How Cars Define a Generation

Like any good boomer, Robert Bloom was driven to existential angst when asked to explain his car choices over the years. Today the 54-year-old family man drives a sensible and ecofriendly Honda Accord hybrid. But in his salad days, Bloom had a thing for sports cars with stick shifts. His first and still favorite car: a sage green, two-seat 1971 Opel GT with four-on-the-floor. And when he put himself on the car couch for NEWSWEEK, the Northbrook, Ill., psychiatrist admitted that he never stopped lusting for reckless speed. The new object of his desire: a 2007 Pontiac Solstice roadster. "In being asked about my purchases, I was forced to think about my conflicting motivations," Bloom wrote in a follow-up e-mail. "I now realize that it is easier to be held accountable for professional opinions than personal ones." Still, Bloom used his best boomer skills of rationalization to resolve his conflicting passions. "At some point in the future, there's going to be a two-seater, hybrid sports car," he said, "and I'm going to buy it."

What a long, strange trip it's been for boomer drivers. The group that started out as hippies at the wheel of psychedelic VW Microbuses has taken many forks in the road—from muscle cars to minivans, Beetles to Beemers, Hondas to Hummers, pony cars to Priuses. The one constant in boomers' conflicted car culture: you are what you drive. On the road, the Me Generation became the Look at Me Generation. "The vehicle became the picture frame around the boomer," says auto researcher John Wolkonowicz of Global Insight. "They carried cars as fashion statement to the extreme."

How did two-ton machines with four wheels and an internal-combustion engine come to define us? Because to most boomers, cars are like breathing and television—essential to everyday living. They were never the mysterious mechanical marvels our parents drove from point A to point B. Rather, cars are a rearview mirror that reflects a restless generation intent on reinventing the rules of the road. (Those roads, by the way, are boomers themselves, since the Interstate Highway System was born in 1956.) To boomers, the wheels you choose are the ultimate expression of freedom and of self. After all, taking to the open road has been a lifelong love affair. Boomers were the first generation to grow up in the back seat, or, in some cases, the back window. "I'd ride up in the rear-window deck of my dad's '54 Plymouth," recalls Bob McDonald, 52, an auto analyst for Edmunds.com. "I rode there one last time when he traded it in for a white 1960 Impala."

As boomers moved into the driver's seat, they pushed automakers to create cars especially for what they needed—and needed to project—at each stage of life. Carmakers complied with muscle cars for the early years, fuel sippers in the days of gas lines, family haulers for the "Baby on Board" stage and status-symbol cars and SUVs for the age of affluence. Now that boomers have learned the inconvenient truth about global warming, they're ditching their SUVs and lining up to buy the Toyota Prius and crossover utility vehicles that combine the attributes of an SUV in a slimmer, more fuel-efficient package. Think of it as the SUV that hit the gym and now runs on half-caf skim latte. Detroit is desperate to come up with the next big breakthrough to give boomers what they need for their empty-nest years, and hope to score with new crossovers like the GMC Acadia and Ford Edge. "Fifty-four percent of all vehicles purchased last year were by people over 50," says Chrysler trend watcher Steve Bartoli. "We call it the silver tsunami."

It's not just the cars that changed over the years. Boomers also transformed our culture with their automotive obsessions. For starters, they filled their driveways and our highways with wheels. In 1962, when the first boomers turned 16, there were 78 million cars and trucks on the road. Today there are 237 million, a threefold increase, according to the U.S. Highway Administration. Cars now outnumber licensed drivers in American households, giving rise to the three-car family. One in five new houses today is built with a three-car garage, double the rate of just 15 years ago, according to the National Association of Home Builders. "The American garage started out on the back of the lot," says car-culture expert Michael Marsden of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis. "Then it moved closer to the house, then it was attached. Now it's the entrance to the house."

The car itself became a rolling home with boomers at the wheel. First there were the passion-pit years, when the back seat served as the boomer bedroom. (Honda recently honored the days of "shaggin' wagons" with commercials for its Odyssey minivan that featured '70s conversion vans decked out with water beds and bolero beads to the sound of Foghat's "Slow Ride.") These days, though, the car is more a kitchen-cum-dining-room, as drive-ins begat drive-throughs, which begat dashboard dining. The average American now consumes 33 meals a year in his car, according to NPD Group, a Chicago consumer researcher. And one quarter of all restaurant meals are now ordered from a car. "One of the most important appliances in America is the power window," says NPD's Harry Balzer. "At some point, you'll see drive-throughs at the side of supermarkets."

Long before boomers turned their cars into multitasking machines, they were interested in only two things—speed and style. And Detroit delivered just as boom-ers were getting their driver's licenses. First came the original pony car, the Ford Mustang, whose arrival was heralded with simultaneous covers of NEWSWEEK and Time in April 1964. Next came muscle cars with memorable names like the Pontiac GTO Judge, the Plymouth Road Runner and the Dodge Super Bee. How did boomers afford all this hot iron? Their indulgent parents picked up the tab. David Spero will never forget the baby blue 1967 Camaro SS he got for his 16th birthday. "It was, like, 'Hell yeah!' " recalls the 55-year-old music manager. "This is the perfect car."

As the Vietnam War created the generation gap, boomers began to view their cars as another form of protest. As soon as they graduated from college, they often used their first paychecks as a way to reject the motoring mores of their parents. Judi Rettich, 60, bought a bright yellow 1974 Super Beetle (a bigger bug) to show she was taking her own road. "My mother didn't like the car—which pleased me no end," says the Lancaster, Pa., artist. "My parents had huge cars and four kids. I had a small car and one child. I was different from them—that was important to me."

Buying a Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic was another way of rejecting The Man. "After Vietnam and Watergate, big American institutions were not to be trusted," says General Motors vice chairman Bob Lutz. "We were the poster boy for the industrial part of the military-industrial complex." That's why Lana Harris has never bought American. "American automakers seem like the enemy to me," says Harris, 52, a restaurant worker in Two Harbors, Minn. "They seem like behemoths—big, old, sluggish and white."

Politics aside, Detroit also gave boomers plenty of reasons to steer clear. After the twin oil shocks of the 1970s, Detroit went on a disastrous downsizing campaign that resulted in some of the worst cars America ever built. "We had grown inefficient, complacent and lazy," admits Lutz. "Then people got a taste of well-put-together cars from the Japanese." Bob McDonald still painfully recalls his '73 Chevy Vega that burned more oil than gas. "That Vega gave me a reason to look away," says McDonald, who since has driven only Nissans.

Still, Detroit managed to capture boomers—and save itself—when it came up with entirely new categories of cars. In 1984, Chrysler pulled out of its tailspin on the wheels of the minivan it invented. Timed perfectly for boomers' childbearing years, the minivan was another rejection of their parents' tastes: it was the anti station wagon. Lisa Dembo made the move into a white Dodge Caravan when her children came along in the 1980s, despite her husband's objection that it would look "really suburban." "When you're doing a lot of carpooling," explains Dembo, 51, who now drives a Lexus, "you need to be able to get in and out quickly." David Bostwick, who worked on Chrysler's original minivan, recalls that Lee Iacocca expected the Caravan to lead boomers back to Chrysler's boxy LeBarons. "Mr. Iacocca used to describe the minivan as a stalking horse," he recalls. "Unfortunately, during the K-car era, we didn't have anything else these people wanted."

But BMW did. As fatter paychecks rolled in, the Yuppie years arrived and the BMW 3 Series became the essential automotive accessory. "Yuppies had the power suit and the power jewel-ry, and you needed the power vehicle to go with it," says generational expert Madelyn Hochstein of DYG Inc., a social- and market-research firm. A plus: a black Beemer (especially with a drop top) seemed to cover over those tiny crow's feet and emerging paunch. "A Beemer says, 'I don't exercise, but my BMW says I do'," says Wes Brown of Iceology, a California trend-spotting firm.

For those boomers who still had kids to haul around, the SUV rolled up big in the '90s. But unlike the minivan, SUVs were cool. "Minivans never quite captured boomers' souls," says Hochstein. "There's not a lot of me in minivans. It's a lot of us, and that's not what boomers are about." Riding high and loaded with leather, SUVs were the perfect boomer blend. Engineered to scale mountains, most SUVs made suburban assaults on the shopping mall—less than 5 percent were ever taken off-road, according to automakers. And the generation that invented Earth Day managed to rationalize its fixation with the three-ton gas hogs. "I refuse to feel guilty," says Bob Sanders, 59, a Covington, Ky., lawyer who owns a Hummer H2, but once was a Microbus-driving, commune-living hippie. "Other cars in my life were an MG Midget, VW bugs, the tiniest sports cars made. I've already saved the environment for most of my life. If I'm abusing it a little right now, I can live with that."

But not everyone could. As SUVs grew in size, so did the controversy surrounding them. First, environmentalists began to howl about how much gas they gulped. (The Sierra Club dubbed the Godzilla-size Ford Excursion the Ford Valdez.) Then came the grisly realization that SUVs pulverized other cars (and their drivers) in accidents. And finally, the confluence of the Iraq War and soaring gas prices rendered SUVs uncool. Boomers exited them in droves.

Initially, the Prius became the antidote to a Hummer hangover. After Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins climbed out of one and onto the red carpet at the 2004 Oscars, the Prius became a car cause celeb. Buyers lined up and paid thousands over its $23,000 sticker price. "I wanted a car that made a statement against wastefulness, against the current administration, against the war," says Prius owner Burt Constable, 49, an Oak Park, Ill., newspaper columnist. "My voting hasn't controlled the U.S., but my car can control a little part of it."

But replicating the Prius phenomenon has proved problematic. When automakers stuffed gas-electric hybrid systems into existing models, like the Ford Escape hybrid, boomers shrugged. Those hybrids, with their tiny leafy badges, were far too subtle. Boomers, not surprisingly, want to shout their green street cred in a car that looks like nothing else. That's why the Prius, with its avant-garde look, remains the hottest hybrid. "I want to change the world through shopping," declares Prius owner and reformed SUV driver Debbie Levin, 53, of L.A. "Oh, yeah, and I feel like I'm cool."

Where will boomers turn next? That's what the auto industry is spending millions to figure out. Just a few years ago, all anyone in the car business cared about was Gen Y, the 13- to 30-year-old children of the boomers. But it turns out that there are still plenty of miles left in boomers' car cravings. And once again, they're not going to act like their parents and stop buying new cars when they hit retirement. Honda started shying away from boomers earlier this decade, fearing it was growing old with the generation that put it on the map. But now Honda is making a U-turn and re-embracing its boomer buddies—because it's good for business. "We're trying to figure out what happens to these people when they become empty-nesters," says Honda senior researcher Robert Bienenfeld. "They're going through this dramatic shift into a new life stage, and we want to get under their skin."

The fact is, no one really knows what boomers will drive into the sunset. They've always been a generation driven to defy expectations and blaze its own trail. But some futurists believe boomers' wheels of tomorrow will weave together the tapestry of their lives—from fomenting revolution, to bringing babies onboard, to taking the high road in high style. "A lot of boomers want to re-engage with things they protested about in the'60s and '70s," says J. Walker Smith, author of "Middle Ageless," a forthcoming book on aging boomers. "But they don't want to give up the comfort and luxury they've grown accustomed to. They're not going to man the barricades this time. The new form of protest will be with their pocketbooks."

To some, that means a cushy compromise car like the Lexus RX330, a crossover utility vehicle that's easier on gas than an SUV is, but still loaded with luxury. To others, it means finally giving in to life's little automotive pleasures. Nanu Clark, a self-described "overgrown hippie" from Berkeley, Calif., deeply regrets buying her latest Honda Civic without air conditioning. That's how she equipped her first Civic, 27 years ago, because it was better for the environment. But now the single mom dreads sweating it out behind the wheel. "It was easier to be idealistic when it didn't make me completely miserable," says Clark, 48. "My comfort has become more important than it was when I was younger, and I'm willing to compromise some things that may not be as environmentally sound."

But for boomers more interested in horsepower than flower power, there's another road leading back to the future: the reinvented muscle car. This week at the New York Auto Show, Ford will take the wraps off its latest outrageous interpretation of the classic Mustang: the Shelby GT 500KR (for King of the Road), priced north of $50,000 and with a 540-horsepower V-8 (a testament to how boomer buying power has grown since the original Mustang had a sticker price of $2,368). Coming soon: retro remakes of the Chevy Camaro and the Dodge Challenger. And graying hot rodders can't wait. After all, they're out to show everyone on the road that they haven't slowed down (much) just because they've got a few miles on the odometer. Take Bob Hill, 58, a biostatistician in Santa Rosa, Calif. Once the kids left the nest, he and his wife got a "midlife-crisis car"—a ruby red 2003 Corvette convertible. Just like back in the day, Hill loves to go cruising with the stereo cranked. "There's nothing like 'Sympathy for the Devil' with the top down in a 'Vette," he says, laughing. "It brings out my inner child." For the generation that refuses to grow up, that's the sweetest ride of all.