Historic military vehicle (HMV) owners recently gathered to display about 100 of their finest rides in the air-conditioned comfort of Huntsville, Alabama’s Von Braun Convention Center. As judges peered into the dark recesses of engine bays and underbodies, owners stood close by wondering about the historic integrity of their restoration efforts. Those of us who had not brought a vehicle to display, stood on the periphery, wondering about the health of the hobby.
The Dixie Division Chapter of the Military Vehicles Preservation Association (MVPA) hosted a flawless international convention in Huntsville on June 27-30. All of the available vendor tables were sold, an impressive array of special lectures and tours arranged, scarce vehicles were displayed and plenty of promotion all combined to make the event a lasting memory for those who attended. The members of the Dixie Division did everything right, as did the leadership of the MVPA. There was hardly a disappointed attendee, and one would be hard-pressed to say anything negative about the convention.
The 37th Annual MVPA International Convention rivaled any of the previous 36 conventions—therein raising a subtle, unasked question: Does this model serve the hobby’s future or simply the preserve the current state of things?
SACRED COWS: Monuments or Targets?
One of the most influential professors of my historical administration graduate program told me, “When you are hired to lead a museum in a small community, the most difficult task will be to identify the ‘sacred cows’ and decide whether you will preserve them or shoot them.” Though his advice was intended for formulating strong local museums, the admonition is worth considering when mapping the health of our hobby.
Before we grab the shotguns to chase after any sacred cows milling about at the International Convention, it might be appropriate to actually identify the potential targets. My list of cows might not jive with others’, but here is what I believe are the convention characteristics that could impact the health of the hobby:
1.) Location. As long as I have been involved with the MVPA (probably only about 10 years—my member number is 23210), it seems the leadership believes it is best to rotate the location of the convention between three geographic locations: East and West Coasts and “middle” America. I understand the intent of the practice: Give a chance for vehicle owners to have a minimal distance to travel to a convention at least once every three years. This makes sense, as our hobby demands pulling heavy vehicles to wherever the convention occurs. It isn’t like other hobbies that can pick a fixed location and expect participants to converge (like the militaria hobby’s Show of Shows held annually in the centrally-located Louisville, Kentucky)—or is it?
2.) Indoor Exhibition. I haven’t been involved in the hobby long enough to know when it turned into an indoor “concours” event. It would appear, though, that somewhere in the history of restoring military vehicles, the efforts of hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars spent to restore a Jeep warranted an indoor exhibition display of the vehicle. This is only ironic when one compares the HMV hobby to those highbrow vintage classic and exotic car enthusiasts who spend hundreds of thousands to restore Duesenbergs, Cords or Ferrari GTOs. I have attended a number of concours events where this level of restoration has been exhibited and judged in outdoor settings ranging from the muddy fields of Hershey, Pa., to the ocean salt breeze-blown golf course at Pebble Beach. The automobile owners don’t seem to demand indoor facilities for their sometimes million-dollar restorations. Is indoor display appropriate for our warhorse veteran vehicles?
3.) Static… REALLY Static Displays. If anyone has ever attended a HMV event in Europe or England, they will immediately recognize the wholly different approach to vehicle display in the United States. Here in the U.S., it seems to be the unwritten rule that historic military vehicles be “exhibited” rather than “demonstrated.” European and UK military vehicle events are dominated by different parades, driving competitions and drive-bys, whereas United States events seem to prefer lines of stationary vehicles. Is one approach better than the other? I don’t know, but photos of events from across the ocean seem to always include hundreds of spectators (if not thousands in the cases of the UK-event, Beltring, or the Belgian gathering, Tanks in Town) in the background. Would demonstrating the pulling power of WC-mounted winch or hearing the engine of a Soviet T-34 grind as it climbed a dirt pile entice more to consider the hobby? It seems to work for our comrades overseas.
4.) Times have changed—have we? When the hobby got its start nearly 40 years ago, it was about putting vehicles to use that would otherwise have found their way to the scrap yard. In those early years, the vehicles were still regarded as military “surplus,” so there was a lot more joy experienced in driving and using the vehicles. Of course, the folks buying the surplus vehicles were much younger than the average age of today’s military vehicle restorer. They were veterans of WWII and Korea, probably in their mid-30s and early 40s. They were more inclined to see what sort of limits they could push their Jeeps, trucks and tracked vehicles. That same urge still exists today—predominantly in 20-, 30- and 40-year-olds… not so much in the guys in their 60s, 70s or even 80s. It is easy to see why exhibiting in air-conditioned halls has been so appealing in the past decade… and why we see a lot more gray hair on the attendees. Will this path insure the hobby ends with this generation?
5.) Judging. There seems to be the overwhelming desire—particularly among American restorers—to compete for restoration rights to brag. Whereas competing with others to gain the “best of class” status does drive some to research and produce superior restorations of vehicles, it also has the capacity to make the event about the restorer and not as much about the vehicle. Somewhere along the process, sight of the historical significance of the vehicle is lost in the attempt to get every washer, gasket and accessory “right.” Whereas this certainly elevates the quality of restored vehicles, does it discourage many others from participating in an event?
6.) Who is it for? Many will argue that the International Convention should be focused on the “now” rather than the future. After all, if someone has gone through all the effort to restore a particular vehicle and made the effort to haul it to the International Convention, then the events at that convention should be focused on that individual and others who have made similar efforts, right? Should the convention be for acknowledging past commitment to restoration, or should it focus on developing a strong interest in preserving historic military vehicles?
7.) Let people in! Is it in the best interest of the hobby to keep the public out of the convention? I don’t understand this one… sure it entitles the registrants to walk the aisles without rubbing elbows with the unwashed, but seriously, has anyone taken a hard look at the aisles on the first day of the convention? You could roll bowling balls down each one without hitting anyone. The cost of being restrictive is, well, being restrictive. Isn’t our goal to attract people to the hobby rather hold them at bay until we are finished picking over the vendor tables?
It’s an ongoing discussion
During the past five or six years, the hobby has been very fortunate to have MVPA board members who are actively engaged in the discussion about the future of the hobby. Not only have they realized an ongoing tribute to our veterans is perpetuated through the restoration, display and use of historic vehicles, but also, there is a business aspect to the hobby.
The MVPA is a non-profit organization committed to monitoring the health of our hobby and fine-tuning how it is promoted. In my opinion, the MVPA has the one of the best combination of board member skill sets that has ever been assembled. They have intimate exposure to the depth of knowledge of active members, emerging markets and legislative challenges to the hobby. The officers and board members are approachable and will listen to your comments. If you care about the future of the hobby, it is time to step up and join. Your membership fees and head count goes a long way to keeping the hobby strong now and for years to come.
If the hobby is allowed to end with the current generation, the monetary value of the vehicles drops precipitously. If you don’t believe this, just look at the Model T and Model A hobby. After the “nostalgia generation” (those who remembered driving or riding in the vehicles when new) passed on or lost the ability to pursue the hobby, the value of the cars dropped considerably. The supply of restored vehicles had increased dramatically as owners died, and demand just did not keep up. To sell grandpa’s Model T, the price had to come way down—there just weren’t enough interested people to compete for the cars as they became available. Will there be customers clamoring to buy our historic military vehicles when we are done taking care of them?
The best way to insure that there will be enough customers to keep historic military vehicle prices stable–or even increase—is to engage the public in a friendly, inviting and exciting manner. It isn’t 1984 anymore. It’s time to admit that a finely restored vehicle isn’t enough to capture the interest of most folks. It’s gotta move, whiz-bang or do something exciting to attract the attention of wired-in, gotta-have-it-now generation.
Sure, we can fight the trend and keep displaying our vehicles and holding conventions as we did back in the 1980s and 1990s. Of course, we might just die in the trenches with our vehicles. Or, we can embrace the trends—we might just be surprised how the hobby will develop. If, for no other reason, we need the next generation if we want to sell our vehicles when the time comes.
Editor, Military Vehicles Magazine and Military Trader