There is a generational shift occurring in the classic car restoration marketplace. Baby Boomers remain focused on keeping a car original and for show while Millennials pursue performance technology that makes their cars go, go go.
Last week, Classic Car News sat down with Mitch Williams, chief executive of Ohio-based Restoration Parts Unlimited, Inc., and with Chandler Wheat, Brand Manager, a 20-year-old who already has seven years of automotive experience. Williams met Chandler at a local car show, where each had a Mustang on display.
“We started talking and realized we had a lot in common,” Williams said. “I have found that I may be physically older, but the hobby makes us — Chandler and I — mentally on the same page.”
According to Williams, Restoration Parts Unlimited began with one brand and within three years has grown to seven brands with five operating companies and five factories, all located in the United States. The brands under Restoration Parts Unlimited cater to classic cars and include everything from a 1953 Corvette to a 1995 Camaro while offering parts for restoration and even resto-mod modifications.
“We are car enthusiasts making parts for other car enthusiasts,” Williams said.
While core vehicles supported by the company include Corvettes, Chevelles, Novas, Camaros, and the Mustang. Williams has noticed that the Fox-body Mustang, in particular, is gaining momentum, as are first-generation Mustangs and pickup trucks.
Williams said the average age of those restoring cars depending on the vehicle. For example, he said, Baby Boomers are drawn to traditional Detroit muscle cars while, with the Fox-body Mustang, he’s “seeing much younger auto enthusiasts getting into them, which we think is good for the industry.”
“There are so many cars out there that are relatively inexpensive and easy to get which can be made to go fast and look cool for not lot of money, and we are seeing them driven by younger enthusiasts.”
Williams said it is harder for young people to get into the hobby now then it was when he started. “I started by working at a full-service gas station, and there aren’t any more around really, and that led to becoming a technician, building race cars, and I progressed through the industry and then into the business background.
“Cars for young people are one of those things where everyone is looking for a way in,” Chandler added. “It’s hard to find a way into the hobby with newer muscle cars being expensive as are the classics. When it comes to kids my age, sure, we would all love to have a 1969 Camaro or 1969 Mustang fastback, but it’s not practical because most kids my age can’t afford to have a daily (driver) and a muscle car or show car. We also have no place to put it.”
According to Chandler, this is why you see the Millennials forced to pick cars that are 5-10 years below the curve and why imports are huge.
“It’s a practical daily (driver) that people can use, love, and mod. We love the tech specs, just as how Mr. Williams and his generation was back in the day with who had the biggest engine, who had the most horsepower, I think we see the same thing today.
“Most kids don’t have the luxury to have a show car, a race car, and daily, so we put everything into one,” Chandler said.
“What younger car enthusiasts have today that I didn’t is much better access to information through blogs, forums, chat rooms, car clubs, and they are connected through technology.” Williams added. “When I was younger, my connection was a small circle of people I knew. Now, they can be connected all round the world and exchange information at a much faster rate than I ever could.”
As an industry, Williams sees a need to channel all the information out there into, “hey, maybe you want to do this for a living,” and I think the industry is moving in the direction of younger consumers,” he added.
A look around the recent SEMA Show supports the generational shift.
“Look at all these cars, they are all loaded with new technology,” Williams said. “The tool box when I was younger has wrenches and a socket set. Today it’s a laptop and its something that young people understand and have grown up with.”
According to Chandler, the younger generation modifies to “see what we can change to make it better. We feel that cars are meant to be driven, its about an experience. My track car was my daily for two years before it became the full-time track car. l went through some Ohio winters on summer-only performance max tires, which was not my smartest move, but it’s the price to have fun.”
Williams said he sees all classic cars become more valuable, even with the generational shift. The number of cars if finite but the number of people wanting them is growing.
“I have always wanted a 1970 Mustang,” he said. “I turned down a few cars for $1,000 or $2,000, and each time said that I would buy one when it was for $5,000 because I could still afford that, and I never thought they would get any higher than that. Now, I am currently restoring 1970 Boss 429 Super Cobra Jet. When I finish, the car I should be into it for $50,000 but it will be worth $100,000. I’m sitting here going, ‘the money and math always worked but it’s my fault for being late to the party’.”
The high prices for beloved classics will cause people to start looking for alternatives. Williams added.
“If I can’t afford a $100,000 car, what’s out there that I can build that’s still pretty cool? And that might be the Fox-body Mustang.”
As a result, Williams sees growth in the resto-mod arena.
“What we are seeing is if you have a numbers-matching classic car, there are only so many out there and we are reaching a point where many are restored, have low mileage, and they are not being driven,” he said. “But there is a larger group that isn’t numbers matching, like mine isn’t, so I’m going to drive it.
“In my case, the motor blew up 25 years ago drag racing the car, and at the time the owner never thought it would be on the road again. I just want to drive it because it’s a cool car. Now we are seeing people break into the resto-mod style where you can change the suspension, brakes, put in a crate motor.
“In my case, like so many others, I know it will never be worth what the numbers-matching car would be worth.”
Williams point out that there are about 75 million Baby Boomers in the country and about the same number of Millennials. The difference, he said, is that the Boomers are still the ones with money.
However, he added, “The younger generation is rapidly acquiring money and will be just as powerful as the Boomers, but will be much smarter about information and a lot more technology driven.”
In Chandler’s opinion, the Millennials only care about the driving experience. “Does it turn well? Does it stop well? Does it sound good? There are many people who love drag racing, but there is also a very large following for those who love autocross, drift, and road racing. So many companies make so many different parts and the thing that sets companies apart and sells parts is the technical aspect and how much information they provide.”
“We are all about numbers,” Chandler said, “It’s about presenting products in a way where I can figure out what’s best, and that’s what sells. Older people like to say, ‘I love this brand because it’s on my car,’ where younger people like to say, ‘I have this brand and love it because of these technical aspects.’”
According to Chandler, “Driving should never be boring. If you get in a car and are bored getting from A to B, then you bought the wrong car. Life is too short to drive boring cars. It’s all about the driving experience.”