For baby boomers, the automobile has always been a symbol of style and freedom. The generation of 76.4 million born between 1946 and 1964, who once romped in the back seats of their parents’ station wagons, has determined what we drive for over a half-century.
With advanced technology and designs catering to this demographic, boomers will influence our rides long past when they hang up their keys
“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 1.29 million 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.”
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.”
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.
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. Blind spot warnings, collision alert systems and crash mitigation braking help avoid mishaps.
“Safety features aid awareness,” said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analysis at Edmunds. “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.
“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.”