Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters

The Ride That Got Away reunites drivers with the vehicles they can’t get over, and puts America’s relationship with cars on blast.

Think, for a moment, of the object from your past you miss the most. It’s probably not a vacuum cleaner or a ladle. Maybe it’s a stuffed animal, or an armchair. For many, many people, it’s a car.

First cars, in particular, occupy a special place in American nostalgia. For some Boomers, their first ride brought them closer to the proverbial American Dream. For some Gen X suburban teens, it was their first taste of independence. Rebel Without A Cause. American Graffiti. Herbie Fully Loaded. It’s a story that’s been told again and again.

For a while, though, there have been signs that America’s much-fabled car culture is changing. Younger people today aren’t buying wheels the way their parents did, partly because they can’t afford to. General Motors cited “changing consumer preferences” when ending production of its signature passenger cars last year. The iconic Volkswagen Beetle was discontinued. And autonomous vehicles threaten to permanently change what it means to be in the drivers’ seat.

At the same time, there’s plenty of evidence that the emotional tethers between cars and their human captains are as strong as ever. When IKEA recently surveyed 22,000 people worldwide about the meaning of “home,” almost half of the Americans they polled say they go to their car to have a private moment—a choice only second to their bathrooms and bedrooms. An expert on the psychology of crying, Ad Vingerhoets, told me last year that, besides one’s home, one’s car is the best place to have a good sob. According to one 2013 study, one in five Americans still name their vehicles. “Baby” and “Betsy” were the most common monikers.

A new History Channel show, The Ride That Got Away, puts this pervasive bit of Americana on full blast, one human-car bond at a time. The series, which premiered January 13, is like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition crossed with Pimp My Ride, only “less hokey and cosmetic” than the latter, host Courtney Hansen tells me. On each episode, one participant is nominated by family or friends as worthy of being reunited with their long-lost favorite car: The one they drove as a teen, or the one that reminds them of their dad, or the one that got them out of a sad slump. The cars aren’t all firsts, but they’re bests.

“We are reuniting deserving people—only deserving people, no wealthy people, no celebrities—with their dream ride,” Hansen says. “It’s a car or truck or off-road vehicle that got away, that they had to sell for one reason or another.” Some donated their cars to charity, or traded them in to afford student loans or medical bills. “We’re going to hunt down either that exact car, or, if we can’t find it, one that’s the same make, year, and model,” Hansen says.

The first episode centers on David, a dad who’s been battling cancer since he was a teen. To distract him during the early days of his diagnosis, his father gave him a 1984 International Scout—an early competitor to the Jeep—to tool around with. Later, as his motor skills deteriorated, he donated it to a children’s charity. His wife Kristin wants him to have it back.

After an hour of power drilling, strategizing, tearful talks with Kristin, and old-photo montages, David is presented with a new Scout in its former glory, plus a few bonus upgrades. Where Pimp My Ride went for chrome rims and boosted stereos, this show swaps out a manual transmission with an automatic one, so it’s easier for David to drive. The desired—and achieved—reaction from the driver-to-be is similar, though: pure awe.

Many viewers will identify with the joy of reuniting with a long-lost car, whether or not they’d want their families to put them on TV to make it happen. (Shout-out to my early-2000s Toyota Corolla, lovingly nicknamed “Crapolla,” which was crushed by a tree, along with all of my The Strokes mix-CDs.)

In part, that’s because cars become milestones in people’s lives. Perhaps because they’re more expensive and less disposable than other objects (like phones), they’re better used to track the passage of time, says Janelle L. Wilson, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth who studies nostalgia.

“Personally, I remember driving my parents’ AMC Concord to my classes at the community college I attended and the heater didn’t work; I actually had to scrape ice from the INSIDE of the windshield while I was driving!” she wrote in an email. “And then later, during graduate school, I drove a 1980 Oldsmobile Omega that had been ‘totalled’ but was still drivable. Those vehicles are in stark contrast to the newer Honda that I drive now; so there is a sense of ‘that was then, this is now.’” The contrast, she says, invites reflection. In his Scout, David might see the teen who didn’t expect to live long enough to be a father.

Changing trends in car ownership could certainly deflate the mythos of the first car. For Millennials, there’s student loan debt and high costs of living to contend with: Just 24.5 percent of 16-year-olds had a license in 2014, according to Marketplace, down from 47 percent three decades ago. Teenagers of color are even less likely than their white peers to drive. AAA statistics show that while two-thirds of white teenagers are licensed by age 18, only 37 percent of black teenagers and 29 percent of Hispanic teens are.

For many Gen Z-ers, meanwhile, getting a cell phone has replaced getting a license in the quest for independence. Heightened environmental awareness could also keep some from wanting cars, or they could be more able and willing to take public transit or Uber. Again, it’s a story we’ve heard before.

Several classic Volkswagen Beetles are pictured.
The iconic Volkswagen Beetle was discontinued in 2018, after almost 90 years in production. (Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

Hansen, however, isn’t convinced that car-lovers are going extinct. She’s watched a lot of vehicles come and go in her lifetime: Her father is famed racing driver Jerry Hansen. Every month, manufacturers would send him a different model to test drive, and at the Minnesota raceway the Hansen family owned, she’d hang out in the garage and the pit, among dozens of racers.

Still, there are some cars she just can’t forget. Like her dad’s Can-Am car, which was “almost two vehicles wide,” with an orange cannon and a blue 44 painted up the side. Or the GMC motorhome they’d drive to a cabin up north. Or her own first car: A 1990 Chevy Camaro IROC Z-28 convertible. If she could recreate any car in the world, she says, it would be that one.

“There are going to always be those shifts and changes,” Hansen says of the decline of car culture. “But in the overall picture, I don’t believe we’re going entirely away from the car any time soon.”

The Ride That Got Away—which turns out to be just as hokey and cosmetic as Pimp My Ride, but more aggressively heartwarming—is a living testament to that.

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