In their youth, baby boomers were enticed with a Jetsonsonian future in which turbine-powered cars like GM’s 1956 Firebird II concept drove themselves. Reality has been slow to catch up.
“This generation was born into economic prosperity,” said Sheryl Connelly, a futurist for Ford Motor Co. “They witnessed the first man on the moon. They believe anything is possible.”
Former Ford and Chrysler executive Lee Iacocca anticipated baby boomers wanted to drive something fun with the 1964 Mustang, which created an entirely new segment and established a benchmark for accessible American sports cars. In its first three years, the Mustang sold 1,288,557 copies compared with just 74,224 Corvettes during the same period.
“Our market researchers confirmed that the youthful image of the new decade had a firm basis in demographic reality,” Iacocca wrote in his autobiography. “Millions of teenagers born in the baby boom that followed World War II … would account for at least half the huge increase in car sales that was predicted for the entire industry during the next 10 years.”
Those who didn’t buy Mustangs bought muscle cars like the Pontiac GTO. Or, went hippie counterculture via Volkswagen Beetles and Microbuses. They weren’t going to be caught dead in station wagons, but by the early 1970s, boomers started hatching offspring.
After Iacocca was fired from Ford in 1978 and became CEO of Chrysler, he championed the minivan. He also realized Chrysler lacked a product to compete with the popular Ford Bronco II and Chevy Blazer, so in 1987, he acquired Jeep and helped fuel the 1990s boomer-driven SUV boom.
“Cars became such an important marker for them” Connelly said. “It was romanticized with independence, an opening gateway to freedom and an extension of effort, work ethic, and aspirations. In the ‘80s, their families’ formative years, the minivan had appeal. Then, came SUVs that fell under the umbrella of ‘no boundaries, no limitations.’”
In middle age, boomers embraced crossovers, which first outsold cars in 2016. That trend is not waning. Larger crossovers are ideal for those with kids still at home while smaller ones allow boomers to downsize with space for grandchildren and leisure pursuits.
“They’re in their 70s now and are aging quite differently,” continued Connelly. “They are very active, though retiring, and shifting to second careers and traveling. They are also simplifying, but want what they want in a different way. They are very involved in grandchildren’s lives.”
Boomers are shifting to compact crossovers as their vehicle of choice. Comfort and convenience features like heated leather seats, high-end audio systems, five-door utility, and frugal fuel economy come bundled in one appealing package.
“They’re a bit smaller than the ones they owned with families,” said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analysis, Edmunds. “Ingress and egress are easier as age advances — hip height is right. It makes sense it would be a popular vehicle for them as they age.”
Advanced technology also is helping boomers continue to drive long beyond their predecessors, and continue to shape what’s being offered in new cars.
According to AAA, 80 percent of people in their 70s suffer from arthritis and inflammation that makes moving difficult. Weaker muscles and reduced flexibility inhibit ability to grip the steering wheel and press pedals. As a result, those over 75 face increased fatality rates per mile traveled.
Today’s vehicles offer around-view cameras, rear cross path detection, and parking sensors to ease maneuvers. On the road, blind spot warnings, collision alert systems, and crash mitigation braking help avoid mishaps.
“Safety features aid awareness,” Caldwell said. “Driving assistance features will be helpful — especially as mobility becomes challenging. When it is difficult to turn your head, a backup camera and parking sensors will be helpful.”
While the features are luxurious, AAA recommends heated steering wheels and seats, and lumbar support to soothe arthritis and back pain. Auto power tailgates require no strength, while leather-wrapped steering wheels are easier for aging hands to grip. Leather seats make it easier to slide in and out.
Baby boomers once again are steering the automotive industry into giving them what they want and will have a far greater impact on the cars we drive than did their parents. This is not a generation that will quietly hand over the keys to their children. And they may not have to.
“Ultimately, the baby boomer car would drive itself,” Caldwell said. “It’s about mobility and to give this generation increased freedom. It’s really fantastic, something generations before never thought possible. When we talk to boomers, they’re really excited to see what’s to come and will be useful to them.”
One vision provided by Mercedes-Benz is the F015 Concept, an autonomous fuel-cell-powered four-seat lounge that can be summoned from your smartphone. Gesture-recognition controls negate cumbersome knobs and buttons.
Even today, Tesla’s Autopilot 2.0 system promises point-to-point autonomous driving while the Cadillac CT6 offers Super Cruise for hands-free freeway travel. Makes ranging from the mainstream like Ford to the luxurious like Jaguar Land Rover and BMW automatically parallel and perpendicular park. Boomers, wielding far more wealth than millennials, want this technology and automakers are paying attention.
“There’s a strong business case for the aging population,” Connelly said. “Autonomous cars will allow them to age in place instead of a senior center. Imagine the peace of mind families will have.”
Going to the doctor, favorite restaurant or hair appointment will be as easy as summoning their crossover. Baby boomers will enjoy the technology-infused freedom their childhood promised.