E-Newsletter

Volume 1, Issue 4

December 31, 2010

         
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I had anticipated a different topic for this month’s issue of the AOAI E-Newsletter, but recent events necessitated a modification to the schedule. Herein the reader will find a somewhat convoluted path towards a question I find particularly relevant as we enter 2011: how do we advance the collector car hobby into the 21st Century while guaranteeing the marketability of our machines to future connoisseurs? I hope that this article will inspire further ideas amongst its readership and generate additional discussion on the AOAI and SDC Forums.

Best wishes for 2011.

Peter Miller, 63R-4810

* * *
 

Survival of the Fittest:

The Transition of the Collector Car into the 21st Century

 

The period of 2003 to 2006 saw a massive influx of money into the collector car world. It seemed that anyone who ever lusted after a car from his or her childhood was jumping on the bandwagon, and automobiles sporting such tags as SS, Hemi, XK, and Cobra reached new heights in their value and collectibility. The growth of eBay did much to aggravate the symptoms of a Baby Boomer generation in which the old car bug was running rampant, offering a new playground for the pathogen to manifest as a market flooded with grandmas’ green grocery-getters and ill-advised chopped-top rat rods. Nonetheless free from the burdens of child rearing and expensive college educations, many in this generation finally found a few extra dollars in their pockets, and sites like eBay and televised auctions like Barrett-Jackson helped cement the notion that car collecting is not only a hobby but a good investment strategy. The cat was out of the bag, and small collections of one to three automobiles in the fifteen to fifty-thousand-dollar range sprang up everywhere. As someone far removed from this generation of car collectors, I can only speculate on the motivations of many domestic enthusiasts, but the general disinterest in American Muscle in Europe in the face of million-dollar Hemi ‘Cudas and $250k Camaros in the United States suggests that the current appeal in car collecting has intensely personal and emotion aspects.

Certainly these are very powerful facets of the hobby as they have made car collecting what it is today, but how long will personal stories and memories of a bygone era fuel the community? Today, seventeen percent of the population was born before 1946, and the Baby-Boomers account for a further thirty-three percent of the American population; these numbers will drop to nine and twenty-seven percent, respectively, in the next ten years. Gen X and Gen Y are the future car collectors of the world, yet they have no memories of the Ghia-bodied Chryslers at the Detroit Auto Show, or reading about the Alfa Romeo B.A.T. trio at Turin, or even seeing a brand new Studebaker Avanti on a showroom floor. An interest in art, engineering, and history mingled with curiosity in a simpler time must therefore go far to effect the collector of tomorrow.

In truth, I do not doubt the capacity of future generations to admit the importance and relevance of certain antique and classic cars – the look, sound, and feel of such significant automobiles almost guarantees the future of car collecting. But beyond a lack of contemporary memories, there are other characteristics of these younger generations that will shape their approach to such old and obsolete machinery.

My younger sister thinks hard to remember days without cell phones; I vaguely remember dial-up internet connections being the norm. But I’ve also been taught from day-one to be conscious of the environment, from the ozone layer to climate change to water and energy consumption. My methods of information gathering and my priorities per the environment – all common to my generation – stand in contrast to those of my father and grandfather. As time passes and younger generations gain further political, economic, and social power, and as international political tensions and environmental concerns change the way water and energy is harvested and consumed, the acceptance and use of our beloved automobiles will no doubt change too.

Today, the numbers of those intrigued by classic cars is large enough – and the money we spend annually on our hobby great enough – that the danger in losing the right or ability to exercise our machines seems slight if not non-existent altogether. But the vast majority of my rather young generation is one that seems to value cars simply as tools and bodacious, over-the-top symbols of status, not art, elegance, craftsmanship, and taste. So while some will preserve the collector car hobby well into the future, I fear that our numbers will continue to diminish. This is no fault of our own as automobile connoisseurs, but rather a natural shift in interests over time: both the antique furniture and antique firearm communities will likely see the same shifts in their membership when, in forty years from now, few find much appeal in a handmade dining room table comprised of twenty-four-inch solid walnut blanks or a handgun made from cast steel components that won’t fire underwater or when filled with sand. The question for all thus becomes: how do we advance the objects of our hobby into the 21st Century and ensure their marketability to the next generation?

12_11_A

When I wrote the first AOAI E-Newsletter just three months ago, I felt a great deal of hope and optimism for where our Organization and our hobby is going; in speaking with collectors and enthusiasts, many shared this sentiment. But recent proposals and actions by the EPA have cast a shadow on my certainty. I have written about where this country is going with ethanol-based fuels before, but at the time the impact of such appeared far less immediate. I am sure we all have our own opinions on the matter, and no doubt colored by our interests, our occupations, our political persuasions, et cetera, and I would hate for this to deteriorate into a political rant, so I will close the discussion to all but what is relevant to the collector car community.

The EPA has decided to allow E15 for 2007 and newer vehicles, despite complaints from automobile and engine manufacturers; many have speculated that the government will not be satisfied until Americans are pumping no less than E27 and on up to E85. One can only speculate on when government regulations will finally demand a great-enough ethanol content that classic cars, in their original or original-type configurations, can no longer function safely on available pump gasoline; and when will high-ethanol-content fuels become standard, making all but racing and aircraft fuels impossible to attain? We can hedge our bets on the timeline, but without an alternative to combat such events, the hobby as we know it will certainly meet its end, the objects of our affection relegated to museum pieces, are there are simply not enough museums to house all of the world’s Chevy Novas. (Note that ethanol may not be the only issue we face, as the push toward all-electric cars or fuel cells may one day eliminate comprehensive demand for gasoline altogether, and concerns over vehicle safety on the roads of tomorrow may pose an even great threat.)

12_11_C

So where am I going with all of this? Allow me a moment to summarize:

(1) Most of the three million registered and operable collector cars in the United States are held by individuals born before 1964, most of whom retain childhood memories that feed their interests in classic cars;

(2) Within the next few decades, many significant collections will transfer to either museums or individuals from younger generations with no contemporary recollection of what we now consider to be collector cars;

(3) Future collectors will inevitably share different political, social, and environmental concerns that will shape their attitudes toward the preservation and use of classic cars;

(4) Increased regulation of energy harvesting and consumption, coupled with changes in foreign policy, will affect the availability of fossil fuels.

This leads me to the conclusion that we as a collector car community must take the future of the hobby into our own hands. This does not mean complaining about the availability of gasoline or our rights as Americans to drive the cars of our choice; rather, it means brainstorming alternatives and finding new solutions to current and future problems. We have succeeded to this end in the past, as with the advent of unleaded fuels and the introduction of hardened valve seats, or additives to augment zinc content in synthetic oils.

With the prerogatives of the younger generations in mind, I have put a bit of thought into alternatives for the collector car world, and two of these ideas follow. I have started a thread on the AOAI Forum re this topic, and I hope that some of you will find the time to respond to these thoughts and suggest new ones:

(1) The development of new fuel additives to offset the ill affects of high-ethanol-content fuels could guarantee a reliable fuel source for classic cars for decades to come, despite gasoline formulae changes. However, this does not necessarily address the problem of implementing non-fossil fuel or renewable energy sources, and this will no doubt be a high priority for younger generations.

(2) Converting class cars to run on alternative fuels does not conform to my ideal of leaving significant automobiles in their purely original state, but it may have some merit in the eyes of those who exercise their vehicles on a regular basis. Both compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) are two alternative fuels – the former being renewable in low quantities – that require only fuel system modifications and could be retrofit to any pre-1968 carbureted vehicle without any engine disassembly. Benefits of such systems include lower energy costs, reduced emissions, and higher effective octane ratings (between 120 and 135 octane) that permit higher compressions ratios and timing advance without risk of knock or pre-detonation. Limits to the technology include lower energy content for a given unit of CNG or LPG as compared to gasoline, as well as limited fueling stations; both may be an issue for only those who intend to travel long distances in their classic cars. Thus CNG and LPG address fuel supply and emissions concerns, both key topics for the politically and environmentally conscious collector, while still retaining the spirit – the essence – of a vehicle in the form of its Otto-cycle powerplant.

But what say you? I leave you with a few questions to ponder (and hopefully respond to on the AOAI Forum): Are these issues too far in the future to be relevant today, or is the preservation of classic cars in their original state too important to even consider their modification for operation with alternative fuels? Are the priorities of older and younger generations not as different as I have suggested, rendering such ideas less applicable to our situation? Finally, does the use of classic cars differ so greatly from every-day vehicles that rules governing the modern automobile should not be applied to our beloved classics? Perhaps only time will tell.