When owning a car made you a god

Story highlights

A car was the ultimate status symbol for teens in the 1960s

Movies, music and pop culture glamorized the '60s car scene

Young men were groomed into car consumers at a young age

1960s cars still evoke romantic memories and style for people today

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There were two distinct groups of guys in high school back in the ’60s: Those who had cars, and those who didn’t. For the sake of your reputation, you didn’t want to be the kid without a car, says 70-year-old Brian McDaniels.

From the time he was 12, McDaniels counted the days until he could get his license. He worked at a grocery store, sold ice cream and delivered newspapers just so he could buy a car as soon as he turned 16. He purchased a 1953 Ford Coupe in 1960 for $200 before he could even legally drive it, getting his license a few days after. Two years later, he traded that car in for his shining glory, a 1954 Chevy Bel Air.

The Chevy Bel Air was as amazing as he dreamed. This car was the center of his social life. It was where he listened to his local Columbus, Ohio, radio station’s Top 40 hits for hours on end, where he ate countless meals with friends at the drive-thru, and where he had his first date with the girl of his dreams, the woman he eventually married.

“When I got the car, it was really hard to describe the pride,” McDaniels says. “To work for so long and then to get it. There was a certain culture when you got the car, you spent time with the car.”

Brian McDaniels, 18, stands in front of his 1954 Chevy Bel Air.

The 1960s era is known for its collection of trends and fads, from hippie fashion to British rock ‘n’ roll, but nothing defined youth culture more than the ’60s car, says Matt Anderson, a historian and curator at The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

Songs from bands like the Beach Boys romanticized the American car, and movies like “Goldfinger” and “Bullit” emphasized the power and speed of those classic ’60s muscle cars, Anderson says. Cars were the ultimate status symbol that set teens apart from their friends.

It was a big deal for a teenager to actually own one. In the 1960s, nearly 79% of American households owned fewer than two vehicles, and more than one-out-of-five households didn’t own a vehicle at all, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. It’s a stark contrast from today’s car ownership norms, where you’re hard pressed to find a vehicle-less household outside of a few major cities.

“Back then those who had cars were gods among people,” Anderson says. “There was a lot of envy and admiration for those who had cars. People gravitated to those who had cars, and you’d want a car to have that status.”

Linda Glovach, 67, remembers how her life in the suburbs of New York changed after she got a blue 1961 Chevrolet Impala with a white convertible top as a high school graduation present from her grandmother. “I called everyone up,” she says. “Everyone I knew came over to look at it. … It wasn’t like today where if you have even a little bit of money, you can get a car. If one person got a car in the neighborhood, all your friends went for rides in it. I was lucky to get it.”

That car gave her a huge confidence boost and revved up her social life. It was an unexpected gift that transformed the way she and her girlfriends spent time together. Living on Long Island, Glovach did whatever she could to escape into the city. With her car, she could now take other girls along for the ride. “We would pile in as many people as we could,” she said. “It wasn’t that I was a rich girl, but I was a cool person to hang out with.”

Glovach and her girlfriends would take every opportunity they got to drive the Long Island Expressway into Manhattan. The expressway back then wasn’t a frantic scene of gridlock traffic and anxious drivers trying to get to work. The expressway was essentially a pickup scene. Glovach recalls cruising down the highway with her hair all teased up and a scarf strung delicately around her neck.

“I found freedom with my car,” Glovach said. “I lived in the suburbs and it was dreary. Houses were on top of each other and a lot of mothers were homemakers.”

Freedom, independence, love and popularity were just some of the abstract ideas that teens pinned onto car ownership. That’s not always the case with today’s generation of teenagers, says car historian Anderson

“Owning a car now is different from owning a car back then,” says McDaniels, who was desperate to own a vehicle as soon as he turned 16. He sees the shift of priorities for teenagers today with his 16-year-old granddaughter. She took three years to get her driver’s license because she doesn’t yet see a need to own a car herself since she uses public transportation often.

Despite the changing relationship between teens and cars today, Anderson says cars made and driven in the 1960s still have a soft spot for the young and old alike.

“I think for people who grew up in that era, we love what’s familiar. Cars are tangible things and they can bring back memories. It is like a song or movie. You can’t really put a price on that feeling,” he says. “And for younger people, I do think they think there is a certain kind of magic to them.”