Are the Kids Alright? Getting the Next Generation Involved in Cars!

As an enthusiast first and a journalist second I get around to a lot of car shows, cruises, drag races and other events every year. This year at the NSRA Street Rod Nationals in Louisville, Kentucky I confirmed what I’ve been thinking for quite awhile now. There is an abundance of gray hair in our hobby, and very little youth. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge the rodders and customizers who came before me and our generation by any means.

Those guys are awesome and paved the way for what we all know and love, and if you are still in this and making the scene a better place to be – well into your retirement, then even better! At this year’s show, I watched as the representative from Classic Instruments implored the crowd at the awards ceremony to go out and get some young people involved, because let’s face it folks, if the next generation doesn’t gain more interest in rods, customs and cars in general, then our hobby is in danger of fading away. 

The previous generations always say the same things about the younger ones.

There seem to be fewer kids and young adults at shows and events these days. Where are they? Cars for me have always been cool and sort of a passion. It may be a type of emotional connection as my dad has been in the car business nearly all of my life.

He sold cars, detailed them and finally made it to management by the time I was a first grader, running a service department for a Ford dealer. One of my older brothers is also an avid gearhead and nine years my senior. Seeing my dad at the dealership along with the techs and all the shiny new and old cars, as well as watching and eventually helping my brother swing wrenches definitely had an undeniable influence on developing my passion for this hobby.

Those Darn Kids

If you don’t believe it’s really a problem worth considering, take a closer look at any hobby that’s struggling or has vanished. Chances are that they’re gone or on the way out because there was a serious lack of involving the next generation. The previous generations always say the same things about the younger ones. They’re spoiled ,pampered, they think they’re entitled, they’re undisciplined, uncommitted, etc., etc. – the list goes on and on. While it is true that today a teenager or young adult likely has things better than they ever had before in this country, that is the way it always is and is the way it will continue to be until the end of time. Isn’t the goal of a parent to succeed their parents and in turn, offer a better life for the children they are raising?

These high schoolers look interested in engine building to us.

It’s true today’s youth are in to technology and spend more of their time in front of screens then out in the shop. But again, historically there’s always been something that offered mass appeal to each new generation of youth. Radio when it first came along, offered serial programming for both adults and children, and the same with television – a diversion that wasn’t there before. The same could be said of rock ‘n roll music, disco and pop. Video games have grown from arcade behemoths the size of a refrigerator to multi-player, online marvels, played on smart phones, PC’s or personal game consoles. Today there’s also the growing use of smart phones and the internet for keeping up to date with all things, including cars! Kids have always had a distraction, so we can’t necessarily say it’s the kids that are the problem.

Bernie Conrad's Stude-Vette is a prefect blend of classic style and modern technology. This is the type of car I see as possibly most appealing to the next generation.

The Cars

The cars may somewhat be part of the problem themselves. Modern cars require more specialized tools and equipment to repair than they did even just twenty years ago. You’re not adjusting carburetors and doing a basic tune up on a small-block Chevy anymore. Today’s cars utilize CAN-Bus networks, OBDII communications and a variety of complex systems. At the shop where I spend my 9-5 time we can plug into that OBDII diagnostic port and control all manner of things from influencing how the engine is running, to operating the doors, windows, lights, and sometimes even the infotainment systems. As such, most kids growing up won’t see dad out in the garage working on the family car. New cars become like appliances to the masses, and are disposable.

You drive them for a few years, they get you from point A to point B, there’s just not a lot of passion inspired by the design or the motivation of use. New cars have become vanilla in a lot of respects. The cars that do offer some level of performance are seen as expensive and unobtainable to most. Walk into any big three dealership, look at the window sticker of a new Challenger, Camaro or Mustang and a middle-aged family with middle-class income can scarcely afford one of these cars, let alone a kid working a part-time job in high school or trying to put themselves through college. 

What’s Being Done

Fortunately, some industry people have stepped up to the plate and have begun to notice what’s happening with the younger generations. The Goodguys car show has made a change in recent years offering up its Super Sunday program. On Super Sunday the car show opens up to all domestically built or domestically powered vehicles, from brand new to antique. This is an attempt to appeal to younger generations that may be into what some consider the duller, newer cars, at least it gets their attention and participation. Goodguys hosts twelve such events each year across the country.

NSRA has also made changes to it’s car shows and have now opened up their shows to all cars that are thirty years and older. This too is an attempt to appeal to a younger and more diverse crowd of car owners. NSRA has also started it’s 29 Below Program. This program brings together younger people under the age of twenty nine at NSRA events. The hope is that they network and create some connections, develop friendships and find reasons to return year after year.

Super Sunday, introduced by Goodguys is a way to open the show up for appeal to both more cars and to younger audiences who may be more interested in newer cars yet also gets those younger audiences looking at the hot rods and customs at the show as well.

NSRA is also working at it’s divisional events to involve local high school vocational and technical programs. Not only does this give the students a chance to get an up close look at the rods and customs at an event, they also get exposure to jobs within the industry.

SEMA has also recently been involved and has reopened the Hot Rodders of Tomorrow Series. This competition which we’ve featured here before gives high schoolers interested in cars the chance to compete for scholarships to top tier technical schools. 

There is Definitely Hope

Young people like 19 year old Joey Keown are the best hope for our hobby

While our hobby may be suffering from this age gap problem, there is definitely hope. Recently I was attending the NMRA World Finals in Bowling Green and I met Jim and Joey Keown. Jim had his Mustang featured a few years ago and his son Joey was there showing a 1995 Mustang that the two had built together as a father son project. Jim had decided when Joey was younger to help feed his son’s interest in cars. Since he was way too young to drive at that point, the two have been planning and working on this project together. Jim saw it as a way to keep his teenage kid out of trouble and the fact is that it also strengthened the father and son bond.  

Now at 19, a time when many parents struggle to understand their kids in young adulthood, the two always have something to bring them together. Joey also told me that his car, which by the way we thought was very cool, has peaked his friends interest in cars. So much so that a friend was at the show with him and the two were making the rounds at the swap meet looking for a project car. His plan was to teach this friend and any others who wanted to know, the things his dad had already taught him. Joey also said “I’ll teach this to my kid someday too,” to which is dad added “If that ever happens son,” as he jokingly laughed.

In researching this story I also decided to key in on some resources close to home. My nephew Eddie recently came by for a visit, so I posed some questions to him. At 14 he’s a typical eighth grade boy. He has an iPod, has his own cell phone, plays video games and is on the school football team. I posed the question to Eddie, which would you rather have a smart phone or a car? This is a valid question as kids are increasingly obsessed with technology, to the point that is dramatically changing the social norms. 

I’ll teach this to my kid someday too. -Joey Keown

Eddie answered immediately the way I thought he would, “I would want a car. Because I can get in a car and go see my friends and take them places,” and he was confident in his answer. I posed this question to two of my nieces as well, Kaelin, who will turn sixteen in a few months, and Leea who turned 13 back in the spring. Kaelin struggled a bit in spite of her love of cars and anticipation of driving. “My phone has all my contacts, my friends, everything’s in here,” but she did say she guessed she’d rather have the car, but she was still unsure if it was one or the other and Leea’s reply was similar.

I’d probably like to ask them both in a year when Kaelin’s had her driver’s license for the summer and both girls have enjoyed the freedom that comes with an older sibling who has a car. A bright note is that Kaelin does already have a car, also a Mustang, which is getting a little work right now, and she’s very fond of saying she’d like some more work done on it, “I want it to sound like it hates everybody,” she’s told me, referring to the exhaust system.

What You Can Do Now

Is this the demon that's keeping young people from being interested in cars?

Start by being an ambassador for our hobby. If you see a young person looking at your car at a cruise, at the track, a show – wherever, get up and talk to them. Show them the car, you’d be amazed how it lights up a lot of young people and will really make their day and maybe even light that spark needed for the passion to burn. I’ve let kids sit in my car, answered questions and literally spent hours at shows talking to young people their car and the hobby in general. 

Get involved, teach your kids, your grandkids, etc. the hobby, don’t let the things that you know die with you. That 3-year old playing with a hot wheels today, might be a great name in rod and custom building in the future. Foster that interest early if it’s there. If you have a hot car, do something with it. Bring it to a family festival, show it off in a local parade. Contact your local vo-tech teacher and offer to show the school’s kids the car, or even leave it at the school for a day and let the instructor show the finer points to the students. 

I would want a car. Because I can get in a car and go see my friends and take them places.

The bottom line is simple. It does take a special group of people to make this hobby happen. Not all my friends in school were into cars, just as not everyone was into cars fifty years ago. Each person is unique, and while we can’t fight the world from changing, we can always find ways to keep the rod and custom world moving forward.

Get involved, involve the next generation – don’t just complain, blame or whine – get out and do something! Some people believe the car hobby is dangerous, irresponsible, expensive or not family friendly. It does not have to be any of those things. I can bench-build all day long on cheap fun ideas. Some of the closest families I know go to car shows together. Driving responsibly can still be fun, there’s a place for high-spirited antics and your car pulled over with flashing lights behind you is probably not setting the best example to those who are skeptical.

We all need to get involved with getting young people interested, because if we don’t, there won’t be a car hobby to enjoy in another twenty to thirty years – so get out there and be a part of the solution!

About the author

Don Creason

Don Creason is an automotive journalist with passions that lie from everything classic, all the way to modern muscle. Experienced tech writer, and all around car aficionado, Don's love for both cars and writing makes him the perfect addition to the Power Automedia team of experts.
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