Classic car shows evolve alongside a new generation of car enthusiasts


(NEW YORK) — Classic car shows have long been a staple of car enthusiasm — a place for gearheads to gather with fellow enthusiasts to show off their antique rides.

“The vibe is usually really, really chill. It usually happens pretty early in the morning on the weekend,” says Kristen Lee, deputy editor of automotive news site, The Drive. “People bring their dogs, they get all their cars polished up and they come and they park, and they kind of just walk around and admire everybody’s ride.”

A recent show in New York City featured the usual classics. Ford Mustangs, Chevrolet Corvettes and Chevelles, Pontiac Firebirds, and Dodge Challengers from the ’50s and ’60s were all well represented. The cars weren’t the only throwbacks either — music from Billy Joel and Elvis Presley echoed around the event from carefully placed speakers.

But Lee says if you’ve been to enough of these shows, you might start to notice some trends.

“For me, as a kind of a showgoer for so long, it’s kind of felt like a gatekept community. Like, no one, obviously, has turned me away, but a lot of the shows that I grew up going to was a lot of people my parents’ age,” says Lee, adding: “it never really looked like something I could participate in.”

And an older audience tends to favor older cars, says Bradley Brownell, a writer at automotive website Jalopnik.

“There’s always been this line of delineation at 1973 with the oil crisis,” he says.

Brownell says 1973 is an important year in car culture because it marks the beginning of what some call the “Malaise Era,” a term popularized after President Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech, despite the fact the word “malaise” never appears in the speech. New regulations from the federal government designed to crack down on poor fuel economy resulted in a 1970s automobile market that many complained was not as exciting as the decade prior – and echoes from that time reverberated for decades.

“Traditional enthusiasts will tell you that after ’73, everything’s garbage. ‘It’s emissions controls. fuel injection, it’s impossible to work on,"” says Brownell.

But Brownell isn’t a traditional enthusiast. He’s the co-founder of “Radwood” — a car show that caters to vehicles that came after the Malaise Era, specifically “between 1980 and 1999.”

And it all started with one of his own cars: a 1983 Porsche 944.

“I loved that car,” he says. “And I invested so much time, and occasionally money into that car.”

But the energy that went into the Porsche wasn’t always appreciated, Brownell says, which is where the idea for Radwood was born.

“I took it to a car show and when I went to pay the entry [fee], they were like ‘are you sure you want to come into this car show? You know what we’re doing here, right?"” says Brownell. “I kind of had that feeling like, ‘there needs to be a place for people like me, where I have so much emotional investment in this car, and I love this car, but it’s kind of a misfit."”

He says the types of cars you’ll see at Radwood vary based on the region in which the show is taking place, but can feature everything from Geo Metro convertibles, to Ferrari 348s and Lamborghini Diablos. Porsche and BMW are often the best-represented marques, however.

“That’s the crazy thing about Radwood is literally everything from that era is welcome and encouraged and appreciated.”

Brownell says on average every show also features at least one Delorean – the car from the 1985 film “Back to the Future.” And it’s not just cars that are setting their flux capacitors back a few decades, according to Lee.

“Radwood kind of embodies, like, a very powerful nostalgic vibe. So people play a lot of eighties music, people dress up in eighties attire.”

The first Radwood took place in southern California in 2017, and since then it has travelled to more than a dozen cities across the country. Brownell says over the years, the show has attracted car enthusiasts from all walks of life, from “people who weren’t alive when these cars were built to people who owned them brand new.”

Lee says the success of Radwood and shows like it highlight a broader shift in car culture.

“These new shows feel a lot more inclusive, there’s a lot less gatekeeping. It feels like a safer space,” says Lee. “I think that’s – that’s also indicative of the way that automotive enthusiasm is moving as well.”

“What we’re seeing in some of the mainstream media and stuff like that – they say that ‘car culture is dying, with the introduction of the electric vehicle, car enthusiasts just no longer exist.’ And that’s not true.” says Chad Kirchner, Editor In Chief of electric car news site EV Pulse.

Kirchner says there’s a new type of car enthusiasm brewing amid the broader shift to electric power in the automotive industry. That includes everything from Tesla-specific tuner shops to homemade EV conversions of gas-powered cars.

“People on TikTok that I see that are electrifying Chargers and Challengers and all of this stuff, just homebrewing this,” he says.

Kirchner says EV enthusiasm requires a different set of skills than traditional gearheads may be used to, but it still brings out the same passion for cars that made Radwood a success.

“Sometimes hacking, sometimes it requires engineering, but what it definitely does require is enthusiasm,” says Kirchner.

That’s why he recently teamed up with Brownell to create another car show called “Autopia 2099.” The show, set to take place in early December in Los Angeles, is focused on all-electric vehicles.

“It’s supposed to be a bunch of people hanging out and expressing their enthusiasm for electrified propulsion, whether it is a brand new Tesla or whether it is – maybe somebody has a GM EV1,” says Kirchner.

“One of the things we want to do is we want to break down the barriers of fancy EV technology. We want people who are curious about EVs and how they work and how they charge to come out and meet people who actually own them and drive them every day,” says Brownell.

Brownell says they’re expecting to see everything from EV-converted Mustangs and BMWs to an electric VW Microbus. One car not likely to make it to Autopia 2099, however, is Brownell’s own EV project car: A Porsche Boxster into which he’s planning to install a Tesla motor. He says the goal is for the car to develop around 1200 horsepower.

“That’s part of why it’s not done yet. I’m afraid of what my own brain has thought up.”

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