The changing roles of car clubs in a digital world

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Although we’re more "connected" than ever, car clubs are sometimes struggling to keep up with the times

In May 1922, a small ad appeared in a British newspaper called the Bradford Telegraph. There was no photo and not even bold type to alert readers. It simply stated that “Owners of Jowett Cars in the neighbourhood of Bradford are asked to meet at Manningham Park gates” so they could “hold a short run to Boroughbridge” and “inaugurate a club restricted to the owners of Jowett Cars.” It was the first one-make car club meeting in the world.

Jowett as a car manufacturer ceased to exists many decades ago, but the Jowett Car Club, formed from that humble announcement, survives today as the world’s oldest one-make car club. Since then, clubs have sprouted up large and small for seemingly every make, model and genre of automobile. In dark, pre-Google days, these car clubs were the sole resource for finding parts and knowledge for obscure cars. But many clubs have found their roles diminished in an increasingly digital world.

Ralph Hough is the Canadian representative for the Messerschmitt Owners Club of Great Britain, and he’s no stranger to the struggle of finding rare parts. Messerschmitts are tiny German three-wheelers made in the 1950s and 60s; we profiled Hough and his lovely KR200 here in December 2015. The club boasts 300 members in the Americas, which is pretty impressive for such a rare car.

Ralph Hough bought his first Messerschmitt in 1962, one month before his wedding

With a brief hiatus in the middle, Ralph has been a member of the owners club for more than 28 years, and things have changed a lot since the early days. “Getting a simple question answered could take three months,” he recalls. Hough used to have to send his queries via mail across the ocean to Great Britain, where a member there would reply and mail an answer back. That arduous process can now be done via email in the span of 30 minutes.

You might think that the advent of Google searches and YouTube how-tos have made clubs like the Messerschmitt Owners Club less relevant. But Hough is proud to say that the club stocks more than 350 parts available to members to aid in their restorations. They also publish a bi-monthly newsletter and have a very active online forum with three or four new posts per day. Hough also organizes Micro North, an amazing micro car show that’s grown to be the largest in western Canada.

Messerschmitt owners need access to a resource like an owners club simply to keep their rare cars on the road. But for Harald von Langsdorff of the Mercedes-Benz Owners Club of America, he finds that members choose to join for somewhat different reasons.

The Mercedes SLs of the late ’60s and early ’70s were some of the most beautiful cars the company ever made

Whereas the Messerschmitt club features 300 members in North America, the Mercedes Benz Club of America (MBCA) boasts 25,000 members in the U.S. and a further 500 in Canada. The club welcomes Mercedes of all years and models and, as such, club car shows have everything from 1950s SLs to brand-new AMG sedans. A member of the MBCA is in a car club for very different reasons than a Messerschmitt or Jowett owner. Because the club covers a wide span of cars and owners, Toronto Chapter club president von Langsdorff says that the diverse group enjoys the many driving events and outings along with the club’s professionally executed quarterly magazine. The club organizes cruises, BBQs, casual shows and one concours event every year. Von Langsdorff is a real car enthusiast; he’s an ardent time-distance rally competitor and owns the gorgeous 300 SEL 6.3 we featured last year.

One interesting phenomenon with running a club for an entire mainstream brand is that many are members with MBCA as well as one or more additional Mercedes clubs. Peter Spitzer, the MBCA webmaster, explains that if someone owns a classic 230SL Pagoda, they might be a member of MBCA for the camaraderie and events, but also be a member of a club just for classic SL owners for restoration tips and hard to find info. “Imagine if there was a GM club,” says Spitzer. “It would just be huge, so people have a Corvette club and a Camaro club and so on.” Nevertheless, his club serves an important roll in uniting anyone with a passion for the famous Mercedes badge. They even coordinate with local BMW and Lotus clubs to arrange track days for interested drivers.

One issue that the MBCA and many other car clubs struggle with is how to rope in younger enthusiasts. Many will bend your ear about how “kids don’t care about cars” and lament the generally increasing median age of those in the car hobby. While some clubs deal with rising median ages, others are growing and full of young drivers.

Helen Poon’s Rolls-Royce is no stranger to local car culture, whether it’s the Vancouver Luxury & Supercar Weekend show, the All-British Field Meet or the B.C. chapter of the Rolls-Royce Owners’ Club.

Formed less than a year ago, Western Automotive Society (WAS) has growing numbers and young members. Club president Sahib Rekhi says the club started out as a small group of friends that liked cars. WAS is an official club of the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario; sounds a lot more fun than geography club. Pulling from a student body of more than 20,000, WAS has over 50 members and is expanding quickly. Being an officially sanctioned school club means they can park cars in the middle of the pedestrian campus to promote. Interestingly, Rekhi says that the majority of members don’t even own cars; they just have a passion for them.

Members of WAS aren’t looking for obscure parts or restoration tips; they’re just looking for a group of souls who like cars as much as they do. That said, the club still organizes traditional shows and cruises. The cars present are mostly newer Subarus, Mercedes and a few exotics. WAS represents the newest form of car clubs. Their online base enables instant communication with peers and club heads in a cost free way that allows them to chat about everything from headlights to exhaust upgrades. Many clubs like WAS also boast low to non-existent membership fees. This is a major plus for youths already paying Netflix subscriptions, phone bills and rent.

There were plenty of classic Rootes cars at this swap meet

Enthusiast car clubs have existed almost as long as cars themselves. Their role has changed throughout the decades but the amount of car-less club members attests that the passion remains. Car clubs have shifted their focus from helping members survive and keep their cars on the road to helping them enjoy the cars they love so dearly. Whether you have a new Subaru, a classic MG or anything in between, you should just Google what related car clubs are around you. Heck, you don’t even have to own a car of the related marque to join! As George Dyke of the Citroën Autoclub of Canada says, “You don’t have to own a Citroën to be in the club. You just have to love them!”

If you love cars, try tagging along to a club event; you won’t find a more rewarding way to enjoy your own car and share your hobby and passion with others.

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