Nostalgic vehicles can be good things, but approach with care

By | September 16, 2020

When it comes to classic vehicles, why do we care about some more than others?

To some degree I mean that question in a collective sense; we as a general population with our shared or just very common experiences. But I also mean that at an individual level, because each person’s nostalgia is a mix of collective (shared) and individual experiences that formed our memories.

Nostalgia emerged as its own field of neuroscience in the late ’90s, and research changed it from something to be feared, like homesickness (as it was first interpreted centuries ago), into something that could be used for beneficial purposes by releasing feel-good chemicals like dopamine when certain stimuli triggers a mostly-positive memory.

Various senses ranging from scent to sound, and also sight, can trigger these memories, deliberately or not.

I should also stress that care needs to be taken if you’re going to try this at home. First off, negative memories, sometimes very powerful and traumatic ones, might be triggered instead. Secondly, overdoing it and wallowing in the past diminishes its positive effect, so triggering some mostly-positive memories a few times a week is considered normal, but doing so all day every day isn’t.

Going back to our opening question, we can observe the level of public interest in certain classic vehicles when one of them is unearthed in a barn, or sold at an auction. The level of coverage and the price are both a rough indication of how much, and how many, people care about them.

At an individual level, you may wonder why people would care about that particular vehicle, or spot another one and wonder why that doesn’t gain the same level of attention.

To try and answer that, here is a philosophical question we can twist. If a tree falls and nobody hears it, did it make a sound? Similarly, if a vehicle has survived for a long time, but it doesn’t trigger mostly-positive memories for people, does it have any value?

I keep specifying mostly-positive memories for a reason, because some memories can be very negative. Beyond some models or brands suffering a poor reputation for whatever reason, individual experiences can vary greatly as well.

When my mother sees an early Cortina for instance, she doesn’t think of a Spanish holiday as the name intended, or motorsport victories like the first three Bathurst 500 races on the trot, no, Mum’s brain is instantly taken back to being a teenager in the early ’70s and her father teaching her how to drive. Very specifically, it is the moment that the driver’s seat adjustment rails failed underneath her. Her father’s instructions to use the brake got more urgent as Mum was giving the stressed-out reply of “but I can’t reach the pedals”. I heard this story enough times as a child that it’s mostly what I think of too.

To give you a positive example for an individual, my father will spot a vehicle in a TV documentary or at an event (back when we had such things) or even on the street when someone has brought theirs out of the shed for a cruise, and I think the most common phrase he uses is “your (insert family member) had (or drove, or worked on) one of those”, followed by an anecdote about his personal memory associated with them.

When I wrote for magazines about modified cars, the most common reason people of my generation gave for spending serious amounts of time and money on a Ford, Holden or Chrysler manufactured several years before they were born was “because my Dad (or other family member) had one”. In a handful of cases it was that particular vehicle, either handed down or hunted down.

One can also make the case that this effect of nostalgia is the reason we saw several classically-styled new models begin to appear in showrooms from the late ’90s. Examples of this included the Mini, the Mustang, the Camaro, the Beetle, the Fiat 500 and more, all of which were made to look reminiscent of their earlier counterparts that were around in the 1960s. To at least some degree, they were tapping into the teenage memories of the baby boomer generation who by then had some spare cash, and it worked.

Sam Hollier is an ACM journalist and a motoring fanatic who builds cars in his shed in his spare time.

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