The Evolution of American Car Culture

Recently, I was given the open-ended task of writing about any automotive topic of choice. Woah, I can hardly remember a time when I had the choice to freely express myself in such a way. I can’t help myself but immediately think about American car culture. Surprisingly, a sensitive and risqué topic, to be honest. I also cannot help myself, but wonder with some age bias, how many young, aspiring auto enthusiasts would lose interest, only having read thus far, and bounce onward to the next attention-grabbing or bold, flashy headline. In a way, it is sort of a direct analogy for how modern car culture operates. For the new-to-the-community reader and aged alike, let’s dive deep into this one!

Photo by Cam Dauer

For me, a lot of things kicked off in 2014; I’m not that old of blood after all. I was lucky enough to stumble on a grungy, Hellrot Red, five-speed E36 BMW M3 in slight disrepair and neglect, for a really good price. At the time, this was a childhood dream come true, my first dive into a real enthusiast car made with purpose and passion. It was a chance to join the Euro car scene with my own real credibility and add personal flair. The raw and innocent feeling of owning, riding along, or even driving your first sports car is something you will never forget under any circumstance.

The Good Old Days of Car Culture

Surely, you have a specific memory fading back with a warm glow; take it in for a second. My dream now turned reality smelled like old slick leather and waxy melted crayons on the interior, and the failing motor mounts shook the car with a gentle purr. The first sit and I was sold. All chips on the table. Deciding to then push that car, born the same year I was, to over 130 MPH on the way home is a mistake made only once by such a newbie, later realizing the suspension was clapped and the tie-rods were loose. That car would journey with me over the next eight years, as we grew and learned together.

Simply put, that’s exactly what it is all about for a young enthusiast. Growing and learning, the magic companionship of that first car and first friends as you move on your own path. Nothing can happen overnight though. As my enthusiasm grew, and nearly every bolt on the car had been replaced with new, I eventually wanted the next best car up the line. It’s only natural for us, after all. It crushed my soul a little letting that bright red rocket roll away with all the memories and time together, all those long hours spent working at mods, updates, and upgrades. If you happen to be a new enthusiast here, letting that first one go will always be a little sore spot and will be a lifelong tale of “the one that got away”.

There seems to be a pretty cut-and-dry path here for most of us, so why are we trying to rush into the phase of immediately being the ultimate car enthusiast? The golden nugget here truly is the winding path and growth, the fresh excitement. One can’t jump into being the cool hero who fixes up crashed auctioned-off exotics, from watching a single video online. The foundation of your automotive roots that plant your place in this vast culture can’t be fast forwarded or transplanted.

Ten years ago, though, things were somehow different. Post-pandemic, that is a thought many of us are running across. The small yet largely disconnected community of auto enthusiasts felt so vibrant and alive, full of fresh excitement and opportunity back then. Those wild, hyped-up scenes depicted in early Fast and Furious clips were a lot of times not all that far removed from how it really was at popular events! The automotive culture may have evolved more in these last ten years than the prior thirty, in fact I know it did! I felt it, and you more than likely did too in some respect. As we experience slow shifts over time, it can be challenging to pinpoint what began a change. The memory of the past becomes blurred, jaded, and full of those “good old days” thoughts.

Were the good old days ever really all that good? In the car community, yes, they really were and still absolutely are too! Those possibly scary upcoming days always can be just as bright if we can just work at it. That’s just a part of being a car fan – you learn rather quickly to take the rough with the smooth.

The Digital Age and Car Culture

The car community is still adjusting to the digital age. Yes, it’s very true. What’s wildly different from before is the way we gearheads get our content. Car content existed online for quite some time (does Mischief 3000 come to mind?), but only recently has any of it gained any real traction and audience. We’ve quickly worked ourselves into an untrodden, filthy corner surrounded by negativity, jealousy, and flashy popularity trends. All things were suddenly done for fame, video content, and being the cool kid on the block. The enigma and aura surrounding one’s passion project that took some die-hards nearly half a lifetime to achieve could now be seen in this week’s newest video.

We Chevy LS-swapped every car ever made, darn it!

Young enthusiasts went as far as to even high-interest finance after-market car parts, just to be the big ticket for only a single minute of fame at the next car event. We slice fenders away from six figure classics now almost weekly, it seems, and when we see it in person we only appreciate it for a brief second. On to the next! Round and round we go, where it stops nobody knows. One thing is for sure here, our happy trail forward is working together as one. Rightly so, especially since there are now so many of us. Collectively, building cars for us the way we want to build them and for our own happiness is where the buck stops.

The Future of Car Culture

Only us car enthusiasts can help change the future. I am sure there is a great Martin Luther King quote for this, it’s not just some motivational thought. That time is today, the future is now, old man! Our automotive culture is at a critical turning point of instability, we are absolutely no stranger to that and have been through it many times already. From the assembly line and mass-production, our post-war hot-rodding days, to emissions and oil crisis, and now even the re-birth and modernization of the electric vehicle.

Our history is awesome, it is long, and there have been some drastic moments of innovation and change that shook the foundation of what automobiles meant to us. Just because present day manufacturers might be producing millions of boring crossover and SUVs with re-used nameplates, and rocketing their price to the next neighboring galaxy doesn’t mean it’s all over. The rebirth and popularity of electric vehicles doesn’t mean that’s our only option now and forever.

EVs are a great thing, and just entering their own hot-rod days. We don’t have to sit back and wonder why so many new cars can be such a confusing, jumbled out of all sensible logic, and haphazard design nightmare both inside and out. Great things often come from uncertainty and troubling times. Anything which generates enthusiasts for the next generation of petrol heads is no bad thing.

We used to despise wagons/estates and now we have a new niche to lust after!

What We Can Do to Save Car Culture

Where has our old automotive culture gone? Did we really let it die? Is whatever unique automotive niche we as individuals fit into really on its last legs? I really don’t think so and neither should you; whether you’re a fresh and chipper enthusiast or an old goat on the hill, still crabby about fuel-injection. There are so many different aspects of car culture crammed into one broad term of “enthusiast”, it boggles the mind. How cool is that, as a collective group, we can be so diverse? Possibly the common enemy here to rally against is the very thought and fear of losing what we love and are most enthusiastic about, even if that might be a slightly different viewpoint.

Afterall, doesn’t a common enemy draw us all together?