21 February 2007

Car Clubs in Transition

Car clubs have come a long way since the Antique Automobile Club of America was founded in late 1935. Thought by some to be the first organized club in America for the old car hobby, the AACA began with just 14 members. As of early 2007, AACA members number just short of 60,000. However, the club’s influence goes far beyond its paying membership, especially considering that at least 300,000 people attend the club’s National Fall Meet in Hershey, Penn., each October. Considering the traffic through Hershey, AACA president Steve Moskowitz is surprised that more people don’t join.

As of 2007, hundreds of national clubs and literally thousands of regional or local organizations serve collector car enthusiasts. National clubs encompass umbrella groups such as the AACA, the Classic Car Club of America, the Horseless Carriage Club of America and the Veteran Motor Car Club of America. There are also national clubs that cater to virtually every marque, model and genre, whether it be the National Corvette Restorers Society, The Cadillac & LaSalle Club or the Professional Car Society (for funeral cars and ambulances). Local clubs often consist of regional chapters of national organizations or groups that welcome all collectors in an area.

For the most part, membership in national clubs – particularly umbrella groups – are constant or dropping slightly, at a time when 46.9 percent of the respondents to Hagerty’s 2006 Hobby Survey don’t belong to any clubs at all. Single make or model clubs appear to be faring a little better because their members are joined by so many common interests.

With club membership hovering at just above 50 percent, it’s surprising that a strong 81.3 percent of the respondents reported attending a local show in the past 12 months. What makes that so interesting is that local shows are generally promoted by the very local clubs to which many enthusiasts don’t belong – only 24 percent of them belonged to a marque, theme or model-specific local club while another 16.8 were involved with local clubs open to any car or enthusiast. In other words, people want to go to the events clubs put on, but don’t necessarily want to be part of that same club.

If car enthusiasts aren’t meeting fellow club members for dinner once a month, how are they connecting with other people for the information, parts and cars they covet? Just as the buying and selling of cars and parts has migrated to the Internet, so too has club activity. Of those surveyed, a significant 97.6 percent said they use their web access to pursue their collector vehicle interest. Buying or selling a car through eBay or another online source is what most people usually think of when computers and cars come to mind. But there is an entirely different way of using the Internet to enhance hobby enjoyment that positively dwarfs the online auction giant.

Click on www.auto.dir.groups.yahoo.com/dir/Recreation_Sports/Automotive for a directory that lists around 30,000 online automotive discussion groups, ranging in topic from Chevrolet Monte Carlo to alternative fuel, to MGA Twin Cam or a group that focuses on classics from the 1920s through 1940s. Some are exclusively focused on some aspect of collector cars and others might be involved with new technologies or motorsports. Other sites, such as www.groups.google.com host discussion groups with automotive topics, but Yahoo is by far the biggest and most diverse.

Online groups have strengths and weaknesses. Hosting is generally free, so there is no overhead. However, a volunteer needs to serve as moderator. It’s easy to post information in message or archive form and many sites also host thousands of pictures. The size of these informal cyber clubs can vary from fewer than a dozen people up to a few thousand. As with any club, a small percentage of the membership tends to be active.

Cyber discussion groups know no borders. In seconds, a club member in Australia can ask a member in Pennsylvania for an e-mail address in England or New Zealand. A request for information or parts can also reach hundreds of people in many different countries. And although it’s possible to build relationships over long distances, it’s much harder to plan events or meet for dinner.

As with any information posted on the web, you have to evaluate the source carefully and determine the level of trust you’ll put in any correspondence or documentation that arrives through cyberspace. Another affect of these Internet groups is to continue the fragmentation of the hobby by offering even more special interest clubs, which in turn, erodes the support of traditional clubs such as the AACA.

Clearly, website forums are here to stay and serve an invaluable purpose. The more obscure the marque or model, the more important these groups can be to preserve history, share parts and generally disseminate information.

But is there a place for both Internet and traditional clubs? A web forum is great for sharing information at midnight from the comfort of your home, but that discussion group is going to be hard-pressed to organize a show, a cruise or a rally. The most progressive clubs are likely to improve their web presence and recognize that the Internet needs to be another avenue through which to communicate and organize members. Meanwhile, the most dynamic online discussion groups actually evolve into national and international communities able to share information and even team together to manufacture parts.

In this best of all possible worlds, we’ll have the best of both worlds when club and computer meet.

Hagerty conducts an annual hobby survey to gain information about the collector vehicle market to better understand our collector friends, market trends and lifestyle interests.

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