June 21, 2002 -- USA Today -- Autos

Baby boomers splurge on 'road candy,' just for fun

DETROIT -- Douglas Anderson just bought a Mini Cooper S, a revival of the tiny British runabout of the 1960s. It's the fifth vehicle in his Mesa, Ariz., driveway. Mel Littlepage of Basye, Va., fulfilled a nearly 40-year-old dream when he bought a 1962 Chevrolet Corvette two years ago. It's his third car. Lauren Steubing has a Mazda Miata sports car, maybe not practical in Billings, Mont. But it's the fourth car in her family, so it can spend winters in the garage. They are among a growing number of American households that have more than two vehicles. R.L. Polk, which tracks auto registrations, says the number of three- and four-car households jumped 31% in the past three years, from 10.9 million in April 1999 to 14.3 million this April.

And though many of those extra cars are basic transportation for teenagers coming of driving age, auto-industry observers say an increasing number are fast, emotional, indulgent, fun cars being driven by adults.

Sometimes, it's a combination of both.

"Anecdotally, a frequent scenario is a parent giving the paid-for family car to the college kid, and the parent goes out and gets the car they've been wanting for years, the BMW or the convertible," says Carol Morgan of Strategic Directions Group.

These are cars that Alan Hall of Ford Motor's Special Vehicle Team calls "road candy": convertibles, snazzy two-door coupes, high-performance cars and the odd, or at the very least, unusual.

Convertibles are among the most popular in this group, and automakers churned out 43 models in 2001 compared with 36 in 1997. Looking at a dozen best-selling convertibles, J.D. Power and Associates says the typical buyer is a 42-year-old married guy making $85,000 a year who was drawn to the car's styling.

Automakers are gearing up to provide even more models that lure such buyers, and vintage-car auctions are polishing up everything from '60s hot rods to '70s sedans to feed a growing market.

Money and variety

Driving the trend:

More disposable income, particularly among the aging but fun-loving baby boomers.

"Baby boomers today range in age from 38 to 56," marketing consultant Dennis Keene says. "That's a lot of nests empty of kids for the first time, a lot of midlife crises, a lot of early retirements with big payoffs, and a lot of inheritances being realized from their World War II parents. It all adds up to extra cars, and cars that are more toy and indulgence than mere conveyance. ... And there is a growing 'What am I waiting for?' attitude among people who can afford it."

Research by Power shows that of the 13% of new vehicle shoppers who are considering luxury makes, 40% already have three or more vehicles. The median income of these luxury shoppers has jumped from $95,000 to $112,000 in two years.

"You have a population with the means to buy, a generation of buyers who are now able to be a bit more selfish and indulge themselves, who are healthier and more optimistic, and who see getting old as an option rather than a sentence in terms of their attitude," says Bill Williams, who writes about affluent car buyers for Power. "And they are looking for vehicles they can fall in love with, not just decide on."

Even so, a lot of fun cars can be had for less than $30,000: cars such as the Mini and Miata; Chrysler PT Cruiser; convertibles from Chrysler, Mitsubishi and Toyota; and Ford's Mustang Cobra. Even luxury brands Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Cadillac, Infiniti and Land Rover have models under $30,000.

"Affordable, yes, but in small enough numbers that the buyer has a sense of exclusivity," says John Colletti, head of Ford's Special Vehicle Team. His team adds hopped-up engines and spicy designs to the company's mainstream cars and trucks and sells them in limited batches of 5,000 to 8,000.

There are a lot of different products out there. General Motors is gearing up to sell Hummer H2, a $49,000 truck that looks like it was chiseled from rock. BMW's Mini combines easy urban driving with nostalgia.

Marketers for Mini and Hummer say their vehicles, which couldn't be more dissimilar in appearance, answer a similar call: unique transportation.

Both expect well over a third of buyers to be adding third, fourth or fifth cars to their stables when they take delivery.

"The sheer variety is helping drive sales because a lot of people no longer have to settle for cars that aren't exactly what they want," Keene says.

Boomers and others

Certainly many "road candy" consumers are baby boomers.

"I'm beyond helping anyone move, and I don't haul manure," says Anderson, 52, who flew from Mesa to Westchester County, N.Y., recently to get the exact Mini Cooper S he wanted. The electric blue Mini joins a Porsche Boxster, a Mazda Miata, a BMW M3 coupe and a Jeep Cherokee in Anderson's auto corral.

Steubing, 54, a retired flight attendant who bought her Miata in limited-edition British racing green, says, "This is my car, not the family car or the kids' car. ... And when I get out on the highway, I like to drive it fast."

But other demographic groups are buying toy cars, too. Like dinks -- double incomes, no kids -- Melissa Jones, 30, and her husband of Interlachen, Fla. They have taken delivery on a new Mini, their third car, to go with a Ford Windstar minivan and a Chrysler PT Cruiser.

"The Windstar is for our Greyhounds, the Cruiser is for me, and we fight over the Mini," Jones says.

It wasn't long ago that automakers considered the market for convertibles, coupes, small niche cars and muscle cars dead, killed by the stampede to sport-utility vehicles, minivans and pickups as second vehicles.

But now they see a whiplash hitting the market as drivers of those practical but hardly svelte SUVs and minivans seek fun and performance.

Perhaps the best example of a popular vehicle that provides attitude and emotion is the PT Cruiser, designed to resemble a 1940s police cruiser. Chrysler thought it could sell 60,000 in a good year. Last year, it sold 170,000 -- and plans to do 250,000 a year worldwide. To keep it fresh and appealing two years after its debut, Chrysler is introducing special versions -- a woody, a turbo-charged, an all-black one that comes out of the factory with painted flames, and, to no surprise, a ragtop.
Lots of vehicles aimed at the "road candy" crowd are on the way:

Old and new

Not all of the cars filling up driveways are new. Hemmings Motor News, a monthly magazine that's the bible of buying and selling vintage cars, reports that muscle cars like Pontiac GTO, Dodge Charger, Chevy Corvette and Mustang GT from the late 1960s and early 1970s are the rage at auctions.

Richard Lentinello, Hemmings' executive editor, says baby boomers are ruling the market these days for vintage cars. "They are gravitating to these cars because either they were too young or couldn't afford them when they were new," he says.

That's what motivated Littlepage, 58. When he graduated from high school in 1962, his father promised him a sports car if he got a full scholarship to college. He did. But his father had money troubles and couldn't deliver.

So two years ago, Littlepage bought a white 1962 Corvette. Sometimes he and his wife, Kay, his high school sweetheart, take the 'Vette to the retro Silver Diner for dinner and then "cruise around a little bit."

"I feel really good when I get in this car, 'cause it brings back memories of my youth," he says. "It helps me recapture some of those moments. It's a wonderful, exhilarating feeling to step on the gas in an old hot rod like this. It goes when you mash on it, and it gives you a satisfactory, satisfying rumble. And it's fun."

Lester Acton, 51, of Glen Ellen, Ill., recently bought a 1969 AMC Rambler, his third vehicle, to restore for weekend driving.

Assuming he does the restoration right, he could make money on it. But that's not why he bought it. "The Rambler called out to me. ... It's raw driving, and I like that."

Sales numbers for vintage cars are hard to come by. But over the past three years, California has seen a 20% increase in sales of special license plates for vintage cars. Lentinello says rising prices and auction-house activity tell him collecting is up as well.

A stay-at-home splurge

Despite fears that Sept. 11 would put a damper on car sales, it hasn't. That includes many of the "road candy" models.

"You are seeing recreational travel dollars going into personal-indulgence purchases," Morgan says. "Too nervous to spend three weeks in Europe? What could be safer than buying yourself the car you have always wanted?"

Morgan, co-author with Doran Levy of the upcoming Marketing to the Mindset of Boomers and Their Elders, says about 20% of 40- to 54-year-old car buyers can be described as looking for nothing but "stylish fun." They don't check out Consumer Reports before buying, she says.

"These are people who are expressing themselves through their car, and they don't care if it's the highest quality or easiest to repair," Morgan says. "They want a car that screams, 'Me!' "

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