In typical fashion, Yvette VanDerBrink is busy fussing with a car when I call her. “I’m hooking up a trailer right now,” she tells me. “Can I ring you back? We need to get ready for a show tomorrow.”
VanDerBrink is an auctioneer in South Dakota, focused primarily on finding and flipping beautiful classic cars, many of them American in origin. The 54-year-old’s life has been defined by these big-bored muscle cars, ever since she went out riding with her grandfather and dad as a young girl, hunting down 1957 Chevrolets in yards and alleyways by identifying their fin-like tail lights. “My dad was always buying cars. He was always at the area race tracks. That was Friday, Saturday and Sunday for my whole life,” VanDerBrink tells me. “All summer, we went to the race tracks. Even when we were in high school, dad was still at the track and so were the boyfriends who had those old cars.”
It wasn’t an activity for the entire family — her sister never got behind this obsession with cars. But for VanDerBrink, the craving for an impressive ride never faded as she matured into adulthood. Her first car was a 1979 Monte Carlo, gifted by her dad and graced with a mean-looking front end, a long hood and swooping lines around the body. In 1985, she bought her first collector car, a Chevelle. A few years later, she flipped it for a Camaro. “Driving fast was awesome. Spinnin’ cookies, sliding that Camaro into a parking spot by tugging the e-brake like you see in the movies,” she recalls, laughing quietly. “It was an outlaw thing. I was kind of a wild child, and that never really went away.”
VanDerBrink kept on flipping classic cars through the 1990s, treating it as a side gig to her main job as a medical lab technician at a hospital. In 2001, however, she decided to take a shot at becoming a licensed auctioneer. It’s been a winding path to her reputation and success today. She still remembers how many men scoffed at negotiating with a woman, and outright refused to work with her. Car collecting, especially of American classics, has always been a world dominated by men. That doesn’t mean that things haven’t changed, though. “I work with everyone from very extremely wealthy men who have elite collections to guys who need to sell for the sake of their 401k. The demographics show that my clientele is 95 percent men, 35 and up and especially between 45 and 60 years old,” she says. “But we’re simply not seeing many younger people at our auctions.”
Millennials have been blamed for killing all sorts of things, ranging from diamonds to avocados to the nuclear family unit and beyond, but if there’s one thing the 18 to 35 set loves, it’s cars. That might seem unbelievable for those who have been paying attention to the waves of young people who advocate for green energy, lobby for reforms and investment in public transit and want urban environments designed for people, not vehicles. But studies continue to show that millennials love cars just as much as their parents do, with a recent MIT study showing that, if you control for certain lifestyle choices and geographical factors, the demographic actually has a nearly identical appetite for car ownership as Baby Boomers. Turns out, all those doom-and-gloom reports about millennials ditching cars were skewed by a little thing called the Great Recession, rather than some mass emotional shift toward transit and rideshare apps.
This seems, on its face, like a bit of a paradox. But the sustained desire for cars in the U.S. doesn’t mean that car culture hasn’t warped and waned in the last few decades. By throwing their dollars at new models and lightly aged import cars, millennials are killing something, after all: the greatest hits of American and European sports cars, which helped define a century of cultural growth and global pop cultural dominance through films, music and design aesthetics.
“I grew up with it. When I went to high school, all we drove were Chevelles and Camaros. But when you lose those stories, and the connection to those memories, you lose the connection to tangible things,” VanDerBrink says. “Younger people, they’ll sell classic cars because they want the money but not the stuff. And they don’t have an interest in the mechanics and working on a car. If they can’t get in and go, they don’t want it.”
Many millennials who are invested in classic cars see a similar landscape as VanDerBrink. Haden Cory, a 27-year-old engineer at X in Northern California, fell in love with cars at a young age, and eventually got his hands on his father’s 1972 BMW 3.0 CS. His father had already made major modifications to the engine in the 1990s, and these days it’s Cory’s getaway car, a treat for weekends and scenic drives where he can let the straight-six engine gallop. His daily driver is a stock Audi A4 wagon, but he’s spent far more time and money on tuning up the BMW in the last half-decade, and remains a member of the BMW Car Club of America.
“But I’ve noticed that there aren’t people my age in that club. I have coworkers and some friends who are quote-unquote ‘into cars,’ but there’s just not as many people now who take care of their cars in a personal way. Cars are less and less a passion. They’re a tool. They’re a means to an end,” he observes. “In a sense, it feels like cars now serve as a kind of housing for new technology, whether that’s driverless aids or automatic parallel parking or whatever. It’s not really about design. In the 1970s, technology wasn’t playing the main role in the car’s form. Not in the way it is now.”
Curious about how trends have shaped the classic car business, I reach out to Alex Manos, a co-owner of the Beverly Hills Car Club, which specializes in buying and selling classic and rare collectible vehicles. It’s a pretty easy question for Manos to address, and he immediately notes that the last decade has been a transformational one for car culture. “The market has changed so drastically. People weren’t looking at 1980s cars, really. They definitely weren’t looking at 1990s cars. And now everyone is out for those models,” he tells me. “I don’t know if that’s the internet and Instagram at work, but it’s changed a lot.”
Manos’ own first collectible was a 1962 Lincoln Continental sedan, which he bought in 2000. The more attention he gave the car, the more it rewarded him, he says, bragging about how the custom 150-spoke wheels, booming stereo and ice-cream paint job drove bystanders “crazy.” The real bug he caught, however, was for the hunt-and-flip process. I suggest that it sounds like he learned to chase the next high, over and over again. “Yeah, 100 percent,” he replies.
Younger buyers may not be showing the same interest in classic muscle cars and Euro sportsters, but Manos says there’s still a realization that a classic car, kept in sharp condition, can be an investment worth hanging onto. “You talk about Uber and Lyft and all these options to not have a car, but young people still have that appetite for a cool car that you don’t need to drive that often, but can take out for a cruise or show off at that Malibu beach party,” he says. “A classic vehicle is an investment you can actually have fun with. It’s like buying the right Rolex. You can have it for 10 years and sell it for about the same price you bought it at, or even make a profit, if you have the right model.”
Broadly speaking, millennials’ stagnant wages and standard of living has put downward pressure on car prices, especially vintage vehicles that cross multiple generations of owners. VanDerBrink agrees that the collectible value of American cars in particular are falling among young people. The good news, at least for her, is that a whole different subset of cars has sparked a millennial romance: Imports. “A ‘97 Honda Accord is something that a lot of people seek out now, because you buy what you’re familiar with,” she notes. But the image of the big-time collector, with multiple valuable cars sitting in a garage or a barn, is becoming rarer and rarer, she says.
That includes men like Mike Cascio, 68, who admits that he’s got more than 20 vintage MG cars from Britain at any given time. His very first car was a 1959 MG MGA, a gorgeous little coupe with a tiny windscreen and luxurious curves that he copped for about $550. Over the decades, he has bought and sold dozens of cars, even building a two-story garage near his home on the outskirts of Milwaukee. “My friends and family probably questioned my sanity,” he says with a giggle.
But he views his style of collecting as decidedly generational, and expects that his own children will sell the collection off when he’s no longer around (“Though I hope they’ll keep one or two”). He says the community around these pioneering 20th-century cars has faded in his lifetime, especially with young people struggling to gain high-paying jobs with stability. “It makes me think of the music industry,” says Cascio, who is a musician and music-store owner. “Back in the day, it was all about the great guitar heroes. I picked up a guitar because of that, and guitar players always had contemporaries to look up to and say, ‘Wow, I gotta play guitar like that.’ But that’s changed today.”
The world is apparently burning, but our love of cars lingers, even despite some reforms in what and how young people buy. Experts I spoke to say we’re probably witnessing the last generation of people who will carry the torch for muscle cars and stripped-down vintage roadsters, and the realization is bittersweet for all involved. But VanDerBrink is still buying and selling, and confidently proclaims to me that the internal combustion engine is here to stay, even with the rise of a hip electrical car manufacturer like Tesla (“They’re uglier than shit, and I hate the tech, but they’ve done a remarkable job on marketing”). It’s no coincidence, she says, that Honda Civics from the 1990s are a hot commodity as of late. No amount of green-energy wokeness has changed young peoples’ appetite for mobility, even if there’s a host of complicated institutional reasons why that appetite remains.
“People still love a car. I sold a little Civic for six grand recently, and it was a POS, honestly. But it’s an iconic car for that period, which young people get,” she argues. “When a person gets their first car, that feeling of freedom is huge. Cars will always be collectible. The question is, what will it be?”