A shorter version of this column appeared first in the Wall Street Journal.
I recently said goodbye to car I had enjoyed and cherished for several years, repeating an experience familiar to most of my fellow baby-boomers. Bringing our twenty-year-old son into the garage the night before taking the vehicle back to the dealer at the expiration of the lease, I unsuccessfully invoked the bittersweet nature of the moment. “Take a good look,” I urged. “This is the last night he’s going to spend in this garage, the only home he’s ever known.”
My boy didn’t get it. “Sometimes you’re really weird, you know that, Dad?” he shrugged. “I don’t think your car is going to feel the pain.”
Of course, automobiles have never been as magical and significant to today’s young people as they were to that first suburban generation after World War II. For kids like my son, it’s easy to take cars for granted: ever since he was born, his father had one and his mother had another and teenagers in his world got their own vehicles as a matter of entitlement.
My parents, on the other hand, didn’t get their first car till I was five and I recall their acquisition of a slightly used ’53 Plymouth as a very big deal. My father had just completed his PhD in physics (thanks to the GI Bill), preparing to take his first significant job in a San Diego aerospace firm. This meant driving our little family across the country from Philadelphia, separating a twenty-something couple and their kindergartner son from the sticky web of immigrant clans back east. The car was the vehicle for adventure, a declaration of independence. We camped in National Parks on the way west toward the frontier, taking pictures of the grey, boxy, strikingly unstylish Plymouth in one scenic location after another. Even by the standards of the time, our glorious chariot counted as underpowered—with a noisy V6 engine charitably rated at 100 horses. “Just think about it,” my father proudly observed, rumbling down the Pennsylvania Turnpike—the self-proclaimed “Dream Highway” completed just before the war. “If we were riding in a stage coach, like cowboy days, it would take a hundred horses galloping together to get us to go like this one car!”