Some young car enthusiasts remain today, but American teens have as a whole moved on. According to the Federal Highway Administration, the percentage of American 16-year-olds with driver’s licenses was roughly 25 percent in 2014, a steep drop from about 46 percent in 1983. Older Americans who gather at old hot-rod and antique car shows lament how their offspring show no interest in their hobby, and car makers and dealers fret over how to sell to an increasingly elusive teen market. What’s changed? The answers are technological, legal, and cultural.
One thing is clear: It is harder to get a car these days. Thanks to technological advances, the cars of the last few decades are better made and last longer—and thus cost more, even when they’re used. And the old strategy of buying a “junker,” a car in bad shape, and then replacing a faulty alternator with a cheap scrap-yard part is practically impossible to do on one’s own; repairs in the digital age require more skill and equipment than most teens have. And rising costs meant that poorer teens—especially African American and Hispanic teens—have been more likely to do without. A half-dozen years ago, about a quarter of 16-to-18-year-olds from households earning less than $20,000 per year had driver’s licenses, compared to the three-quarters of their counterparts in households earning over $100,000 who had licenses.