Boomers create the booms Featured

9:59am EDT July 22, 2002

Volkswagen must have smelled a winner when it decided to market an updated Beetle for the 1990s. The car garnered a long waiting list of customers before it hit the showrooms, and sales seem strong for the car that harkens back to the ’70s version of the successful “Bug.”

Not to be outdone, Ford Motor Co. recently revealed it would market a sporty version of the Thunderbird, not a reprise of the bloated version of recent years. Other companies are resurrecting old names and models, many with styling cues that recall dated designs.

Never let it be said that the auto companies don’t recognize a lucrative trend when they see one. I, on the other hand, would have trouble spotting one on a 98-inch high definition television screen.

Which brings to mind a suggestion I made to my friends when I was a teen-ager: I predicted car companies could make a bunch of money by reproducing some of their classic designs, such as the Chevy Bel Air or the Mercury. My buddies laughed, at the time with good reason. There were still plenty of Chevys on the road, and heck, what could be cooler than an Impala SS with a 396-cubic inch V-8 engine?

A lot of guys my age have made a few discretionary bucks and long for the toys of their youth, like 30-year-old hulks of chrome and glossy lacquer. As a result, the baby boomers, who by their sheer numbers have distorted just about every aspect of American life, have created a demand for things like reproductions of classic cars. I heard a while back that a company was indeed going to come up with a copy of the Bel Air, and I’m quite certain its target market isn’t 18-year-old males in ball caps and roomy shorts. My idea, in retrospect, wasn’t so crazy. It was just a little ahead of the curve.

I also remember cooking up the idea in the 1970s for the quick oil change station. I envisioned a drive-through garage with automated equipment that would meter just the right amount of oil into each engine’s crankcase and get you out the door in 10 minutes or so. In all, my idea was pretty close to what Valvoline and Jiffy Lube have put on just about every corner of the suburbs.

At the time, though, I figured no one would pay what it would cost to deliver such a service. Now, every couple of months or so, I take my minivan in for a $25 oil change and a chafing reminder that I didn’t have much confidence in my own ideas. I mollify my regrets by telling myself that the oil companies probably had the idea before I did, but just didn’t tell anyone about it. I told people about it but didn’t do anything. That’s the difference between an idea and a fortune.

One of my enduring passions is music, more particularly, playing the guitar. Anyone who knows a guitar player knows that most are knock-down drag-out nuts for instruments, particularly old classics. A story in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago described how excess cash in the hands of well-heeled baby boomers had soaked up a lot of the vintage guitars and driven prices out of sight, unfortunately for the working musicians.

The draw for collectible instruments is so powerful that at least one guitar manufacturer has found it lucrative to produce customized versions of its ’50s and ’60s models, complete with pitted chrome parts, cigarette burns, chipped, dull paint, yellowed plastic and grimy fingerboards. And they are charging — and getting — about twice the price demanded by the standard off-the-line model.

I’m convinced baby boomers aren’t likely to reverse the attitude that the way to bring joy and meaning to life is by acquiring the objects of their desire or reasonable facsimiles of the same. With that in mind, I’ve focused on discovering what might be the next fad my generation embraces with passion enough to make me rich if I’m in the right business, at the right place and at the right time.

Of course, I’m not going to reveal any of those notions. I’ll say that it’s not going to have anything to do with leisure suits, platform shoes or the Ford Pinto. If I’m successful, I plan on letting the whole world know the same way any self-respecting baby boomer might, by spending every spare moment driving around town in a Chevy convertible with a battered guitar case across the back seat, looking for a place to play. Ray Marano, associate editor of SBN, may not reveal any of his retro-fads, but he is saving space on his office wall for a reproduction velvet Elvis. Enough said. Reach him at rmarano@sbnnet.com.