Baby Boomers are responsible for changing the very way we travel in this country. They began driving at a younger age and helped turn the automobile into a fashion accessory. And they presented manufacturers with near-endless niche markets looking for bigger, better and faster cars. Not to mention, Baby Boomers accelerated a dual-gender workforce that drove farther to work than ever before because they made life in the ‘burbs (kinda) cool. In the last four decades alone, AARP reports that the “number of vehicles nearly tripled, travel rates more than doubled, and total vehicle miles of travel grew at more than twice the rate of population growth.” That’s a helluva lot of distance traveled by a lot of people in a lot of different cars. So let’s take a look at some of the more classic rides that Baby Boomers were using to kick-start car culture in the U.S.
Ah, driving with no intention of actually going anywhere. Cruising the same familiar streets, cat-calling ladies and drinking cheap liquor. A ceremonial right of passage for teen drivers looking to test the waters of their new-found independence. Cruising helped drive the popularity of self-designed customization and modifications of speed and power, birthing hot rods and custom builds.
Essentially any car can participate in recreational cruising. But a true classic cruiser is generally long, heavy, luxury-minded and fitted with a big enough engine to lend it an air of power and sportiness. Many early model cruisers were great affordable starter cars for boomers who first obtained their licenses in the sixties. A flashy and capable used vehicle they could buy with their own money that offered room for friends and enough punch for some drag racing. Rides like the Ford Thunderbird, Chevy Bel Air, Chevy Impala, Mercury Eight, Buick LeSabre, Oldsmobile Super 88 and the Chrysler New Yorker are just a few that come to mind.
Ford Mustang and the Birth of the Pony Car
Affordable and stylish, the pony car offered rebellious young drivers a vehicle to match their newly discovered bravado. The launch of the Ford Mustang in 1964 really established the segment. Over the years, a variety of compact performance-minded cars were produced and aimed specifically at young people. After the Mustang’s success, classic rides like the Plymouth Barracuda, Chevy Camaro, Pontiac Firebird, AMC Javelin, Dodge Challenger and Mercury Cougar entered the market. The friendly competition among these classic models helped launch the Pony Wars and ensured the segment’s success for years to come.
Musclin’ in on Muscle Cars
If there’s anything I love, it’s arguing semantics. Yes, muscle cars and pony cars share many characteristics. And yes, a lot of pony cars were fitted with performance packages and big noisy engines that allow them to qualify as muscle cars. But technically speaking, they aren’t the same thing. Kinda like how mammals and reptiles are two totally different classes, but the platypus just rolls through life covered in fur and laying eggs like it’s no big deal. It’s worth giving these classic rides their own category, and not just because I’m a stickler for definitions. These vehicles helped define the muscle car segment and launch a passionate and prolific community of enthusiasts.
A muscle car is generally defined as a mid-size or full-size two-door RWD vehicle fitted with a big honkin’ V8 engine. Classic rides like the Dodge Charger, Chevy Chevelle SS, Pontiac GTO, Buick Gran Sport, Plymouth GTX and Road Runner models, Mercury Cyclone Spoiler, Dodge Super Bee and Shelby Mustang are just a few of the bold, aggressive and loud candidates.
New and Exciting Sports Cars
I know, more semantics. Sports cars were aimed toward a very different demographic than the muscle and pony car markets. Just consider the smaller engines, better handling and a higher price tag. But the following models should tug at the old memory. Especially if you were a Boomer with a passion for racing or just had a lot of paper to burn. The Chevy Corvette Sting Ray, Jaguar E-Type, Triumph Spitfire, Porsche 911, Alfa Romeo Spider, MGB-GT, Lotus Elan, Shelby Cobra, Austin-Healey 3000, Sunbeam Tiger, Fiat 124 Sport Spider, Datsun 240Z and more expensive rides like the Aston Martin DB85 and Mercedes-Benz 300 SL all exuded style and coolness.
There will always be those that fall outside the neat little boxes of definition. The Mini Cooper S proved to be a defining foreign import of the 1960s. Though small and performance-minded, it wasn’t a true sports car. The Volkswagen Beetle and the Renault Dauphine, were quirky little economy imports that saw popularity in the early 60s. Cult classics like the Ford Ranchero and Chevy El Camino marked what MotorTrend calls “the first modern crossover vehicle.” The Volkswagen Bus, road-trip-passenger-van extraordinaire became an icon of 1960s counterculture and Hippies everywhere. And as America entered the 70s and began to lose interest in muscle cars, utility-minded vehicles like the Toyota FJ-40, Ford Bronco, International Scout and Jeep line-up offered a new kind of automotive thrill.
A Bygone Era
Cars of the fifties, sixties and early seventies provided incredible performance and style. Something that reflected the joie de vivre of the post war years. Not to mention, the radical and tumultuous attitude of the subsequent decades. But like everything else in popular culture, once something becomes self-aware it ceases to capture the collective imagination anymore. “She don’t know she’s beautiful.” Until she does, and then everyone thinks she’s stuck-up and over-confident.
True car culture continues to ebb and flow. Why? Because there’s an increased focus on fuel economy (yes, you Prius huggers). And emphasis on connectivity. Oh yah, and helicopter-mom level of safety. Startling numbers of young Millennials are showing a total lack of interest in car ownership and driving in general. Car insurance rates steadily climb to exclusionary levels. So the open road continues to be littered by tolls, speed traps and endless construction.
While they “just don’t make ‘em like they used to,” many Americans do still love their cars. Maybe someday I’ll talk about my first ride, a rusted-out 2001 Jeep Cherokee, the way my dad talks about his 1966 Chevy Malibu Super Sport. But I’m not willing to bet on it. Thanks for the cool rides, Baby Boomers!