Home » The Counterintuitive Reason Why Rust Can Actually Be Good For Car Culture

The Counterintuitive Reason Why Rust Can Actually Be Good For Car Culture

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I realize this is going to sound a bit insane, but after living in Detroit for a decade and then moving to LA, I’ve come to a rather counterintuitive conclusion that rust can actually be good for car culture. I know, I know!  The notion that the brown cancer that sends precious automotive gems to the junkyard far too early can somehow be an advantage to car culture is truly absurd, but hear me out! It’s all about making car culture inclusive and accessible to people of different socioeconomic backgrounds. Like, I said: hear me out.

I’ve now been attending LA car shows regularly for nearly a year, and I have to say: Car culture here is strong. Like, really strong. The variety of vehicles one can see in LA is probably unparalleled anywhere on earth, Detroit included. Do you like French cars? You can expect to see Citroen DSes not just at car shows, but driving on the streets. You’re into Italian stuff? LA has plenty of Lancias and Fiats and Alfa Romeos roaming around. The JDM scene here is unbelievable, and American muscle abounds. There are low riders, off-road machines, resto-modded everything, supercars, all sorts of electric cars — the list goes on and on. LA has it all.

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And there are, of course, plenty of normal, non-exotic older cars that have withstood the test of time. You wanna find a clean 1998 Chevy Astro van? They’re all over the place, probably hauling things to small businesses. Ditto with Toyota Previas. Are you looking for a rust-free Jeep Cherokee XJ? They’re literally used as commuters and shop vehicles. What about, say, a Ford Pinto? Someone at Galpin daily drives one:

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And look at this old Ford LTD that’s just being daily driven:

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The point is that high-volume “normal” cars like the Astro, Previa, Pinto, LTD, and Cherokee are still fairly plentiful in LA, as they haven’t yet rotted to the ground. As a result, if you attend a car show here in SoCal, you are unlikely to find such machines: You will almost exclusively find rare, often expensive cars. That’s the one thing that sticks out to me about LA car shows: There’s often an undertone of wealth at car shows. That’s not to say that car shows are exclusionary; no, there are plenty of “show up at this place at this time in any car”-type car shows, but cars that get reactions and that make a car show special in LA are the rare ones, and those are often expensive. So if you want to get into the car hobby and attend car shows with your own vehicle, you have find something unique. It can be done on the cheap, but it’s got to be the right car — a Holy Grail that’s rare, but maybe not valuable.

A good example is this Dodge Dakota convertible, whose owner was thrilled to show me his burgundy-interior, five-speed gem, which he noted was actually quite cheap. It’s a great example of an inexpensive and yet special car.

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[Editor’s Note: I just want to differ with David here a bit. I lived in LA for almost 20 years and went to many, many car events with all kinds of car people, and there is not “often an undertone of wealth” as David says. It’s there in places, sure, but I had friends bring old Citroëns and Ramblers and beat-t0-shit Soviet Bloc cars and other deeply strange things – but they were strange and valueless. Scarcity does not equal wealth. What gets rewarded is how interesting the car is, not how expensive. So, sure, lots of stuff was hard to find, but that in no way means that those cars were valuable to, well, pretty much everyone other than the owner drinking in all of those baffled smiles and head shakes like they were tequila shots. – JT]

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[Response to Editor’s Note: Like I said with the Dakota above, some inexpensive cars — if they’re rare enough — do fit into car shows in LA. My point is that a rust-free Toyota Previa with faded paint does not. In Detroit, it does. -DT]. 

But in Detroit, having a machine worthy of a car show is easy.

You can show up to a car show in one of the aforementioned “normal, non-exotic older cars” like a Chevy Astro or Toyota Previa or Jeep XJ or definitely a Ford Pinto, and you will get lots of attention. That is, if your vehicle is rust-free.

Yes, I realize that the entirety of my point here is that in Michigan the bar for a “decent” older vehicle is so low that just showing up in a rust-free older car means you’ll get plenty of attention at car shows, but that’s just the reality of it, and it makes car shows extremely inclusive. In California if you want to attend a car show and fit in, you have to find something rare or exceedingly low mileage/minty, but in Detroit all you have to do is grab a vehicle that has either been garage-kept or that spent most of its years south of the Mason Dixon line, and you’re officially part of the club.

I used to love ogling at rust-free “normal” 1990s cars in Detroit. “Damn, this Crown Vic is MINT!” I’d say. “Hot damn, where did you snag this minty Jeep Gladiator?” I’d inquire, eyes agape. The owner would then regale me with a wonderful story about how they found it in South Carolina or in some local garage with only a few miles on the odometer. The car probably only cost them a few grand, and yet it was the highlight of the local car show, with the owner chatting with impressed car-nuts, making friends, feeling like they belong.

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I’ll also note that rust has allowed me to own cars that I would otherwise never have been able to afford. An FC-170 without rust?! Forget it; that’ll break the bank!:

Rust is still a bad thing overall, of course — I’m not saying it’s good! But it sorta does lower the barrier to entry into car culture in the rust belt, and it does let you own cars that you can’t otherwise afford…and I kind of like that.

 

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Alec Weinstein
Alec Weinstein
7 months ago

When I had that base model 4cyl Mustang II notch in pretty great shape, it always had a crowd and drew stories. Turns out, one time it took a Spyker driving in to pull the crowd away. The stories (and heckling) were great, I’m sure supercar owners only get “hey cool” at best. Oddly, nobody ever admitted to owning a II, it was always someone else’s car.

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