When I was young, turning 17 years of age was a real target and the countdown to it started many years before. 17 is the legal age you can learn to drive in the UK, and for me this meant being able to drive to the snooker club, pub and my lovely girlfriends house. What more could a 17yr old lad want or need? Not much as it turns out.
No more public transport, no more delays. Just the freedom and chance to explore the world from the comfort of a warm car with my own music playing. The reality was somewhat different, and rather less romantic, but that’s another story.
As I said to my own son recently, you should never spend too much on your first car. As an inexperienced driver, it’s almost inevitable that you will have a bump, and it’s better that the metal you bend is cheap rather than glossy and expensive. That comes later.
Back in the 1990’s, it was all about the stereo, speakers, alloy wheels and performance of the (tiny) engine that meant everything to teenagers discovering the freedom, thrill and danger of driving.
Is it still the same today? Will it be the same in 5 or 10 years? I don’t think so, in fact, I’m certain of it.
The car used to be seen as a possession. Something to be proud of, to maintain, clean and in many ways, it conveyed your status to others. Of course, much of that is still true and the prices of certain classic cars has rocketed in recent years and many have become fantastic investments for their owners, although I would consider selling today if you are still riding this particular wave.
I believe that analogue cars are seen as part of history now, just as new cars are seen as service providers, little different to washing machines or smart phones. They are valued for their ease of use and little else. The less effort and interaction required, the better.
The classic car boom has been led by cars that were produced in very limited numbers. Very few automatic transmission cars have seen their prices surge like their manual transmission counterparts – why?
Because the cars that make driving ‘easy’, that don’t make you work to extract the best of their performance, are seen as being mere objects, devices that exist to provide comfortable, reliable transport and little else.
In contrast to the rising values of certain old cars, modern cars have never been cheaper. In the same way that mass production normally sees an increase in quality and an erosion of ‘personality’, modern cars are now mere objects. They are not expected to engender emotions, merely to provide a service. For the vast majority of buyers, ultimate reliability is rated far higher than the engine note, handling characteristics and performance on the limit. Most people would argue that is a fair trade off.
Very few young people today aspire to own their own wheels. Ask one today, if you succeed in getting their attention for a few seconds (not easy) and see what response you get. A survey recently reported that young people feel home ownership is no longer a realistic aspiration, and with property values so high, that’s understandable.
I think the lack of enthusiasm for vehicle ownership is deeper than merely financial though.
The advent of firms like Uber has meant that for many, a ride to wherever you wish to go is only a few clicks away. It’s cheap, convenient, mostly safe and reliable. You can sit in silence and arrive at your destination without the hassle of finding a parking space and paying for it (remember I live in London). The only weaknesses are when the human element interferes with the tech. That will change soon.
As your Uber driver glides away, normally using electric power, to collect another traveller and small fare, you are at your destination with the minimum of fuss.
Young people value convenience and value over prestige and engineering now. They value experiences more highly than possessions. They probably have a point.
In the very near future, owning a car will become largely redundant. A driverless vehicle will arrive silently at your home / office/ party / ex Uber driver employment agency office and the doors will whir open like they did on Star Trek. Upon climbing in, your chosen music will play while your favourite websites and social media feeds are displayed on the interior surfaces of the ‘car’. You (and your parents, sorry) will be able to track your journey in real time and there will be no delays or surprises. Journeys can be booked with military precision, as journey times and arrival estimates will be accurate to within a few seconds.
On one hand, this is a huge change in all of our lives.
Dirty, smelly and unreliable internal combustion engines are on their way out, that’s a certainty. The electrical grid (more here) will power our driverless transport very soon, and many of the current frustrations and costs we accept, will simply disappear.
Anyone who has watched the fantastic Netflix documentary ‘The Minimalists’ will admire the ‘own your possessions, don’t let them own you’ mind-set that young people increasingly have now.
The future is quiet, reliable, punctual, predictable and safe. That’s the good news. But it won’t stir your soul.
For that, I can help. Please listen to the Rod Stewart song from 1972, ‘True Blue’. Rod managed to record his Lamborghini Miura at high revs from 2mins 46 seconds onwards. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times and it never fails to deliver. I hope it helps you too.
James Sanders, London.
James Sanders is a London based trader and investor. He founded the UK’s largest independent derivatives broker in 2001 and left the City in 2009.