You don’t need to own a car to be a car enthusiast

I’ve heard it before, and read it in comments on various enthusiast sites. “You can’t be a car guy if you don’t have a car.”

I bought a 2004 WRX new back in 2003. I loved that car. I often regret selling it. I also sometimes regret selling my S-10 Blazer, my lifted XJ Cherokee and the Olds 442 convertible. There were reasons for selling each — good reasons — but it still stings to think about them. When I had them, I felt as though I belonged to some unofficial club, a welcome member among the enthusiast forums. More important, I had a car to call my own, and cars are freakin’ great.

As much as I loved each of those cars, I’ve enjoyed not owning a vehicle. I’ve saved money on insurance and maintenance. I haven’t had to watch a thing I love deteriorate as more of my free time went toward raising children — and dogs, and cats, and chickens. I’m lucky enough to have a career in which my itch to drive great cars is constantly scratched (which really only makes it itch more). I don’t feel like giving up the possession has made me understand or appreciate cars any less. But I still see those comments — “you’re not a real car guy unless …” — and as much as I try to dismiss it, it nags at me, just a little.

My love affair with capitalism is at odds with Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, and I find myself caught between two thoughts. One: Possessions are anchors, a burden that distracts us from the moments, connections and experiences that give life meaning. Two: Desire is a source of discomfort, one that would be alleviated by possessing the thing you desire … in this case, a car. But I can’t help but feel like a car is more than a tool. It’s also an experience, and the means to create more experiences. Cars are art, engineering and a symbol of independence, and I’m drawn to them even though they pollute and cost a lot of money.

But to be able to own a car and choose not to is one thing. For so many people, however, car ownership just isn’t feasible, as much as they might want to own one. They’re expensive, and often prohibitively so. The average vehicle price is more than the U.S. median personal annual income. And a car requires a place to park it, which not everyone has. And how many people who do own cars can actually afford their dream car anyway?

There’s no need to gatekeep enthusiasm. Reality is already doing that.

But what about if you can’t actually own a car, for whatever reason? You probably satiate your desires with car websites, magazines, F1, car shows, racing games or sims. Maybe you help a friend or relative work on their project vehicles, or simply roam junkyards.

Wage stagnation and the rising cost of vehicles is the big problem. I’m not an economist and I don’t have a simple solution to fix it. But I do care that people are interested in cars, and I don’t keep a tally of who is or is not a “car guy” — or “car girl,” for that matter (it was my mother who instilled in me a love for cars). As enthusiasts, it’s our mission to help foster that passion in others, not decide who is or is not a gearhead based on their ability or willingness to actually own a vehicle. Let’s stop questioning the enthusiasm of others, and instead bring more people into the fold. Let’s answer questions our sons, daughters and neighbors have without judgement.

Luckily for our hobby, which at times seemed as though it was dying, Generation Z appears more interested in cars than Millenials. Who knows how many of these young folks will be unable to pursue their dreams of ownership? Instead of closing the gates on those who don’t own a car, though, we should welcome them into the fold. Even if you’re a Ford guy, and their dream car is a Nissan GT-R, or a Tesla, or a stanced BMW, we should help encourage their enthusiasm, and participate in it. Ask your niece to help you wrench on your project car. Invite your neighbors to a local car show. Share your car-buying tips to a first-time buyer on a budget.

The funniest thing happened after I began to write this: I turned 40. On my birthday, my wife, Cat, woke up before me. She told me to stay in bed while she went downstairs. A few minutes later, she called me down. As I descended the stairs, I spotted an unmistakable red curve out the window above the front door, the curve of a classic VW Beetle’s roofline. I’m a car owner again. Already, I’m getting questions about it from young neighbors, and you can bet I’m going to oblige their automotive curiosity, as I have been with the new cars I get to bring home for work (kindergartners love dump trucks and Corvettes). But was I any less of an enthusiast at 39? I don’t think so.

Next time you see someone say something like, “that person’s not a real enthusiast,” reach out to the subject. They may not own a car, or even want to own one, but you can have a helping hand in fostering their enthusiasm nonetheless.

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