…any era you fancy.
Yes, that is right. Any particular era you think gave the world your favourite cars can be called “The greatest era of motoring”.
It could be the swinging 60’s whose optimism gave us the pony cars, or the 80’s excesses that could only have birthed the Group B craze. Even our endeavours foray into retro homages of the late-90’s and the tech-obese cars of today’s tech-obsessed era could veritably be the products of “The Greatest Era”.
And the qualifier for the title is all in your head. No really.
Call this a cop-out answer from the warzone that is the internet comments section if you will, but this isn’t some hippie nonsense of giving out participation trophies and accepting every snowflake for its unique identity. There is a legitimate reason why we all look back at some point in the past as “the greatest era in motoring”. More specifically, why we look back to a very specific time frame in our lives, and we owe this to something known as the “reminiscence bump”.
The reminiscence bump is what psychologists describe as one’s tendency to recall a disproportionate amount of memories from a particular time period in their life. In most cases, this particular time period usually encompasses an individual’s formative years, which is usually between the ages of 10 to 30. You know, when you are still in the midst of that journey of self-discovery every young adult novel seems to bang on about.
You might think this is new age hokey, but it does explain why we can remember completely arbitrary things like the jingle of the first Super Mario Bros, our first crush, or the Saturday morning cartoon schedule from three decades ago, but can’t seem to remember your own spouse’s birthday.
There are many theories explaining how our most treasured memories seem to be concentrated in the earlier parts of our lives. Some theorise that this has much to do with the formation of our identity, both at an individual and generational level. Others believe that this is due to the concentration of first-time life-changing experiences and life-affirming events as an individual progress through adolescence towards adulthood. That rush of experiencing an achievement for the first time would leave an indelible mark more than the 50th time.
While the jury is still out on determining the causes of the bump, the effects have had some real-world consequences. Ever heard of “Make America Great Again”?
Long before Donald Trump made it his campaign slogan, MAGA had been a favourite theme of the US Republican party since Ronald Reagan. There were plenty of derivatives through the decades, but the core message was broadly similar – “the past was always better”. A surprisingly populist but regressive idea that hasn’t been in vogue since the beginning of the European Renaissance.
Not only does the reminiscence bump offer a viable explanation on just how a shrewd businessman managed to ride on the populism of a vapid and unproven perception that the country was going down the dumps all the way to the most powerful office in the world, it also explains our firm belief that the best years of motoring are behind us.
By all objective accounts, cars today are better than they ever were. Nowadays you are far more likely to die while looking at your phone than driving home through a snowstorm. We have affordable hot hatches that are quicker than the quickest supercars were decades ago, and not only will safety systems help prevent accidents, some will also allow you to drive much quicker than your brain could comprehend. On top of that, today’s cars are more luxurious, more efficient, better built, and more reliable than ever before.
And yet. We still think that it is all going south from here on out as legions of unfamiliar SUVs precipitates the decline of the traditional car, just as nannying safety systems snatch away our freedom of driving. Sound familiar? It almost seems as though we are pining for a red cap wearing chosen one to start chanting “Make Motoring Great Again”.
For many motoring scribes, their inclination towards cars of yesteryears can be traced back to key moments with a particular car in that impressionable period of their young lives. It could be seeing their first sports car, going on their first road trip, driving their first car, or even rooting for the temperamental star of a stirring time-travelling sci-fi adventure flick.
These impressions, memories, forms a bedrock of familiarity to the observer, a reminder of one’s sense of youthful promise and occasion that will never be tarnished by the mediocrity of a daily existence. It is a connection, an escapism, to a more optimistic and promising time where the warmest memories are still alive. The building blocks of the reminiscence bump.
Correlate the bump to the age groups most motoring writers occupy and it becomes not only clear why some eras are inherently more favoured than others, but also the very driving force that led the classic car market to an unimaginable boom, the inspiration behind the explosion of restomod business and culture, and, if we are honest, the wellspring from which the Porsche 911’s five-decade dynasty had managed to soldier on.
While supercars and sports car will continue to live on in the hearts and minds of enthusiasts everywhere, it is conceivable that there will come a time when a generation will look upon SUVs and electric cars as warmly as we do towards a classic ‘65 Ford Mustang today, not for its objective merits but for what it means to the narrative of their life.
When stripped to its core, that significance in one’s life narrative is what being a car enthusiast is about. The automotive world might have progressed by leaps and bounds, but appreciating cars of our individual era serves as a celebration of the very things that rekindle our excitement and wonder. A figurative time machine that connects our present with the past that rests like an oasis of calm within the turbulence of our minds.
So don’t be cajoled into taking sides on the “Greatest Era of Motoring” debate, because at the end of the day, it is your own memories and honest sentiments that will keep motoring alive for generations to come.