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Driving Dreams

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CONSIDER THE PLIGHT OF THE Empty-Nester Male: Kids out of the house, tuitions done, weekends without a list of family obligations. A man in this pitiable situation might start thinking about freedom ... about the open road ... about a new car, finally, and one that's cool.

A lot of folks in the automotive industry are counting on it. At the Detroit auto show last month, Nissan introduced a concept car designed strictly for the aging baby boomer male ready to plunge deeper into his hobbies.

Meanwhile, at Barrett-Jackson classic car auction in Arizona, the growing interest in owning wheels from the baby boom golden age of the 1960s and '70s brought some astonishing sales. Imagine paying $36,850 for a 1972 Plymouth 'Cuda, $58,300 for a 1971 Ford Mustang -- or $880,000 for a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro.

"I'm a firm believer that we are what we drive," says John Davis, 58-year-old creator and host of the MPT show MotorWeek. "Many people want a certain image, either subconsciously or not, and portray it in their vehicles. A lot of baby boomers have worked hard and done well and obviously don't want to feel like they're getting old. They look to cars that remind them of their youth."

For him, that's a Mini Cooper named Twiglet. For others, it's a Steve McQueen Bullitt muscle car ... or the kind of forward-thinking vehicle George Jetson might share with his faithful dog, Astro.

Nissan hopes to attract that latter market with the Bevel. One of the first cars openly targeting the baby boomer male, it's a futuristic-looking vehicle, created for the 45- to 60-year-old handyman / hobbyist and his dog, with an estimated price tag in the $20,000 to $30,000 range.

Although it also holds as many as five human passengers, no one expects it to. With its fold-down floors, storage compartments for tools and equipment, solar panels that help power accessory outlets and a tailgate that becomes a work platform, the Bevel is a garage on wheels, rather than a chick magnet.

"There's an attitude about trying to make these cars into 'tools' for the older buyers who spend a lot of their time in the aisles of Home Depot thinking 'Wouldn't this be cool for this or that home project?' The Bevel is an extension of that mentality," Davis says."

Nissan Design America design manager John Cupit says the car also works for the guy who finally has time to enjoy his hobbies.

"Maybe he's a musician in a garage band," he says. "Or maybe he's taking cooking classes, or traveling around with photography equipment or a model airplane, or scuba gear, or golf or fishing gear."

The Bevel driver will certainly want a car with an "information-technology zone" to check his e-mail. Here he can gain access to weather and traffic reports, Internet and personal e-mail as well as monitor his home's security system, heat and air conditioning and room lighting.

Perhaps best of all, the Bevel is designed with dogs, rather than kids, in mind. There's a 360-degree pet leash swivel connection point in the front passenger space as well as a "doggie hutch" pet carrier in the rear cargo area -- an innovation that appeals to boomers like John Davis and his wife Cheryl who travel regularly with their "rescue" old English sheepdog, bearded collie and corgi / border collie.

Muscle and dazzle

On the other hand, Donald and Terry Lundberg's dogs may never set a paw in the couple's brand new old car: a completely restored 1971 Buick Skylark GS. The year this vehicle took to the road, Phyllis George reigned as Miss America, Rod Stewart sang "Maggie May," and Don Lundberg turned 13.

Now awaiting the birth of their first grandchild, the Lundbergs, of Pasadena, have given themselves a $29,990 birthday-anniversary-birthday gift: A classic muscle car for special jaunts, for displaying at car shows and for dazzling today's lackluster world of Sunday drivers.

"Now it's time for Dad and me to have some fun," Terry Lundberg told their 18-year-old son Shane, while waiting to pick up their dream car at Fleming's Ultimate Garage in Rockville.

At Fleming's, a classic car emporium, music from the '60s and '70s wafts continuously through showrooms studded with such boomer icons as a 1967 Chevelle SS 396 ($48,990), a 1967 Dodge Hemi Charger ($89,900) and a 1971 Chevy Nova ($24,990) as well as vintage sports cars.

"There isn't a car we stock that anyone needs," says general manager Jeff Whitaker. "These are strictly 'want' and 'desire' items. Most of our customers are boomers and have a dream they want to revisit 30 or 40 years later."

Many also happen to be empty of nest, fuller of pocket and itching to become third car families. The Lundbergs use a Dodge Ram pickup and a 1998 Pontiac Trans Am for daily driving. However the '71 Buick expresses their "forever young" spirit, recalling those good old days when American cars had more strength than they knew what to do with.

Although some boomers purchase the actual cars they admired in their teens and 20s, many gladly sacrifice authenticity for the safety and comfort of 2007 models that recall the classics. The retro movement that produced new versions of the Ford Mustang and Volkswagen Beetle will soon introduce an updated Camaro and Dodge Challenger.

"We want a car that reminds us of our youth, but with a wider seat and more leg room," Davis says. "We want the controls larger and features that are easier to grasp, like door handles, window switches, radio controls. We don't want to be reminded every time we touch a tiny little button that we're older, or that we have less dexterity, or that we simply can't concentrate enough to figure out what all the little buttons mean."

With the boomers -- as well as millions of other larger Americans -- in mind, designers now don "fat suits" when they create and test their car interiors, says Jean Jennings, editor in chief of Automobile magazine. New cars are made taller -- and doorsills lower -- so that they're easier to get into. Back doors are wider and brake pedals are adjustable.

High-tech devices also help compensate for aging eyes and ears. Some gauges and dials are larger and more luminous. More cars carry video screens to assist drivers with backing up, some have sensors that beep when the car comes close to an object. Other devices sound warnings not to change lanes when a vehicle is in a driver's blind spot. Radar cruise control helps drivers maintain a safe distance from the cars ahead of them.

Greater comfort

Then there's the all-important matter of car seats. Not only do many offer more support for aging backs, legs and hips, but they also contain ventilation systems that can make passengers cooler -- or warmer.

"I think as you get older, you become more conscious of the cold," Davis says. "I mean, why do people move to Florida? ... One of the most inexact sciences is seat comfort. Now they have pads that can measure when your rear end has a hot spot ... Designers are putting a lot more effort into creating interiors with people's height and weight in mind."

But they're also careful not to design anything that suggests the boomer generation of 78 million Americans is beginning to enter their 60s.

"We don't want a float-boat Buick like our parents drove," says Jennings, who is a boomer. "Boomers demand higher quality, more content, better materials, better design and more fashionable colors than previous generation. ... We have a more worldly taste than our parents."

Changing needs

Awareness of such standards -- and acknowledgement that boomers require distinct cars for different stages of their lives -- has helped inform car design since the 1960s, according to historians and observers. Think of the pony cars (boomer youth); the mini-vans (young boomer parents) and sport utility vehicles (boomers with older kids). Now many middle-aged boomers buy car-based crossovers -- like the Honda CR-V and Ford Edge -- that are lighter, easier to get into and better on fuel than the truck-based SUVs.

Michael Marsden, a professor at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin who teaches a course about the automobile and American culture, says the boomers' ability to identify with their cars shows no sign of weakening with age. Why else would so many rent sports cars to attend their high school reunions? Further evidence, he says, lies in the increasing number of car spaces for residents in adult-only communities -- developments created for downsizing.

Marsden applauds the notion that manufacturers are "putting the fun back into driving" and recognizing that cars are often as much about dreams as about transportation.

"If Americans wanted something that would live forever, we'd build it out of hard rubber with engines that would never break down," he says. "What we really want is mobility and freedom ... and boomers believe in style and unlimited possibilities."

linell.smith@baltsun.com

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