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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Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
4 months ago

How popular is Krown/rustproofing in the Detroit area?

Manuel Verissimo
Manuel Verissimo
4 months ago

If I ever find a genie in a lamp, my first wish is getting rid of rust. I hate it with the passion of a thousand Suns. Fuck rust, gimme my car back you greedy chemical reaction.

DialMforMiata
DialMforMiata
4 months ago

About car shows in wealthy areas… Last April I took my NA Miata (Nice driver condition ’95 M Edition, Merlot paint over tan leather with factory BBS basketweaves) to the Revs Institute Cars and Coffee here in Naples FL. Despite the “Cars and Coffee” moniker this is far from a few guys showing up to chat about cars… Revs is a world-class museum and the C&C event brings out everything from Mercedes 300SL’s to Porsche 911 GT2s. I parked up on the grass and went to check out the other cars and get an iced coffee. I went back to my car an hour later and, well, had a hard time getting away because I spent an hour fielding questions and talking Miatas… they had a Miata when they first came out and regretted getting rid of it, they’re interested in buying one now and what should they look out for, etc. There must have been 20 new 911s there, more newer Ferraris than you could shake a gold-plated stick at, and only two NA Miatas (the other guy’s was a pretty tasty Flyin’ Miata V8 swap).

Point being, in a wealthy area things like McLarens and Ferrari 488s are relatively common. Something old and unique will always draw some attention. My favorite car of the C&C was a perfectly mint ’90 Buick Reatta that belonged to one of the museum docents.

Mike B
Mike B
4 months ago
Reply to  DialMforMiata

I was going to comment the similar about the Audrain Auto Cars & Coffee events in Newport RI. Sure there are a few beaters there or project cars, but you’re also likely to spot rows of supercars and other $$$$ rarities.

Chartreuse Bison
Chartreuse Bison
4 months ago

This just in: Car shows at Aston Martin and Porsche dealers in LA have more extoic cars than meetups in a walmart parking lot in Troy Michigan

MP81
MP81
4 months ago

Patina is great.

Anything past that is not.

Dumb Shadetree
Dumb Shadetree
4 months ago

David, all due respect but I think this is a nonsense take. The excess number of nice cars outside the rust belt is the reason for a subculture of celebrating hoopties, and was part of the driving force behind Murilee creating Lemons (and was the origin of Jalopnik!). There are car shows in the midwest that are also centered around money, and other events that aren’t.

The difference is that out west you can get an interesting old car in decent condition for relatively cheap. Here in the rust belt, anything cheap is rusted out and difficult/expensive to work on. Old and rust free automatically means expensive here, while out in California you can get cheap Previas, Dakotas, and other stuff that’s still in a condition that is pleasurable to wrench on.

Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
4 months ago

Yeah I think what you are observing here David is the difference in general socioeconomic average between Detroit and LA, not really anything to do with rust. And if we want to get really complex with it then rust destroying so many cars in the north makes all cars more expensive and less accessible as it takes so many off the road and out of the market. I get the argument you’re trying to make but being from Indiana, having lived in Phoenix, and now back to Indiana I don’t see any upsides to rust myself.

Matt Gasper
Matt Gasper
4 months ago

What a weird, reverse-elitist take.

Doctor Nine
Doctor Nine
4 months ago

You are correct. There is no redeeming quality to rust at all. That take sounds crazy.

TXJeepGuy
TXJeepGuy
4 months ago

Growing up in LA, yes, some of the shows can have an undertone or an obvious tone of wealth. It all depends which shows you’re going to/where. Cars and Coffee at Calbasas Commons? Yeah its money. Shows put on by dealerships? Probably money.

I doubt the place is still there but my friends and I were regulars at the Friday night cruise-in at Flames on Corbin Ave in Northridge back in the early 00’s and it was a big mix of everything. Same for the street racer night in the Ralphs parking lot on Reseda.

Taargus Taargus
Taargus Taargus
4 months ago

I hate rust.

I live in Upstate NY, where road salt is unescapable for 4-5 months a year. Rust limits the lifespan of our cars and therefore is a major burden on many of us trying to afford safe transportation. Without rust, we’d have far less cars going to the crusher, and far more cheap used options for people to drive. Corrosion resistance is far better now that it was, but once a car is 10+ years old and needs mechanical work, you start playing the game of “is it worth it when I know this thing is going to be swiss cheese soon enough?”. With a serious amount of maintenance, washes, coatings, etc., you can prolong the life, but typically you’ll always lose the war to salt.

Imperfect cars may be more accessible to many, but let’s not act like rust doesn’t destroy otherwise useful cars all the time.

Maymar
Maymar
4 months ago

That’s an extremely specific take. I’m in Canada. Rust is a problem here, but just headed down south to grab something rust free is a fair bit more arduous. Rust can get bent. It’s just a different kind of gatekeeping that it’s a good thing you can invest time in getting something special (by someone else’s standards) in a rust-heavy environment instead of investing money in getting something special (by someone else’s standards) in a rust-light environment.

Xpumpx
Xpumpx
4 months ago
Reply to  Maymar

gatekeeping?

Maymar
Maymar
4 months ago
Reply to  Xpumpx

Probably not the best use of the term, kind of halfassedly thrown out, but something about “it’s not special enough unless you work for it” irked me.

Harmon20
Harmon20
4 months ago

Well, crap. I clicked in to the nutso headline with the snark cannon loaded, but in fairness I had to read the whole thing and…now I’m going to have to let this insanity sit in my head longer than I’m comfortable with while I mull on it.

Last edited 4 months ago by Harmon20
Jonathan Green
Jonathan Green
4 months ago

Fun beats expensive any day. Expensive means responsibility. Being free from worry about getting a scratch on a car, on being the target of resentment, and just being able to enjoy the car, there’s a lot to be said for that.

I have a yellow 1970 Honda CT90 that I got for a couple hundred bucks. Fixed it up, called it “the Minion”, and used it for errands in the Bloomfiled Hills/Birmingham Michigan area. This is considerd a money area, and it being metro Detroit, you know that cars are a big deal here.

I can’t tell you how often I got stopped in parking lots by people (usually guys in their 50’s) who remembered having one as a kid, their dad had one, etc.

I have a 1973 yellow Mustang convertible, driver quality, Earl Scheib-esqe paint job. Maybe 2 years ago, a woman in a Lamborghini Urus did a hard right at speed into a gas station where I was filling up, simply to gush over the car, she loved the color, asked if she could take pictures. It’s fun, no one resents you for having it.

I had a 1972 Cadillac hearse for a few years, around 1991-1994, that I got for $1200.00. Talk about a car that was a hit!

There’s a guy who comes to a cars and coffee I go to that has a rough AMC Pacer X, that is outfitted like a car that only a 1970’s creep would own. It’s hysterical! He is a hero…

VermonsterDad
VermonsterDad
4 months ago

I have never been to California (except a layover extended stay in LAX). . .so I don’t really have a good frame of reference. . .but you moved from a location of less wealth to a place of grater wealth in general, it seems logical what you see at the local car shows would trend the same.

Maybe a fun way to test your hypothesis. . .I am sure there are some local shows in some less wealthier areas within an acceptable drive. Does the perception of wealth continue despite the lack of rust?

Andreas8088
Andreas8088
4 months ago

I think someone needs to start a movement to eliminate the use of salt on the roads in the northeast. (and north-mid) When I lived in VT back in the 90s, I was in a rural enough area where they didn’t salt the roads. Back roads were just covered in snow during the winter, and if there was ice, they sanded. I think the salt thing started in the late 90s early 2000s, and man, it sucked. Those once-smooth back roads were now slushy messes that destroyed your car. I just fail to understand the mentality.

05Mil Machine
05Mil Machine
4 months ago
Reply to  Andreas8088

I agree, the salt needs to stop. Especially considering the price, lack of availability and associated finance costs of new vehicles skyrocketing. I don’t see how people in the salt belt, who also need vehicles, can afford to stay there. I would rather spend a few weeks more snowed in or learn to use tire chains than have to replace my vehicle every 5 or 6 years because it is no longer safe. I grew up in Illinois right before the salt craze. We just dealt with it.

Thomas Metcalf
Thomas Metcalf
4 months ago
Reply to  Andreas8088

AND, salting the roads also salts the wetlands and waterways. We need to get the environmental types working to end road salting. I have heard that some areas use beet juice. Not sure if it is better, but it would be sugars rather than salt.

Boulevard_Yachtsman
Boulevard_Yachtsman
4 months ago

This read actually kind of depressed me a bit. I appreciate the alternative view, but all thoughts of accessibility and wealth went out the window while reading this. All I can think of is how many times I’ve looked at cars that sorta/kinda passed muster in a craigslist potato-phone pic, or even from 30 feet away, only to get up close and realize the car was destined to end up as “parts-only” or crushed. Dead.

Nice stuff too – 60’s and 70’s Mercedes where trying to use a jack-point would simply have collapsed that part of the underbody. A ’69 Cadillac Fleetwood Series 75 that seemed like a great project until witnessing the completely rusted out frame mounts. All of the vinyl-topped cars showing those telltale bubbles indicating there are more $$$’s to be spent than the car is worth. A mint-looking ’81 Cordoba where I could stick a screwdriver straight through parts of the frame (discovered after I purchased it). A Triumph Stag and a Spitfire that would’ve literally come apart if one tried to tow them out of their respective resting places. Pretty-much all of the ’57 Plymouths… just gone.

That’s it, I’m grabbing another beer. Rust sucks.

Last edited 4 months ago by Boulevard_Yachtsman
Jakob K's Garage
Jakob K's Garage
4 months ago

Didn’t quite get the point, sorry… I’m standing here with a foot sized rust hole under the battery (yes so big the battery can actually fall through) in my 1971 Volkswagen Type 15, which I’d rather be without.

– But I guess I will feel quite satisfied having eventually welded it up. So how would I get that feeling without rust? 😉

Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
4 months ago

Well England seems to have a great car culture as well as abundant rust, to the point where people repair stuff that’s almost at the sack full of flakes stage.

I guess that proves your point.

Giare Aldre
Giare Aldre
4 months ago

The essence of your perspective shared in this article is why I gravitated to your writing.
It’s like Velveeta and American cheese vs. Caña de Cabra and Gorgonzola Piccante. If your entire cheese experience is based on Caña de Cabra, then, for some reason, I do not comprehend, it is exponentially less likely you will appreciate Velveeta. Reverse that with your cheese experience being Velveeta and, for some reason, I do not comprehend, it is more likely you will appreciate Caña de Cabra.
In my experience, the people I gravitate to appreciate both which, broadly means they grew up with Velveeta and American cheese.
If you have never experienced the awful joy of your rusty car, then it is less likely you truly appreciate the delightful joy of your rust-free car.

A fish does not know what water is until it’s experienced being out of water. Your writing is my kind of fish…

Inthemikelane
Inthemikelane
4 months ago

OK, I may regret posting this, but if you’re going to talk rust and what is generally the work of road salt, I have a question for the intelligentsia (a loosely used phrase, me included) of this site. We’ll be moving in the US, anywhere, in the next year or two, and want to go where they don’t use road salt, and isn’t a hot or cold center of the universe.

I’ve experienced Colorado’s gravel/sand mix, with more than one cracked windshield from pebbles, and being in CA now, just no worry of it. Where, other than Southern CA and the heat belt, what state/areas are there where you don’t really have to worry about your car dissolving before your eyes.

“None can destroy iron, but its own rust can! Likewise none can destroy a person, but its own mindset can.” –Ratan Tata

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
4 months ago
Reply to  Inthemikelane
Inthemikelane
Inthemikelane
4 months ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

Thank you, I need the help.

LactoseTheIntolerant
LactoseTheIntolerant
4 months ago
Reply to  Inthemikelane

You mentioned that you lived in Colorado. The roads are salted here, with magnesium chloride. Heck, they spray it in the summer to keep the dust down on our gravel roads.

My understanding is that with 15% to 35% relative humidity, the salt doesn’t react with enough moisture on the vehicle and in the air to cause issues.

When I lived in the Rust Belt, I experienced piles of snow, plenty of rain, high humidity, and loads of road salt.

Inthemikelane
Inthemikelane
4 months ago

Interesting, didn’t know that, thanks. I was only there for a year, and traveled for work to other states constantly, so never had the time to study it.

R53forfun
R53forfun
4 months ago

Not sure I’m fully onboard with the rust rationale, but I applaud the introspection as you dial in the level of “Hollywood” you’re comfortable with in LA!

Bruno Hache
Bruno Hache
4 months ago

Considering a rust hole the size of a quarter needs to be repaired to pass a safety inspection in some provinces in Canada.. I’ll keep Krown-ing my vehicles. That’s rust proofing for folks outside Canada.

EmotionalSupportBMW
EmotionalSupportBMW
4 months ago

Counterpoint: This is more car shows in wealthy areas thing. I’ve gone to my fair share of events just outside of Boston. Which is also significantly wealthier than most of America, but has much more rust than LA county. And people might be a bit into a running and driving LTD just for the novelty factor of old thing. But most of the show is various Mclarens, Porschei and Roush supercharged newer Mustangs. And not to generalize the audience, but a good chunk only got into cars after achieving a level of wealth. So, these older models they tend just be unaware and uninterested. As they aren’t exactly browsing for used Dakotas on fb marketplace at their Medtronic job. Example, My track prepped MK4 TDI crushes at shows in Northern New England, because it’s weird and people have a frame of reference and familiarity to why it’s weird and kinda dumb. However when I bring it to Mass, they have no idea this relatively common car exists and didn’t come with a giant intercooler sticking out the bumper.

Cerberus
Cerberus
4 months ago

Nothing good about rust. I’ll gladly have my old ’90 Legacy wagon or ’70 240Z or even ’84 Subaru wagon back and drive them with a smile, never stopping at any show again. There’s also all those cars that would still be existing, easy to work on without all the corrosion and with bulletproof and simple mechanicals, to keep the used (and especially the vintage) market prices down. I also don’t think I’d ever get sick of seeing vehicles that aren’t CUVs regardless of how common they might be (I’ve had a few guys in other sports coupes give me the wave of association in my GR86 that I suspect is because that class of car is so rare now). Then there’s the related lesser environmental toll of all those existing cars not needing to be replaced early (of course, that would also mean a lot more old high-emissions vehicles on the road, but I don’t care to do that math).

What’s better for car culture than older cars that have a sense of connection and encourage mechanical familiarity? Over the years, I’ve met a lot of people that didn’t care about cars* because they were never exposed to a car that was interesting or engaging to drive. Once exposed, most all of them get it to some degree. I commend looking on the bright side of things, but sometimes it’s a stretch even Armstrong couldn’t pull off. Saying rust is good is kind of like saying, “Sure I had testicular cancer and lost one, but you know, having only one nut makes me more resilient to getting kicked in the nads and I can run faster since I weigh less now.”

*To some extent, though I find pretty much everyone has a car they like even if they aren’t into cars. Usually it’s something common like an early Mustang or a car a beloved late uncle would drive them in as a kid, but it’s something. I don’t think anyone has that for appliances, which cars are more and more becoming.

Last edited 4 months ago by Cerberus
Uberscrub
Uberscrub
4 months ago
Reply to  Cerberus

Hard agree. I would love to still be driving my 2000 golf TDI, but at 500k miles all the bits underneath were rusting away. the engine was still good, the body was in good shape, but with a baby on the way I couldn’t have a car with rusting out breaks. I love my Honda, but nothing like my golf.

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