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For generations, car buying declined as consumers entered their golden years. Now, boomers are refusing to follow their parents' lead and go quietly into the car buying night.
The 55-to-64-year-old age group, the oldest of the boomers, has become the cohort most likely to buy a new car, according to a new study by the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute. Graying boomers replaced the 35- to 44-year-old age group, who were most likely to buy four years ago.
The findings show there are plenty of miles left in boomers' automotive passions and pocketbooks. They also suggest the billions the auto industry spends to try to woo the elusive Generation Y, the children of the boomers, would generate a higher return on investment if targeted at older drivers.
"You shouldn't be chasing the younger people, you should be looking at the older people," Michael Sivak, author of the study, said in an interview. "Baby boomers are trying to extend their youth as long as they can, both in terms of taking care of their bodies and in their expenditures."
And the recession is extending the working years and peak earnings period of the 76 million Americans who were born from 1946 through 1964 in a post-World War II birth boom.
"People's nest eggs were decreased, including their retirement portfolios, by the recession," said Lacey Plache, chief economist for auto researcher Edmunds.com. "We can expect these people to be in the work force longer and, as a result, buying cars longer."
There's also a strong psychological reason: Their cars define them.
"The car was a phenomenon of the 20th century," said John Wolkonowicz, a Boston-based automotive historian and a former Ford product planner. "For people who grew up and lived in the 20th century, the car was freedom, it was status, it was an extension of you, a visible expression of you and your personality. A 20-year-old doesn't see the car the same way."
Indeed, young people don't seem that interested in driving. Just 79 percent of people ages 20 to 24 had a driver's license in 2011, compared with 92 percent in 1983, according to the Michigan study.
Conversely, the oldest boomers are remaining licensed. Almost 93 percent of those ages 60 to 64 had a driver's license in 2011, up from 84 percent in 1983.
That helps explain why consumers ages 55 to 64 had the highest rate of vehicle purchases in 2011, while the youngest age groups had the lowest rate.
Even consumers 75 and above bought cars at a higher rate than 25- to 34-year-olds and 18- to 24-year-olds, the Michigan study found.
"I have a son who lives in San Francisco. When I get a new car and I tell him what I got, he couldn't care less," Sivak said. "To him, it's a means of getting from A to B. He goes into great lengths about taking a BART or bus, even though it takes him an hour longer. He does have a car but uses it very rarely."
Automakers have spent billions to produce youth vehicles, which end up selling better to boomers.
A decade ago, Honda fielded the boxy Element sport-utility vehicle with clamshell doors and rubber floors that could be hosed out by on-the-go young people. Instead, boomers bought the car until it was discontinued in 2011.
"One of the dirty little secrets of the auto industry is all these cars are positioned in advertising and public relations as something a 25-year-old will buy," said John Morel, a market researcher for Honda. "But your propensity to buy a car at 25 is roughly a quarter of what it is at age 65. By definition, very few cars sell in high volume to 20- somethings."
Toyota's Scion line aimed at Gen Y also has sputtered. Scion sales fell 9.3 percent last month after a 25 percent plunge in June and are down 1.8 percent for the year at 41,261, according to researcher Autodata. Toyota sold 73,505 Scion models last year, down more than half from a peak of about 173,000 in 2006.
But it still has a devoted follower in Michael Leek, 60, a city planner in Shakopee, Minn. He drives a "Cherry Coke" red Scion tC that he upgraded with gray pinstripes, a lowered suspension and a growling, chrome-tipped exhaust. Leek is shopping for a new Scion FR-S sports car.
"City planners ought not to like cars as much as I do and guys who are 60 should be getting over it, but I haven't," Leek said. "I look in the mirror every day and I'm pretty sure I don't look like I'm 30 or 20. That's not a problem. It's really whether I enjoy driving the car and like how it looks when I walk up to it and when I walk away from it. And I do."
Now Toyota is embracing its boomer buyers with a model targeted at them, the Venza sport wagon that's easier for aging drivers to climb into than a high-riding sport-utility vehicle.
Toyota introduced the Venza with TV commercials that "made fun of the millennials" for believing they remained the "center of the universe" after they left the nest, said Bob Zeinstra, the automaker's national ad and strategic planning manager. One spot depicts a young woman alone in her apartment, bragging about her Facebook friends and fretting over her lonely parents, who are shown horseback riding and mountain biking.
"We got a lot of great reaction from those ads," said Zeinstra, who also said he couldn't imagine producing commercials that poke fun at boomers. "Boomers are looking for vehicles that help them stay active and young because that's the image they want to have of themselves."
General Motors, Ford and Chrysler had a troubled history with boomers, who migrated to Japanese and German models over poor quality from Detroit. Now the revived U.S. automakers field some of its best cars in a generation, such as GM's Chevrolet Impala sedan and Ford's Fusion family car.