Has the passion gone out of America’s fabled love affair with the automobile?

The 389-cubic-inch overhead-cam V-8 holds a sweet spot in many aging hearts, but their grandchildren are more likely to lust after a 1-terabyte hard drive streaming video to a high-resolution screen.

“Today, it’s not the most critical thing in the world to have the most exciting car,” said Jim Wangers, 85, known as “the godfather” of the Pontiac GTO, which helped define the muscle car era. “In the 1960s it was absolutely mandatory that you had a swinging set of wheels. Now, personal mobility has been replaced by personal mobility on the Web.”

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America’s fabled love affair with the car hasn’t ended, but like many a romance that gets off to a smoking-hot start, it has evolved over the years into more placid coexistence rooted more in need than pleasure.

There are a multitude of reasons: The roads don’t seem so free or open as they were when the affair blossomed after World War II. Congestion and the pillory at the gas pump have reined in some of the wanderlust.

Hot cars once were a teenage status symbol, but now four wheels matter most as a way to the mall. And the meeting place of social cyberspace means there’s a lot less need to go anywhere to commune with friends.

People younger than 30 are showing increasing disdain for owning combustion-engine power. Saddled with college debt and concerned about the environment, fewer are bothering to get driver’s licenses, more are moving to transit-friendly cities and new apps are expanding the arsenal of alternatives to owning a car.

“My parents were both born in the 1950s, and one of the things we’d do is just pile into the car and go driving around with no particular destination,” said Aaron DeNu, 33, who grew up in suburban Cincinnati but now lives in Logan Circle and chooses not to own a car. “I think the car is less tied to your identity than it was in the 50s.”

Two telling details:

The District’s population grew by 30,000 in the century’s first decade, but the number of registered vehicles remained fairly flat. More than a quarter of adults in the city don’t own an automobile.

NASCAR has discovered that younger people aren’t being lured by the roar of high-performance engines. To expand a rapidly graying fan base it has urged popular drivers to take to Facebook and Twitter. Now Jeff Gordon tweets regularly to more than 200,000 followers and has more than 458,000 Facebook fans.

But younger people seem more interested in fiddling on the Internet than under the hood, and they’re finding it provides more ways to get around than ever before.

Online services like Zipcar and Car2Go that provide short-hop rental vehicles for trips to the grocery store or mall are facing competition from new apps that let car owners rent their private vehicles to strangers through online connections. And now there is an app that brings technology to the slug line, allowing drivers to post their coming and goings to fill empty seats with passengers.

“Right now we’re on all the mobile platforms,” said Jason Conley of Avego, a global company that plans to begin matching riders to empty seats in Washington this summer. “Smartphone penetration just hit 50 percent this past Christmas, so more and more people have a small computer in their pocket and can avail themselves of lots of transportation options.”

Bicycles may be a 19th-century invention, but by using an app, Capital Bikeshare riders can get immediate feedback on how many bikes are available at the nearest docking station.

“It’s not advantageous to have a car, and sometimes it’s disadvantageous,” said Kate George, 30, who does most of her travel around the District on her bike or by Metro. “It’s a lifestyle you get used to, and you see your friends without cars and you realize you don’t necessarily need one.”

Nationally, the number of miles driven by people younger than 35 dropped by 23 percent between 2001 and 2009, according to research by the think tank Frontier Group. More than a quarter of those in that age group don’t own a driver’s license.

The study that Frontier Group released in April attributed the shift away from driving to several things, including a doubling of gas prices since 2001 and the ability of people on buses and subways to stay plugged into their social network without feeling guilty about distracted driving.

The lack of desire to drive has been influenced, in part, by economics. One in five people ages 25 to 34 lives with parents or grandparents. In the last decade the percentage of people younger than 35 without a driver’s license has risen to 26 percent.

The bleak economy wasn’t the determining factor in the desire to drive less. People younger than 35 who had jobs drove 2,100 fewer miles in 2009 than they did eight years earlier, Frontier reported.

“When I was 16, if you didn’t have a car you couldn’t get to your job,” said Jeff Lemieux, 49, who grew up in Springfield, Mo., and had an awakening when he moved to take a job in Washington 25 years ago.

“We were introduced to public transportation for the first time,” said Lemieux, who lives in Greenbelt and bikes to work in the District. “Now my wife and I share one car, and we probably ride our bikes 10 times as many miles as we drive our car.”

In rural America, a license and an automobile may remain a necessity for young people. But so does fuel economy, so the car of choice may be a four-cylinder that gets 32 miles per gallon rather than the muscle car of yore. Now, 75 percent of the people who buy the iconic Chevrolet Corvette are older than 45.

“If you look at Main Street America on weekends, they’re still driving up and down Main Street,” said Michael T. Marsden, a professor of American studies at St. Norbert College who has researched the subject. “Has some of the excitement shifted to other media? Of course it has, but that has been replaced to some extent by the older generation that now purchases the muscle cars and actually does the cruising on weekends.”

In places like Washington, however, congestion has stifled the sense of freedom drivers once found behind the wheel, said Timothy K. Gilbert, who chairs the automotive marketing department at Northwood University in Florida.

“When you begin to look at the vehicle as more utilitarian you begin to look at alternatives, because it’s only a method of transportation,” he said. “The way people look at the automobile reflects maybe not uncertainty as much as ambivalence.”

Is ambivalence the death of romance?

“Are we really ever going to get over the love affair? I doubt it,” Marsden said. “Automotive culture, that love affair is a deep one. And we may have to compromise, we may have to shift, we may have to redefine it, but it’s a pull.

“It’s a deep, deep pull.”

 
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