You could be the acorn in a young car enthusiast’s story

May 15, 2020

A while ago, I fell into conversation with Roger Willbanks, a seasoned car collector and friend. I asked him how he first became interested in cars. It’s one of my go-to questions. Acorn stories—how big things grow from small things—have always interested me.

“Denver car show, 1940,” he quickly answered, a grin crossing his face. He was a boy back then, he explained, when dealerships often put on the Ritz for new-car unveilings. At this particular event, Willbanks said, his big brother lifted him up on his shoulders for a better look at the Chrysler Thunderbolt concept car, which, to his eyes, seemed like a rocket ship on wheels, a car completely different from other cars of the time. Right then and there, he decided he would someday own that car.

1941 chrysler thunderbolt concept car front three-quarter
Photo by RM Sotheby’s

As he told me this story, I could see that part of him was right back on his brother’s shoulders, experiencing that moment of awe all over again. Then he turned to me and said, “And you know what, McKeel? I do own that car. Not just a car like it. I own THAT car.”

Pretty cool, right? I suspect most of us who love cars have a similar acorn story, the little moment that ignited our lifelong passion. Cars themselves are always the centerpiece of these moments, but if you think about it, they wouldn’t have happened in the first place without people giving you a nudge.

A brother who held you on his shoulders for a better look. A mom who bought you your first Hot Wheels car. An aunt or uncle who showed you how to drive a manual. A neighbor who let you sit in his Model T or try out his vintage Corvette.

Cars, in the end, are just things. Great things. Fun things. Things that are worthy of our time and passion. But it all comes back to the people in our lives and the memories we build with them.

A headline I read recently is why all of this is top-of-mind today. It said, “America’s Love Affair with Driving Takes a Back Seat: Americans are driving fewer miles.” My immediate thought was, “Of course they are!” Younger generations are flocking to big cities and the suburbs that surround them. Unless they want to invest three hours a day commuting, they’re parking the car and taking public transportation. I would, too. But that doesn’t mean they don’t like cars or driving. It just means they don’t like that kind of driving, right?

The way I see it, we don’t have to worry about Americans suddenly and forever falling out of love with cars or that, within a generation, cars as we know them will be scrapped or entombed in museums, in favor of robot cars that drive themselves. We’re at the front door of a mobility revolution, to be sure. But even when you can nap on your way to work, cool cars and fun drives will still endure, because good things always do.

They won’t, however, endure without you. As I said, the moments that ignite car love in the young usually come from the people around them. Driving season is nearly upon us. If you’re lucky enough to own a cool car, don’t treat it like a museum piece. At a show or car event? Let the young ones sit in it and touch it. Teach a kid to drive a manual. Fix up a clunker with your kid. Put the next generation on your shoulders, so to speak. Give them that nudge. That’s how car love spreads.

This article originally ran in the March/April 2020 issue of Hagerty Drivers Club magazine.