The Reckoning

Posted Friday, Jan. 24, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Next year the first Baby Boomers (born 1945) will hit 70 years of age, while the last born of the three-part Boomer generation (born 1964) turn 50 this year. It’s also been almost 40 years since Tom Wolfe, in a 1976 New York magazine article, coined the term, “The ‘Me’ Decade,” to describe the first Boomers’ evolutionary period. Wolfe said it marked the youthful communalism era’s transformation into one of atomized individualism. In the late 70s Saturday Night Live writer and performer Al Franken found the term worthy of parody, but today it’s not so funny. The “Me Decade” turned into the “Me Generation.”

Contrast our generation’s output to that of our parents’; their lives and history labeled them “the greatest generation,” although that should really apply to anyone born from 1860 to 1930. They took us from horses to the atomic age, from wagon-wheel ruts to modern airports and freeways. Our only contribution to what they gave us has been to place tolls on our highways to keep the commoners from creating traffic congestion for the rest of us, while complaining that maintaining highways for everyone else is too expensive.

Here again Wolfe was right; we are now rebuilding our HOV lanes (communal), into HOT lanes (pay-to-use) for the better-heeled individual in a hurry.

A Style for Every Phase

What’s truly amazing is that we can track the Baby Boomers’ metamorphosis through our last half century of automotive history.

Our grandparents’ generation simply worked on creating the automobile and perfecting it as a functional family sedan. Our parents’ generation did introduce us to the two-seat sports car. First GIs brought back used Jaguars and MGs in the early 50s, and then the first Corvettes came out in 1953; by the early 60s the ‘Vette was our astronauts’ car of choice. But, generally speaking, our parents were still looking for the ultimate large four-door sedan. They found the pinnacle of sedans in the mid-60s with the Chevrolet Impala and Ford LTD.

Yet by that time the Boomers were already upending America’s automobile industry. We claimed rock and roll as our music, but never comprehended that it was members of our parents’ generation who brought it to us — Elvis was not a Baby Boomer, and neither were any of the Beatles. But one man in America saw who Boomers really were and catered to us like no one else. It was Lee Iacocca.

Personal Mobility Statements

When it turned the lowly Corvair into the Monza, giving it individual bucket seats and a shifter on the floor, General Motors accidentally created the first car that the first Boomers claimed as their personal mobility statement. But GM didn’t fully understand the significance of the Monza’s major drop in demographic age. Lee Iacocca did.

He also knew for a fact that, because the Boomer kids worked hard and there was a strong minimum wage, the buying power of America’s youth since the mid-50s had been the best in our economic history. So Iacocca was willing to take his chances on designing and building a car that would speak for the generation that would turn 20 during its first year of production. The result would be the Ford Mustang.

Amazingly few remember this today, but the Mustang debuted exactly when the Beatles started to hit the top of the American charts. In fact, as the Mustangs arrived at dealerships across the country, the Beatles held the Top Five positions on the charts, a record that’s never been broken.

The Mustang also announced women’s arrival and financial power. It was the first vehicle in automotive history to be bought by a large number of single women, and its immediate success forced GM to bring to market both the Camaro and Firebird. But it also sparked the idea that two-door coupes with marginal back seats were the primary vehicle that America’s young people lusted after.

Settling Down, But Not into Wagons

Well, GM won the second round. Boomers with larger disposable incomes moved into larger two-door cars, such as the Pontiac GTO in its second incarnation, followed by the Oldsmobile Cutlass, Buick Skylark and Chevrolet Monte Carlo. By the mid-70s, those cars all seemed to be government-issued to anyone in a nice apartment or buying a starter home in the suburbs.

True, our parents’ generation actually brought the first imports to America when Volkswagen landed in the late 40s, but again it was a sub-segment of the Boomers, hippies, who truly made the VW Bus and Beetle iconic — simultaneously making San Francisco America’s counter-culture destination.

Still, even as the Olds Cutlass came to reign supreme (pun unavoidable), Iacocca at Ford noticed that the youngest and middle-birth-era Boomers were settling down and starting families. And what we weren’t buying were Impalas and LTDs or station wagons. Iacocca begged Henry Ford II to let him move ahead with plans to build the first minivan, but was turned down flat because only Honda had a powertrain that would move it. (Honda himself had agreed to sell those units to Ford.) So the minivan’s invention had to be moved back eight years. It happened when Iacocca moved to Chrysler, which brought it to market exactly as the last of the Boomers turned 19.

It was a hit in the exact same way and sold in numbers similar to his ground-breaking 1964 Mustang. However, the Boomer market had also split demographically by that time; the mid-Boomers embraced Honda sedans and all things Japanese by the time of the Second Energy Crisis in 1979. Come to think of it, by that time the first-born Boomers who had prospered had moved away from American luxury cars and made BMW and Mercedes household names.

And yes, it was the last-born of the Baby Boomers who sparked the SUV craze, which started in the late 80s and really took off with the first Ford Explorer. Maybe the first two-thirds of the Boomers would accept minivans as their primary family movers, but the last third were not going to be defined as anything less than soccer moms and dads, or in anything less than a truck-based vehicle. Oh, that’s right, they also started buying extended-cab trucks as fashion statements to replace their cars, too.

By then America’s naïve youths who had proudly marched in the First Earth Day in 1970 had matured into adults, furious that the Arabs wouldn’t pump more oil so we could have lower-priced gasoline.

A Generation with “Me-ADD”

Our grandparents and parents seemed to care about perfecting only the family sedan. Our generation and our mindset over the past 50 years led us to create two-door coupes with bucket seats, then into the Japanese and German cars, then to minivans, and finally into SUVs and trucks. And now we have to face the fact that in short order, Boomers will become irrelevant to the history of the automotive industry.

For the better part of the last decade, car manufacturers have tried to create the next movement for the nation’s youth — vehicles that they can call their own and take to in large numbers. But so far, no truly new trend has taken hold. Boomers, on the other hand, can take credit for starting six major automotive trends, more than one for each decade of our adult lives. We went from the dream that we were the surfing generation to being hippies, then yuppies — and on to founding the soccer parent generation.

Won’t it be sad if historians remember our sole contributions to American society as the cup-holder and the two-car garage? Those and our deficits do seem to be our only legacies.

© Ed Wallace 2014 Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism. He hosts Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: wheels570@sbcglobal.net, and read all of Ed’s work at www.insideautomotive.com.

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