Towards the end of last year I had the opportunity to produce a blog feature for CBS Detroit called Defend Your Ride (which is why there was a bit of a lull in posting for a while). The segment is being done in numerous cities around the country and I was called on to head up the first segment of the Detroit feature.

The concept was simple: find people and interview them about their cars, where they go, what they do, etc and shoot a couple pictures. What I got was an interesting look into how people live their lives and interact with their community. It was a new viewpoint, and even though some of the interviewees I had known prior to the interview, I learned some new things during the process.

Here are some takeaways from producing Defend Your Ride Detroit.

The car is often talked about like a household appliance, excitement overall is a mixed bag.  

A common answer I got (before changing the tone of the question) when asking what people use their car for was something a long the lines of “To get from point A to point B”. Now that’s all well and good, as it’s the primary function of any mode of transportation. I was expecting to hear people talk about places they’ve gone or people they’ve had driving experiences with, but most of them talked about it as though they were talking about a toaster. “Yah, it has 4 slots, so I can do 4 pieces of toast at once, so I guess that’s kind of cool” was the essential tone I got from most folks. I got the feeling from most of them that when they made the initial purchase, it wan’t a “this is the car I’ve wanted!” feeling, it was a “ok, this will do the job” feeling.

The men I interviewed were more excited about their cars than the women by and large. Those who were truly excited about their cars had enthusiasm that made up for the lack of excitement from the others (a few were downright giddy to talk about their cherished vehicles), but the answer was clear here: Detroiters don’t have that connection with their cars the way they used to. Those who seemed to feel a greater connection with their cars were those who did a lot more than just run errands: they were the ones who had wanted that kind of car before purchase, or had experiences with the car that allowed the two of them to become better acquainted (such as an epic journey across the country just for kicks, as one Detroit resident did).

The Car is not always the preferred mode of transportation

A number of people I talked to told me that car ownership in Detroit was necessary, and something they would consider ditching if they lived in another city. Many said they wished there was better mass transit in Detroit, and one said that he had hoped to keep mileage down by mostly taking the bus to work (so much for the stereotype that only people who ride buses are people who don’t have cars!). This is especially true among young drivers (and many of the under 30 crowd I talked to). Today, only 75% of 19 year olds have their driver’s license nationwide, a number that the Ann Arbor News reports was at 87% in 1983. That’s a pretty significant drop, and if the numbers don’t reflect the echo boom generation’s desire for mass transit, their attitudes in talking with me certainly did.

Longevity is valued.

Most of the interviewees were in no rush to ditch their rides any time soon. Many said that they had hoped to keep their cars for over 200k miles, or at least for as long as they could keep them running in a cost effective manner. Despite all the current lease offers, all of the people I interviewed were car owners and most of them, despite lukewarm feelings for their cars, had no desire to get rid of them. This could be a result of the economic downturn or simply people don’t want to go through the hassle of new car ownership again any time soon. Either way, I had anticipated some responses along the lines of “well when it’s 8 years old I’ll probably start to look for something else” and got nothing of the sort. Considering that the average age of a car on the road today is almost 11 years, I’m not entirely surprised that the trend was reflected here.

Brand Loyalty was low, desire for euro imports was high.

Bob Branch and his Mini Cooper

Bob Branch of Harsen’s Island poses with his Mini Cooper S. Image courtesy of CBS Detroit.

I had anticipated some people to come from a “big three family”, a place where someone had worked for a car company and would tell me something along the lines of “I’d never drive anything but a Chevy!”. Instead the only person I talked to with a direct connection to a car maker was a chrysler employee who was driving his 1993 Kawasaki Vulcan motorcycle.

When I asked people what they would like their next car to be, many said they were fans of “german engineering” and would ideally like to drive a BMW (or something of the like). Among those who were most enthusiastic about their cars were Chris and Bob, both Mini Cooper owners (Mini being a BMW subsidiary).

A couple people said they would be looking to buy the same or a similar kind of car again, it seemed that in most cases, people weren’t won over by what they had. In retail, the costs for customer retention are 1/5th that of getting a new customer. It seems that domestic automakers are spending a lot of time trying to attract new young buyers, but not much time keeping their current buyers from going elsewhere.

“Temple of Fiends” is probably the most badass car nickname I have ever heard.

But you’ll have to read the interviews to see what kind of car that is.

So check out Defend Your Ride Detroit, each Monday a new interview is posted and take a look into the minds and travels of Detroiters and the chariots they take with them. I had a great time doing it, and hope you have a great time reading.

  • Johnius

    How big was your sample size? Where did you conduct the interviews?