“We legally can’t even ask the question,” he said. “But my guess is we’re going to look at 60-plus.”

There’s no good reason to doubt that guess and, like Moskowitz, National Woodie Club Director Mark Bruce is concerned.

“They’re thought-provoking questions,” he said. “We just seem to go on living day to day and we don’t think about the long-term. What’s going to happen to the collector world? Everyone says, ‘The Model A is dying; no one’s going to collect them because the old-timers are all old.’”
Sven Johnson, a Military Vehicle Preservation Association director, said that the MVPA recognizes the importance of youth to its future, but that club sees it as more of a challenge than an insurmountable problem.

“It’s people talking about it,” Johnson said. “They refer to it as the graying of our membership.”

He then added something at least moderately surprising.

“I think there’s a great deal of interest on the part of the younger people,” he said.

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Many vintage cars have appealing design, such as
Cadillacs of the 1950s, when fins were in. This eye
appeal has no age limit, but the cost to buy and
maintain many of the desirable older cars prohibits
ownership among the young.

One reason for that might be that the older MVPA members are welcoming to the younger members. It’s not an attitude that results from an organized program or effort, but simply the dynamics in that club. Johnson agreed that, overall, age differences are something that few in the MVPA really care about or even notice until someone points them out.

“We have guys in our club in their 80s and we have guys who basically are little more than teenagers,” he said. “They mingle right in together.”
Another factor is practicality. Johnson noted that many of the younger members are interested in military vehicles of the Vietnam era or later because, as kids, they saw them on television or on the road. He said that such vehicles are often affordable and backed up with good parts availability, both of which can matter to those just starting out or raising families.

Popular culture plays a role, too. It’s a widely held belief that collectors buy the vehicles they grew up with or wanted as they were growing up. One stroll through a large car show will prove the premise’s essential accuracy, but it’s not an absolute rule. Johnson sees culture making an impact on what might be thought of as the hobby’s next generation, although the logic almost certainly applies to those young people who are already involved.

“The kids – and when I say kids, we’re talking basically teenagers – have seen it in the movies,” Johnson observed. “They grew up with World War II pictures or they’ve seen “Saving Private Ryan” or “Band of Brothers” or all the movies on D-Day, so these are the vehicles they see … And I think a lot of these young people, I hate to say they missed getting history in school, but they did, unfortunately, (so) when they see some of these things, it’s ‘I saw this on television.’ Then they come up and they spend all kinds of time going into detail. They want to see the engine, they look underneath, they’re interested in it.”

Being interested and being involved aren’t the same, of course, but two of Johnson’s grandsons are in their early 20s and enjoy driving his military vehicles.
“My youngest grandson, Christian, is 13,” he said, “and he loves them.”

Military vehicles’ affordability also points to why some potential collectors might find their entry delayed — the hobby isn’t cheap — and that’s been a reality for decades.

Phil Stofanak, who’s served as president, secretary and a director of the National Woodie Club, understands that hurdle. He bought his 1947 Pontiac station wagon in 1975, and once it was on the road, he found that he attracted attention with it.

“I got pulled over by cops while I was driving my Pontiac, because they figured I was a kid out joyriding in the old man’s antique car,” he said.
Even if they wanted them, few young people could afford antique cars then, and it’s about the same today.

Carpenter said that he knows plenty of car buffs in their mid-20s, but they have neither the finances nor the patience they need to really get involved in the hobby and put together a plan to buy or restore a collector car.

“The trouble I see with a lot of young people today is that they want to start at the top. They don’t want to start at the bottom,” he said. “They don’t want to wait. They see me doing all kinds of things and they don’t want to wait until they’re 40 or 45. They want to do it at 25 and it’s not going to happen, not unless you’ve got the bucks to start with.”

Bruce agreed, and cited potentially larger roadblocks. “The bigger problem is not so much that they can’t afford it,” he said. “I don’t think the interest is there. I think maybe their parents didn’t promote it or there are just so many other distractions for kids these days. It just seems to be a different mind set for kids these days as far as what their interest level is or where their interest is. It’s so much easier to sit in front of your computer and play a game than it is to go out and go to a car show or go out and work on a car.”

A young automobile enthusiast comfortable with his personal computer or Mac is likely to see some familiar concepts under the hood of a 20-year-old car. To someone barely out of high school, that’s almost ancient, but working on it still requires more than just traditional mechanical skills.

Moskowitz has seen the change himself while working with young people in the car business.

“I was a teacher in auto mechanics,” he said. “And my last decade or so in my dealership, I couldn’t really go back and help the guys in the service department. It had passed me by.”

That suggests a point important to the hobby’s future; older hobbyists – those “60-plus” collectors – might see a 20-year-old vehicle as winter transportation, while young enthusiasts might see it as worthy of preservation. Moskowitz worries that as cars have lost some of their individuality in recent years, they might have also lost some of their appeal and collectibility. He says older hobbyists have long wondered about their younger colleagues’ affinity for “used cars” rather than “collector cars.”
It goes back to the belief that collectors want cars they saw when they were growing up. There are plenty of exceptions to that rule, but there is certainly reason to question the hobby’s long-term health. There are valid concerns over what happens to the genuinely old and very old cars if younger collectors prefer the later models.
Moskowitz pointed out that a 25-year-old car is AACA-eligible, but in many cases, there wouldn’t be anything special about taking it on a tour.
“Yeah, you’ll get there,” he said, “but you won’t have any fun doing it.”

Either that’s the “used-car” attitude or more likely, he’s nailed a key element that might eventually win over younger people. After all, no matter how much you might like a 25-year-old Accord or Cordoba, is everyone really going to find it as much fun as a ’32 Ford or a ’55 Chevy?

Moskowitz is concerned whether those who see the Accord and the Cordoba as old will ever become interested in a prewar car and whether they’ll develop enough of a passion to learn the skills necessary to restore and own it. He has a good sense of what it takes to make something like that happen, although how to apply it to young enthusiasts today remains a real question.

“Most of us get into this hobby because somebody did something for us,” he said. “Somebody gave us a ride in their car. Somebody took us to a car show. We saw this great car come down the street and talked to somebody about it. Somebody’s dad had a car. How do we let these younger people have an opportunity to experience what we’ve all fallen in love with?”

Johnson has seen it happen at Milspec Vehicle Restorations, a military vehicle shop in Belvidere, N.J. 

“We get kids coming down here and hanging on the fence,” he said. “They want to come in and look at the vehicles and touch them.

“One of the big things in Belvidere is Victorian Days and we get thousands of people in town. We get kids hanging around there all the time and they’re ooh-ing and ahh-ing and they love the (military) vehicles.”

His own half-track is generally a hit with kids, who can’t wait for a chance to climb on board.

“They can relate to it,” he said. “It’s not a video game for them. It’s touching a bit of history.”

Brass cars also have a lot of allure. They are generally impossible to overlook. It’s all about giving people an opportunity to see them.

“There’s always the chance that you planted the seed,” he said. “They say, ‘Here’s somebody actually driving a car that’s nearly 100 years old, or is already 100 years old. How could that be? But they did it.’ ”

“They see them in museums, if they go,” Carpenter said, “but they don’t realize that you can take them out on the road and have fun with them.”
“And that’s what we enjoy,” Rising added. “Going into a village, parking our cars on the street, going inside to have an ice cream or lunch or whatever it might be and having people come out and say, ‘Oh my gosh, look at that, Henry.’ ”

“Sometimes,” Rising explained, “they will show that interest and we’ve got a little bit of time to spare, so you say ‘hop in.’ ”
“And always, if there’s a kid involved, you give the kid a ride or at least let him squeeze the bulb horn. He’ll remember that,” said Carpenter.
“ ‘Do you want to sit up in the front seat?’” Rising offers. “‘Do you want to hold the steering wheel?’”

“Younger people have become interested. We see quite a bit of it that’s been carried on through the families and you’d expect that, but then there are also family friends and neighbors. There are other ways of people getting exposed to (brass cars).

“There are at least two or three families that I’ve given rides to at (the HCCA Brass in Bucks County Tour) that have ended up with brass cars. But it’s like so much else; unless you’ve experienced it, how do you get interested in it? How do you get interested in a particular hobby, whatever it might be? You don’t suddenly say ‘I want to collect stamps.’

“Somebody has to show you a collection with some stamps that really spark your interest,” Carpenter said. “And it’s the same with this hobby.”
Few drivers today grew up when brass cars were on the road every day, yet some still want to own them. Maybe it was a ride in one or a fascination with the challenges of operating and maintaining something

Moskowitz believes that limited numbers of young people likely have always been involved with the very early cars, although he said that there are now so few that the problem has become serious.

“I worry where we’re going to be 10 years from now,” he said. “I really do. I think 10 years from now is a really big watershed moment.”

HCCA Treasurer Rich Cutler said that he sees the interest in brass cars among younger people, even if other priorities cause them to delay ownership.

“We did a wedding not too long ago,” he said, “and most of the wedding people were in their 30s. The couples, we were taking them for rides and one of the women that I took for a ride said ‘I’ve always wanted one of these. I’ve got to have one.’ She’s really beating on her husband …

“(But) younger people are worried about other things, like buying their houses and raising their kids, so the only ones that I think are going to have a car early on are the ones that have inherited them. I can see my son-in-law, who’s in his early 30s, buying one when he gets older, but he’s got too many things going on right now. So I think it’s going to continue.”

Bruce said that he doesn’t see many teenagers at car shows or cruise nights. Even the AACA Hershey national meet, he said, draws very few.

“I think we need to recruit young kids,” he said. “But where do we recruit them? We can’t recruit them at a car show because they’re not going there, so we need to recruit them at places like (Hershey), but how many young kids do you see (there)? It’s one of the biggest car shows in the country and (they’re there) only because their parents dragged them along.

“Maybe we need to go to high schools. Maybe we need to set up campaigns to recruit kids into the car clubs from the high schools.”

Another possibility, he said, is working to help form antique car clubs within the schools themselves. He also suggested that schools teaching automotive technology courses might look at adding a restoration component. That’s rare, but not unheard of, and he stressed that it would enable students to develop the vision and the excitement that go with the hobby.

Like Bruce, Moskowitz wants to be aggressive. He believes strongly in the value of coordination among the clubs and the industry to develop a workable program with realistic goals. His plan doesn’t sound easy, but it could well be the right place to begin.

“We, as a hobby, all need to get together behind some program,” he said. “We all get behind it, we all use it as a part of our marketing campaigns. We all sing the same tune because I think there’s strength in all going out with the same message. Rather than all of us attacking the problem from little ways, we attack it with the might of our organizations and the money we have behind us.”

Assembling and backing any plan presumes that it has a reasonable chance of success — something that confronts the fear that young people really aren’t interested.
“Not true,” said Carpenter. “I don’t think that’s true at all.”

Beyond those who enter the hobby because of friends or family connections, he emphasized that others can just fall under the spell of the cars.

“If you are at all intrigued with visual effects, lines, if you have any artistic values in you at all, the early cars are pretty,” he observed. “They are eye appealing.
“You go into Raymond Loewy’s cars and they are gorgeous. There’s a design element there that just draws the eye and I think so many of the early cars did that. They drew the eye.”

If he’s right, then those cars should continue to have an effect on anyone with “artistic values,” regardless of age. An understanding of that is probably one of the necessary pieces in whatever proves to be the successful solution. The fact that nobody’s yet assembled all of those pieces doesn’t actually prove much.
“There’s an answer to everything,” Bruce said.

“It’s just finding the answer.”

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