Millennial Nostalgia for the 1980s and '90s Will Reshape the Auto Industry Forever
Boomer nostalgia wrought the modern Dodge Challenger. How will car companies serve millennials with the money to relive the Radwood era?
Jamie Moore does not suffer boring cars. That's why the 34-year-old media executive's driveway mainly reads like a younger enthusiast's dream duo—a 1992 Mazda MX-5 Miata and a 1991 Acura NSX, two unique cars that set the benchmark for driver engagement and reliable performance almost three decades ago. He's owned a lot of older vehicles over the last decade and recently decided to pare his collection down to a few grail models. These are what he treasures most.
The story of how it ended up there might seem insignificant at first. In reality, Moore's decision as a millennial collector to fork over the money for a less-than-collectible new crossover from a brand like Acura speaks volumes about a massive shift that's currently underway. Not electrification or driver-assistance tech—this is about how the industry as a whole will deal with the rise of a new generation of Gen-Y buyers with their own expectations to meet and nostalgic connections to make.
We're still in the early stages. The oldest millennials are turning 40 this year, and until now their growing financial and cultural influence on the car world has mainly been felt on the collector side; think Radwood, and the rapid increase in values for '80s and '90s oddballs. Like the OK Boomers with their six-figure Mopars, the passionate (and financially secure) are seeking what they knew and loved as kids.
But while there are new car throwbacks like the Dodge Challenger to pay kitschy fealty to that older past—and what's that Kundera said about kitsch being the inability to admit that shit exists?—the industry hasn't yet responded with products that reflect and capitalize on a younger generation's legacy tastes. Save for maybe the new Toyota Supra.
That's going to change a lot over the next decade, and the automaker who can draw the clearest line between the 16-bit joys of the 80s and 90s and their cars of today—whenever today is—is going to make a lot of money with enthusiasts. That is how you find that ever-elusive first-time buyer with the means and desire to stick around for a while. And I'm not just talking about a full-on revival of a classic nameplate, or some sort of batshit nouveau-retro project, but the kind of then-and-now connection that pushes a 34-year-old manual transmission fanatic to buy a compact crossover from a brand that he still sees as flying the same flag it did 30 years ago.
I can hear you protesting now. There's no comparing a 1991 NSX and a dumb crossover! That is extremely true. But the RDX can certainly compliment the NSX, in ways that, say, a 2020 Toyota RAV4 cannot possibly to do to something like a 1994 Supra in an analogous two-car garage. And if Moore's already got the dream car, what's wrong with a little practicality?
Where does all this leave Generation X? Like the latchkey kids we were, who knows and really, does it matter anymore? (Yes, your author is a card-carrying member.) Seriously, we're (supposedly) reaching our peak earning power now, so it can be hard to parse out just which age group will be driving the 1980-1999 nostalgia craze as viewed through the new car market.
Those poster cars for five-year-old millennials were our high school dream rides, after all. But Gen X is also smaller and way more constrained with financial obligations and thoughts of retirement at this stage—so spending power matters just as much, and some indicators show millennials have already passed Baby Boomers with a collective $1.4 trillion on tap.
Plus, Radwood mania is distinctly a millennial phenomenon, as anyone who remembers how we really dressed back then can tell you. So let's call the two age groups force multipliers of each other—blammo!—and figure out what that collective interest means for the future—er, current disruptions notwithstanding.
The Radwood Effect
If a then-and-now link is the goal, let's start with the then. Call it the openness of a new generation, or a rejection of the biases of the past, but the appreciation for 1980-1999 cars—from the Lamborghini Countach (!) to a Toyota Tercel wagon (!!!) —among millennials can only be compared to the way Boomers rediscovered muscle cars in the early Aughts and promptly sent prices for rarer models into the six-figure range.
Most of those have since come back down to earth. But this more recent wave has yet to crest—witness this 1993 Toyota Supra that sold for $122.5K at Amelia Island in March. More and more, it's made up of younger people, not oldtimers speculating on or following up trends.
"There are many collectors in their 30s and 40s who are very active and have an interest in a wide variety of cars. There are also lots of younger collectors who are more interested in cars of their era—by and large these are cars with a more approachable price point," said David Brynan, Senior Specialist at Gooding & Company, the Santa Monica-based auction house that runs the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance events. "Generally, there is a greater interest in cars that are fun to drive and operate."
This rings true for Moore, a shaggy-haired car freak who found himself in the hunt for one of the era's brightest stars back in 2017.
Having learned how to drive on his older brother’s 1991 Honda Prelude Si and falling in love with the automaker's light, simple approach back then, he knew he wanted something that hit all the right buttons. “My car in college, and still my favorite car I’ve ever owned, was a 2001 Phoenix Yellow Acura Integra Type R, which I used to track.” To quote Emily Dickinson, the heart wants what it wants—or else it does not care. He decided to look for another old Acura, in particular an early-year Acura NSX.
The NSX, or New Sportscar eXperimental, was Honda's effort at proving you could make a mid-engine halo car that rivaled the performance of anything coming out of Europe without any of the same reliability and usability issues. Developed with input from none other than Ayrton Senna, it blessed the world with incredible handling, V-TEC and the awareness that a supercar need not be a temperamental diva. Moore thought it was perfect.
"My dad had a red Ferrari 308 when I was very little and I completely fell in love with mid-engined, red sports cars,” he said. “Dad would drop my brother and I off at school every morning in that car.” To keep Moore’s love of the Rosso Corsa going, it meant he needed—needed—his NSX had to be red. Formula Red, to be exact. So the hunt began, and pretty soon Moore stumbled on a car that had been originally purchased in the United States, imported back to Japan and then back to the States again. It had just 23,000 miles on the clock. Even at $55,000, it still seemed like a steal.
To bring his old can up to date, Moore has spent a lot of time, effort and money on his particular NSX and his list of modifications is immense, way more than we have room for here, but Moore says he’s essentially brought the car up to Type R spec. If there was a non-visual part that was available for his NSX, he’s put it on—like four-piston Brembo brakes, a KW V3 coilover suspension and a Koyo radiator to name a few.
“The two disappointments when I bought the car were the extremely long U.S. spec gearing and the relatively quiet exhaust. Second gear is something like 32-81mph in the US car. I think they did that because they think Americans just do highway driving,” Moore said. “The Japanese gear set was extremely hard to track down but I did it, and along with the type R final drive, it transformed the car. I also upgraded the exhaust and header which makes the car sound like it should and frees up about 30 horsepower. I track it, so much of it is functional, but I wanted to stay true to the essence of the original design. That meant no body kits or non-functional parts.”
Save for a set of six-spoke Advan RGIII wheels and a red engine cover (formally only available on the Type-R), you’d have no clue his NSX was so anything but bone stock.
Buying Into the Present
So far, the story is old as time: Man buys cool car, man drives cool car. But after a couple years of driving across Los Angeles to work, Moore realized that a long commute in a vintage car is untenable thanks to LA's traffic. The clutch was murdering his knee. "There are no freeways and something like 250 shifts each way in traffic and my left knee was going out because of my commute. It was bad, I had an MRI and my doctor told me I was wearing out the cartilage in my left knee," he said.
Last year, Moore bought his first new car in a very long time: that 2020 Acura RDX A-Spec. Why?
"First off, It’s the first non manual car I’ve ever owned, and it’s the first SUV I’ve ever owned," he said. "I knew I needed something new, so I test drove the BMW X5 and X3 and the Land Rover Velar but I bought Acura because I have such love for Honda and Acura. I mean, the RDX has a detuned Civic Type-R engine and it looks great in the A-Spec and I really loved the fact I had an NSX and an RDX in my garage."
And here's the kicker.
"I wasn’t interested in the new Acura models for a long time," he continued. "But their new designs got me. I felt like the new RDX was the first model that got back to their original thesis of Precision Crafted Performance. I’m an Acura guy over anything else and the best times I’ve ever had in cars was either in my NSX or the 2000 Integra Type-R, which I am kicking myself for selling years ago at CarMax."
There it is. Moore's history with Honda and Acura might've had him considering the RDX against luxury stalwarts like Range Rover and BMW, but it was his perception that Acura is now living up to the standards of the past that made him pull the trigger. It's also telling that Moore didn't consider upgrading to the new NSX, which received a chilly reception from fans for its overcomplicated ways when it first debuted in 2016 despite being an excellent performance car. That straight-up revival didn't catch his eye—but the fresh crossover with a wizened soul did.
Intrigued, I turned to Acura to see if they consider the collector market to be good funnel for new car sales of all kinds. The brand launched in 1986, thus making it something of a perfect laboratory; its oldest models have just started to age into the collector car realm.
"The oldest millennials are in the heart of the new car market, and many of them grew up with NSX and Integra Type R as aspirational products," Acura boss Jon Ikeda told me. "That’s powerful. And we aim to capitalize on that by bringing these iconic cars to events like Radwood, featuring them in our marketing, and putting them in vintage auto races, oftentimes alongside our latest vehicles."
Acura knows that a new car buyer who's also obsessed with their first-generation NSX or Integra is probably going to give the brand's 2020 lineup a look regardless of whether they think crossovers are dull or manual transmissions are required. It also knows that advantage is mostly meaningless unless it's giving that buyer a reason to stick around—and again, nice as it would be, that doesn't necessarily mean serving up a complete enthusiast special. Something like the right appearance package coupled with solid design and marketing can do the trick.
For an enthusiast buyer like Moore, choosing a new crossover like the RDX A-Spec is neither a retreat from his passions nor a blind move based in brand loyalty. Call it, shall we say, parallel evolution for a 34-year-old man and a 34-year-old company—the two have different priorities, but these strong commonalities still exist to bring them together. Even if the 2020 RDX is for now and the 1991 NSX is for life.
"I took my NSX out to the track before lockdown and I had such an amazing day,” says Moore, “I drove to Willow Springs, took the NSX on the track and then I drove it home. While I’ve modified it, I kept all the stock parts. I could get $70,000 on a good day on Bring A Trailer—I think the prices will keep going up, but I hope I am fortunate enough to keep it for the rest of my life."
Jon Alain Guzik has a long history an entrepreneur and media raconteur, covering the automotive industry with a jaundiced eye towards figuring out how companies build and market the cars you really want to buy—or not. Over the last 15 years, he's been a three-time startup founder, an automotive marketer and a technologist developing data-driven solutions to personal mobility.
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