Nostalgia & the muscle car

The American muscle car was inspired by and produced for a very specific population. During the early 1960s, auto manufacturers conspired to create a category of automobile that would appeal to the legions of newly licensed young men of the baby boomer generation. Unlike the teenage drivers that preceded them, boomers were not drivers of self-constructed hot rods nor were they dependent on the family car for transportation. Rather, they were often blessed with enough financial resources to purchase cars of their own. Not just any automobile would do; as part of the “Me” generation, young boomer men sought to define and reinvent themselves by the cars they drove. It is not surprising, therefore, that the American muscle car – fast, sexy, “power-crazed” and “shamelessly macho” – quickly became the male baby boomer’s vehicle of choice (Ulrich, 2005). For over a decade, the rumbling of muscle cars could be heard on city streets, suburban highways, and country roads, i.e. anywhere teenage boys gathered to cruise, engage in illegal street racing, or flirt with members of the opposite sex.

Many of the tens of thousands of young men who owned or drove muscle cars during the 1960s and early 1970s are now card-carrying AARP members. However, the passion for power, style, and speed remains strong among aging baby boomer men. This fascination can be witnessed every warm-weather weekend as muscle cars – and their graying owners – gather at cars shows and cruises in varied and various locations across the United States and Canada. It can be observed on the “Speed Channel” reality car shows that provide an inside look at classic car restoration. It can be found in classic car publications and online sites that offer advice for “newbie” classic car buyers.  It is evident in the proliferation of classic car classifieds, which not only advertise vehicles for sale, but also provide an abundance of resources for old car parts and hard-to-find automotive materials. The classic muscle car has not only fueled a popular hobby among the aging baby boomer population, but has generated an important peripheral classic car industry as well.

Craig Jackson, of the Barrett-Jackson car auction house, credits the rising popularity of the classic collector muscle car to “nostalgia, the stability of the market, and the fact that it’s, well, ‘fun’” (Byrnes, 2002). Auto journalists, many of them aging baby boomers themselves, would agree. Boomers, many who have entered peak earning years, often view owning a classic car as an investment. Reports Nanette Byrnes of Business Week, “a 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle convertible sold at auction last year for $172,000. Not a bad return on a car that cost $3,200 new.” Kiplinger’s Personal Finance writer Ed Henry, while recognizing the attraction – or perhaps rationalization – of the classic muscle car as an investment, asserts, “muscle cars are really money in the garage, not money in the bank.” Thus, Henry advises, those interested in a classic muscle car should buy it “purely out of love.” USA Today auto writer Earle Eldridge (2002) contends that individuals are often driven to acquire a 60s muscle car by a “post-September 11 do-it-now attitude and a longing for something uniquely American from a simpler time.” Kevin Naughton (2006) of Newsweek concurs, remarking that aging boomers, aware of the world’s hostility toward the United States, often embrace the muscle car as a way to remember “a time when American power was celebrated.” The desire to revisit an idyllic past, at least for a few hours, motivates a good number of aging boomer men to purchase a muscle car. As auto writer Mike Mueller (2004) reminds us, “the early 60s was a more innocent age […], it was a time when men were men, women weren’t, and fewer rules ruled” (p. 18). Thus while there are boomer men who are financially motivated to purchase, restore, and sell classic muscle cars, the primary impetus for the acquisition of a muscle car from the 1960s and 70s is nostalgia.

Nostalgia, write Pickering and Keightley (2006), is often defined as a longing for a lost time, for something that is no longer attainable (920). To graying boomer men, ownership of a classic muscle car provides an opportunity to reconnect to a reimagined past. Behind the wheel of a fast, racy, and sexy GTO or Charger, balding, 60-year-old men are once more young, handsome, virile, and carefree. Gunning a big block engine, they reflect upon a time when American cars, and American men, were powerful and invincible. It is not uncommon for aging car buffs to purchase the same model they drove as young men, or to buy the car they longed for but couldn’t afford at the time. Theses fondly remembered relics of the past are purchased, restored, and buffed to perfection. The proud owners can often be found among other muscle car aficionados talking about engines, turn speeds, performance, and the good old days. As a 52-year-old female owner of a 69 Super Bee remarked, to guys of a certain age, owning a muscle car “is all about nostalgia” (Interview, 08 August, 2011).

However, while nostalgia may be the impetus for men’s participation in classic muscle car culture, the reasons for women’s involvement differ considerably. While there were a few women who drove muscle cars during the 1960s and 1970s, the majority participated vicariously through brothers or boyfriends, or not at all. As the owner of a 1965 Mustang remarked, “I got left out of that scene. [My ex-husband] and his boyfriend used to go up to Woodward all the time, up at the Totem Pole, or all of the other restaurants up there. No, I wasn’t ever taken” (Interview, 18 July, 2011). Thus a desire to turn back the clock or to relive the glory days of the muscle car era is not what motivates the majority of women to purchase a Dodge Charger or Plymouth ‘Cuda. Rather, women own muscle cars as a way to share an interest with husbands and sons, or to possess something denied to them when they were young. While the women who own classic muscle cars do not identify as feminist, they recognize that during the 1960s and 1970s, teenage girls were financially and culturally excluded from participating in muscle car culture as drivers. Thus to those women who admired muscle cars from afar as teenagers, owning a classic today is often considered a personal accomplishment. As the owner of a 1967 GTO remarked, “I always wanted one when I was in school. I wanted one but I couldn’t afford it” (Interview, 24 July, 2011). Now a 64-year-old grandmother, she had to wait until her five children were grown before considering the purchase of a muscle car. To a graying 59-year-old, driving the 1965 Mustang she longed for as a teenager demonstrates that “a woman can have a classic car just as much as a man can” (Interview, 18 July, 2011). And as the 58-year-old owner of a 1965 Mustang convertible exclaimed, “I never thought my dream would come true” (Interview, 07 July, 2011).

Nostalgia certainly factors into the exponential growth of the classic muscle car hobby among aging boomer men. However, while men may purchase muscle cars to recall the young men they were 40 years ago, women own and drive them to demonstrate who they are today.

 

Byrnes, N. (2002, November 11). Blowing blue chips off the road. Business Week, (3807), 16.

Eldridge, E. (2002, August 6). Collector cars flex muscle vs. markets. USA Today, 1B.

Henry, E. (2002, April). Get your motor runnin’. Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, 56.4, 106.

Mueller, M. (2004). Motor city muscle. St. Paul: MBI Publishing.

Naughton, K. (2006, March 13). Detroit muscles up. Newsweek, 147.11, 40-42.

Pickering, M. & E. Keightley (2006). The modalities of nostalgia. Current Sociology, 54.6, 919-941.

Ulrich, L. (2005, October 17). The $4,000,000 Plymouth. Fortune, 52, 192-210.

 

 

11 thoughts on “Nostalgia & the muscle car

    #   tires chicago on 08.22.11 at 12:18 pm     

    That was a great write up about muscle cars. I still remember my car back in the day.

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    #   Russell on 08.24.11 at 7:59 pm     

    Nice article, made me think about the 67 Road Runner I always wanted to buy.

    🙂

    #   xtremeno on 08.26.11 at 8:26 am     

    Thanks for the post! I found this interesting and informative. American muscles… my dream!

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