Mark Simpson on how young men fell out of love with the motor car

In the James Bond film ‘Spectre’ Bond has a new car. An Aston Martin DB10. It looks very nice and very sleek. But it’s nothing like the DB5 that first appeared in Goldfinger, back in 1964 and which I had a Corgi scale model of, complete with spring loaded ejector seat and plastic machine guns that emerged from the headlights. A highly-prized toy which I played with for much of the early 1970s, imagining myself all grown up and in the driving seat.

I’m sure it’s a much better car in every way than the DB5, and has even better gadgets fitted as standard, but the reason the DB10 is nothing like the original Bond car is because boys are nothing like they were back then. Cars are not the coveted, magical things able to transport you to manhood they once were and probably no boy is going to play with a DB10 Corgi scale model making brum-brum noises.

Not even James May.

In 1983, the year I took my driving test, 82% of 16-24 year olds were learning or had learned to drive. It was a rite of passage, particularly for young men – a driver’s licence was a badge of adulthood, declaring that you were a ‘man of the world’ even if you were still a virgin and weren’t legally able to vote or order a pint in a pub.

Three decades on that figure has fallen to 64%, driving tests are down by 200,000 in the last four years, and seems likely to continue to fall, especially for young men, according to a new report from the Independent Transport Commission and Office of Rail and Road. 15% of non-car owners aged 17-29 say they don’t want a car in the future compared to twice as many (32%) of non-car owners aged 30-42 saying they do. It also found that car usage amongst under 30s, regardless of car ownership, is continuing to fall.

The report found several reasons for the decline: the rising cost of car insurance – which can be twice as much for young men as for women – and the rising cost of car ownership was cited by a third of young people. “How can young people possibly afford to run a car?” said one 28-year-old male from London. “If you manage to get an older car it’s no advantage because you pay more road tax and burn more petrol.”

An increasing number of young people are going to university and accumulating debts while real wages and employment rates for young people have fallen in the last ten years, making cars less affordable. Meanwhile concessionary travel, advance rail fares, car-sharing, and car clubs are cheaper than running a car. The quality of public transport in urban areas is also improving – and more young people are living in urban areas.

The report mentions other reasons why young men in particular are driving less, such as they form partnerships and become fathers at later ages compared to women, they are more likely to cycle – and are less concerned with personal safety than women. It also speculates that the theory test may have made driving licenses more difficult to obtain for working class males.

But perhaps the most interesting finding was that car ownership, especially of high end cars, no longer leads to higher status in the eyes of other young people. Even if they have an ejector seat. Cars are becoming less attractive than alternative gadget-rich consumer products, such as smartphones – which also happen to make using alternatives to car ownership, such as Uber and BlaBlaCar, easier.

Alternatives which, unlike driving a car, allows you to continue uploading your devastating selfies to Facebook.

Not only are smartphones more personal than cars – you always have your smartphone with you and your friends will always see it – but also, in an age when young men are much more visually-conscious than in the past, the kind of car you are likely to able to afford, unless you’re a professional footballer, is probably not the kind you want to be seen in. And even if you can afford a flash car you probably won’t be seen in it very much.

Worst of all, it’s not you that gets the looks – it’s the car.

As one 19-year-old builder in Manchester put it: “I like strutting around the town – let’s face it – in a car it’s the car people look at not you – when you’re walking people notice what you’re wearing and how you look. Although I say it myself I put on quite a good show – I take great interest in fashion.”

Today’s young men have fallen out of love with the motor car and in love with themselves. Probably the only DB they’ve heard of is David Beckham.

Originally appeared on Hitachi’s Expert Blog 11/08/15