Modern Car Culture
To be a ‘car person’ today, is the best time in the brief history of the automobile. Cars are gaining a consistent quality across the board, benefiting everyone, and in the EPA’s quest to lower emissions, engine development is being skyrocketed. Tuners, tinkerers, and hot rodders are all blessed with more efficient, more powerful, often lighter engines, which are more regularly coming with turbos. All of this means more efficient fun out of the box, and a higher ceiling for those willing to make a few changes. On top of that, becoming a car person today is even better, speaking from experience. For those of us who are under the age of 25, we’ve had the perfect storm for car enthusiasts (to-be) these past few years. Not only do we have the internet and its Kings like Ken Block to inspire us, but we can do that same stuff in video games while we are sitting on our couches. When our thumbs get tired, and we need a break, we can flip the T.V. on and watch any number of programs like Fast and Loud or Top Gear.
Oh, Top Gear, that BBC institution that introduces the world not only to British wit, but also to cars. That “pokey old motoring show” is more than just a show about cars, but rather a show where the cars are characters along with the three hosts. Jeremy, James, and Richard did not have the experience they had—and we enjoyed watching—in Bolivia for example, solely because they were in a particularly interesting area of the country, but rather because they were there with the crappy cars they brought. Mr. Regular of YouTube fame summed it up perfectly when discussing a Civic Hatch, “Car stories are really people stories”. The same can be said for any of their other programs. Oliver in Africa, the Reliant in Barnsley, and even the three modern, normal hatchbacks in the Ukraine are all examples of this.
Of course interesting scenarios could be created with these cars, but even if that were the case (looking at you Reliant Robin) the results are the same: a car show that even non-car people can sit down and have a chance of enjoying.
This accessibility of Top Gear, among all the media offerings, is often the entry point of newcomers to car culture—the Millennials if you will—that the culture so desperately needs. If you ask people like my grandmother, or even my mother, what they thought the image of car-guys in America consisted of, they would say old-looking men and their wives walking around car shows in old-looking graphic-tees, with old-looking Corvette prints. Luckily, this is changing.
In the 80’s and 90’s, most of the cars available to that hardy generation of gearheads, were not very good all-around products like we have become used to. You could get a big engine in a domestic pony car, and all the noises and torque potential that promised, but almost were guaranteed to get a sub-par car in most other respects. Conversely you could get a tidy little package, with good fuel economy, from Japan, but had all the excitement of that particular era’s 4-cylinder engines, and the street-cred they gave (or lack thereof). Or spend a lot of money and attempt to get the best of both worlds from Europe, with the repair costs that came with them. The times were bleak.
Rejoice! This is no longer the case, and those muscle car heroes like the F-bodies from GM are routinely being overpowered by souped up econo-boxes like Ford Focus ST’s or even its younger sibling the Fiesta ST. Even a base model car from a volume company can be fun on a spirited drive. Simply look at the praise Honda’s Fit receives and you will quickly come to realize even cars your grandma may drive can be more fun than just fancy folding seats.
This comes back to the climate car enthusiasts, and prospective car enthusiasts, face today. It is fantastic. Sure, you can buy a bad car. A really bad car even. But you don’t have to. Almost every price-point, even at the bottom, has a good car. This means that more and more people are liking their cars as more than just an appliance, and combined with the aforementioned media and information access available to the world, car culture is increasing, and more and more people are becoming enthusiasts.
For proof, simply look at the rise of ‘enthusiast’ models. Even 15 years ago, if you wanted an enthusiast car from a mainstream company like Ford at a decent price, with decent usability, you only had a few models of choice. Disregarding the more expensive and focused—and often limited in number—Special Vehicle Team creations, pickings were slim. An Escort ZX2 Sport in 2002, the sportiest full-production 4-cylinder powered car Ford offered made a mighty 130bhp [the Focus made 8lb-ft more of shove with the same motor at the same time, however the Escort ZX2 continued to be quicker due to weight and gearing] at the crank.
A hot-rodded version of this motor was put into a Focus hatchback and offered in limited numbers for 3 years between 2002-2005 by the SVT division. This Focus SVT is similar in spirit and price-point to today’s Focus ST, and made a total of 170bhp compared to today’s 252. The game is flipped on its head when the new Focus RS is brought into the equation, with its earth-shattering 350bhp and 350lb-ft, especially considering America was never sent either previous generation Focus RS.
As a numbers game, the gains are astounding, and it is not simply due to the addition of a turbocharger. Keeping with the same company for continuity’s sake, let’s look at Ford’s naturally aspirated large motors. This of course means the Mustang: today it makes 435bhp and 400lb-ft out of a 5.0L ‘Coyote’ motor with dual-overhead cams and a heap of other technologies. For comparison a 2002 ‘New Edge’ Mustang made 260bhp and 302lb-ft out of a 4.6L SOHC ‘Mod Motor’ V8. That is a huge performance gain, even discounting improvements in braking, cornering, tire technology, and most importantly in this particular case, the inclusion of an IRS system. Counting all of those improvements, and the new car is two or three leagues ahead of the one from a decade and a half ago.
This is not brand specific either. Chevy has essentially perfected the small-block V8 in the realities of today’s climate legislation and its chassis control and engineering is above par. Dodge has gone with the old adage of “more is more”, and not only offers the highest number of cubic inches in the V8 department from an American automaker, but it took the bar and shot it into space with the inclusion of the Hellcat model line and its 707bhp. Foreign automakers like Honda are keeping pace, and setting their own bars. Honda rules the FWD scene with its love-it or hate-it Civic Type R—another forbidden fruit that American enthusiasts are now getting. On top of that the normal Civic appears to be returning to form, with more than one body style on offer, and a small fun little engine in a smart package, regardless of body or engine choice. I could go on and on; most individual companies have very good offerings in at least one market segment.
This advancement, particularly of the enthusiast model range, is down to more than just EPA legislation and advancing technologies; it’s the enthusiasts themselves. At the end of the day, we are a market. It doesn’t matter how many gearheads are helping designing the cars, or making business decisions at the company level: at the end of the day they have to sell cars to be successful and fund the fun stuff. New car model prices are certainly on the rise, helping fund this development, however automakers have also been shown that the enthusiast segment is a viable market. Not only are mainstream companies offering go-fast versions of its normal cars, almost every automaker and every model has a ‘sporty’ trim. Offerings from the X5/6 M to the oddball Juke Nismo RS demonstrate this proliferation of fun.
This increase in enthusiasm is quickly eroding the image of ‘car guys’ being men from the ’60’s with cars from the ‘60’s and instead changing to a fairly inclusive, extremely diverse group of interests. The explosion in the past half-decade of internet media has helped define, and even create in some instances, car communities on any topic conceivable. Shows like Roadkill, Mighty Car Mods, and the future Grand Tour, are continuing to make accessible content. Using Roadkill as an example, they have gone from a couple of dudes building crap on the internet, to a couple of dudes building crap on the internet with a magazine and live events with over 30,000 people, all in a few short years.
As someone who enjoys both writing and cars, I thought it would be fairly stupid of me to not join the fray. I was not a ‘born-and-bred’ car guy; instead I played with Hot Wheels, collected Die Cast models of cars with my Grandpa, and finally watched an episode of Top Gear. Then in the 2 months after that I proceeded to catch up on the 17 seasons that I missed out on. I was hooked, not just on Top Gear, but on all cars. I started reading magazines, taking notice of cars on the street, and lusting after many, many, many cars. Now, with this blog, I hope to not only keep in practice with my writing, but also contribute to the culture I so love, and maybe learn a few cool things about cars in the process.
Stephen Hyden View All
I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.
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