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Are We Doing All We Can to Encourage the Hot Rodders of Tomorrow?

Are We Doing All We Can to Encourage the Hot Rodders of Tomorrow?
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We are, rightfully, proud that our generation (the over 55 crowd) was part of the generation that shaped today’s hot rod and customs culture. But let’s not waste too much time patting ourselves on the back for participating in this phenomenon of modifying cars to suit our fancy. It seems that we’ve become legends in our own mind. True, many of the actual legends who started building hot rods after WWII live on today in their 80s, still attending cars shows and helping design and build custom cars; but most of us over 60 have noticed how many of our car buddies failed to make it to a favorite annual show this year.  This is the most painful part of this topic, the realization that the cars come second to the great friendships developed during a lifetime of loving and working on old cars, and that losing old friends is far worse than losing a beloved vehicle.

Many of us who were at the first meeting of the Minnesota Street Rod Association in 1967 may have thought our growing concern for the future of this hobby was a local issue or just an association concern.  Upon talking to several movers in the industry, we soon discovered that this is a universal problem.  And it continues to be a challenge. How do we attract new people, younger people, to the hobby to keep it an active part of the culture?   When I was in high school, I had no time for Model Ts unless they were transformed into a ‘Bucket T’ roadster.  These days, I can’t remember the last time I heard anything about the Model T Club. Fashions change, tastes change and every generation, heck every club, has a hot rod style that’s iconic to it.  We have to embrace those preferences and also embrace the changing and varied tests of new members and younger enthusiasts.

I still belong to the Early Ford V8 Club but recently sold my ‘40 Ford Convert. It was a gorgeous hot rod and an AACA Senior winner from Hershey and a Dearborn winner. But, my luck with stock flatheads for road trips or on hot days around town has been dismal at best. Since, dependability is more important than awards for me it was goodbye to a truly gorgeous car.  The first caller bought the car at my asking price. He was in his mid-70s and truly appreciated the pedigree of the car.  But there are two reasons no young person purchased this car: 1) it simply does not appeal to the younger generation and 2) younger people simply do not have the money to buy a car that sits in the garage 95% of the time.  The EF V8 Club is a great organization, but I’d estimate the average age at over 70.

So let’s say you modified your first car in about 1965 which put you hovering at about age 70 now.  When the MSRA was founded, you had to have a 1948 or older car to be a bona fide member.  It was quickly discovered that rule was self-defeating. Some of the most active people in the hobby wanted to join, but they owned ‘49-50 Mercs and ‘Tri-Fives’ were all the rage.  What to do?  In time, age rules were abandoned and today you do not have to own an old cars to join MSRA and many other large groups such as the Good Guys or NSRA as long as you have an interest in the hobby with hopes of more money down the line to buy your own car to play with.  The hobby evolved so as to not age or disqualify itself out of existence. That doesn’t mean that rules aren’t sometimes necessary for the good of a show.

When we had our first Back to the 50’s in St. Paul in 1974, the age of a participating vehicle was somewhat arbitrary, but as the sheer number of cars coming each year began to become overwhelming, 1964 or older became the cutoff. It remains so today but only for one true reason.  The MN Fairgrounds is at capacity with about 11,000 registered cars showing up each June. Mustang owners could probably fill the Fairgrounds with their vehicles alone, so the current year cutoff keeps the ‘Stangs at home.  Are there hurt feelings to read on the registration form that “no Mustangs are allowed” when the love of your life is a Mustang? Oh yeah.  But, it was a natural evolution and a difficult decision.

When we were arranging the 1st nationals in Peoria, we never thought much about the next 50 years going forward.  We never thought that MSRA would go from 300 members to a sustained 12,000+ members. Every organization has had to make the decision at some point - the NSRA stuck with the 1948 and older rule for the Nats for most of its history; whereas Goodguys took a different approach and now attracts as many customs and muscle cars as true street rods.  It helps bring in new people and encourages the casual enthusiast and the hard-core fan.  So shouldn’t that encourage young people to participate? Sure, sort of. It’s a bigger issue than that.


Brent Alpert and his Gopher State Timing Association Winner is a true example of a young rodder.

THE CORE OF THE PROBLEM

If we step back 40+ years, there were plenty of car clubs and the desire to gather all of these clubs together for occasions ran deep in our goals. I see a resurgence of new clubs popping up throughout the country with the same values as we had when we were kids.  We all helped each other with the talents we had and when it came to helping each other for non-car related tasks, members were there to help each other. I see this camaraderie occurring again in the local clubs.  The nice thing about these clubs is that they attract members of various ages who have an interest in specific types of cars whether rat rods, tri-five Chevys or any kind of muscle cars.  I challenged a friend who attends a lot of the Goodguys shows and I expressed how nice it was to see later model cars customized to some degree showing that the youth are present.  I was stopped cold and asked to look at the ages of the guys driving these cars and realized that they were mature ladies and guys who likely had the kids through school and living their dreams of their youth.  Here in lies one of the problems --the cost to build and restore any car today. The average price of a top notch paint job is more than twice of what it cost to build my entire ‘34 Ford in 1974.  Add the driveline and interior and you have an investment larger than my first new home.

I guess this is the perfect segue to the popularity of ‘rat rods.’  One entire show in Minnesota, and likely the 2nd largest club/association show in these parts, is devoted to the rat rod: the ‘Frankensteiners Ball’.  Anything goes here regards the cars; no one is judged for most beautiful paint.  What paint?  This is a well-run club with a young member base, full of fun and highly coordinated.  I have to give credit to these members.  Traditionally, the older hot rodders have scorned the rat rod, or the less than perfect modified build. We’ve been hesitant to embrace the interests and talents of younger people and have left them out. Combine that with the income gap, and you have a divide between the future of the hobby and its current state. If you are 35, starting a family, paying a mortgage, not to mention payments on your daily drivers, there is not much left for a $25,000 rod or custom.  If you’re interested in the hobby, and the old guard turns up their nose at what you’re working on, what’s the incentive to join them? It’s worth considering.

 

In conclusion, I have no conclusion.  Locally, I keep preaching the need to lower the age of our membership in MSRA and to listen to the young people’s comments who think that things are run by only the ‘old timers’.  Well wake up old timers (that’s me too), it is time for action.