(posted 4/27/07)

the view through the windshieldChanging Car Culture: I received a nice note from David Traver Adolphus from Hemmings Motor News in reference to my article about car magazines. Regarding my comments about Special Interest Autos, Dave pointed out that "we didn't run out of old cars to cover, but we had to respond to the evolution of the hobby."

I understand his position completely. If I were in Hemmings' shoes, I would have done the same thing - expand the auto eras covered in order to appeal to those new enthusiasts entering the hobby.

My piece was written from a purely personal point of view. I have little interest in cars made after 1970. Legendary writer Ken Purdy once penned something to the effect that no car made after the 1930s was good-looking. When I read that, I thought he was nuts. I now realize that Ken was a generation older than me and was simply stating his personal preferences.

Magazines and the old car culture are undergoing a sea change. Unit magazine sales are stagnant or dropping, as more and more titles compete for a shrinking market. I don't have the figures, but I'd guess that, in the last 40 years, the number of car-oriented magazine titles has increased by ten-fold. (This is probably true as well for mens magazines, ladies magazines, news/opinion magazines, etc.)

If you don't believe me, go to the reference section of your public library and browse the ever-thickening 'Directory Of Periodicals & Publications'.

Meanwhile, the number of magazines found in a typical household is dropping. Reading time has been usurped by television, video game and online activities.

Then there's the profit issue. Fifty years ago, you either bought periodicals at a newsstand or saved a little money by subscribing. Discount subscription services didn't exist until the 1960s. Today, magazines are widely and wildly discounted, cutting deeply into a publishers' profits. I'd bet that a Motor Trend subscription can be had for less money today than in 1970.

Four years ago, I was offered the chance to buy a specialty magazine business in the auto-hobby field. I looked at it and passed because of declining profits and scary demographics. I'm glad I did, except that I can't brag about having 'my own magazine' at cocktail parties and tell interesting publishing anecdotes.

The old car culture is also undergoing gigantic changes. Many car clubs are suffering. I belong to two clubs - both are experiencing declines in membership. But that's not the big problem - it's the volunteer pool. It's drying up.

My experience is that people start buying old cars when they reach their mid-40s. That's when most guys start getting what economists call 'disposable income' and what we call 'pissing-around money'. I bought my first collector car when I was 44. I quickly joined two car clubs - both run by people in their mid-to-late 50s and populated by 40-somethings like me. Each club's 'elders' encouraged us to get active. We did and, by age 50 or so, we were running the club. The problem is that no one ever came along to replace us. There are few forty-somethings in these car clubs, despite aggressive recruitment efforts by club members. Those who do join aren't very active and have no interest in volunteering to help run a club. "No spare time," they plead.

One underlying problem is that today's 44 year-old graduated from high school in 1981, when cars were mostly crap. I've never heard anyone say, "I'm saving my money so I can someday buy a fully-restored Chevy Citation." Most don't have a high-school 'car dream' to chase - unlike people of my generation.

Today's forty-something is more likely to be spending his pissing-around money on toys of the 1970s - old Fisher Price stuff, Merlin, Mr. Machine, a J. Chein litho roller coaster, Slip 'n' Slide, G.I. Joe stuff, anything Hot Wheels, Stretch Armstrong, Simon, Big Wheel, Green Machine, etc.

The dropping membership numbers reflect the general membership decline of most social and fraternal organizations in the U.S. - Elks, Masons, Eagles, etc. (No time to head down to the Moose Lodge to have a beer and make new friends - too busy doing social networking online, including answering e-mails from and sending jokes to friends. And texting. And updating your Facebook page.)

Sorry, I have no solutions to offer here - just commentary.

By the way, I have a real soft spot for Hemmings - not just because HMN helped me sell two collector cars and find my '39 Plymouth coupe. Hemmings is a great supporter of the old car hobby. Their staff makes appearances at old car shows all over. And HMN posts event listings online and in the print edition free of charge for old car organizations.

Too many magazines give only lip service to car enthusiasts; Hemmings Motor News walks the talk. Kudos to them.

copyright 2007-21 - Joseph M. Sherlock - All applicable rights reserved


The facts presented on this website are based on my best guesses and my substantially faulty geezer memory. The opinions expressed herein are strictly those of the author and are protected by the U.S. Constitution. Probably.

Spelling, punctuation and syntax errors are cheerfully repaired when I find them; grudgingly fixed when you do.

If I have slandered any brands of automobiles, either expressly or inadvertently, they're most likely crap cars and deserve it. Automobile manufacturers should be aware that they always have the option of giving me free cars to try and change my mind.

If I have slandered any people or corporations, either expressly or inadvertently, they should buy me strong drinks (and an expensive meal) and try to prove to me that they're not the jerks I've portrayed them to be. If you're buying, I'm willing to listen.

Don't be shy - try a bribe. It might help.