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Love Interests
Cars needn't be exotic for clubs to flip over them
by Luann Grosscup
Chicago Tribune, November 28, 1999

Cars are like pets.  While outsiders may not see what's so special, it's perfection on four wheels (or paws) to the owner.

While it's easy to understand people being drawn together because of a shared affection for that rare breed of critter or car, a lot of people bond over their "everyday" brands or breeds too.

Though the dog may never see a show ring and the car may never make it beyond the carpool, owners meet regularly to discuss their pride and joy.

"We just love our cars.  And once you get hooked on cars, it's all over," said John LeTourneau, co-founder of the Saturn Performance Club.

Automakers are savvy about the demographics of their consumers, said LeTourneau.  "And that's usually reflected in the membership of a car club.  Saturn clubs have a lot of people in their mid- to late-20s - a lot of dedicated career people whose careers, more often than not, seem to have something to do with computers."

The Buick Club of America attracts the over-50 crowd, said Chicago chapter director Steven Kelly.  "I think it's an economic thing," said Kelly.  "This age group is more likely to be able to afford this type of car."

While more than 90 percent of the Buick club members have cars from before 1997, the focus includes current models.  "We welcome anyone who has an interest in Buicks," Kelly said.

The National Chrysler Products Club sees a cross-section of car owners.

"We have members who range from elderly couples to young kids.  We're not a muscle-car club or a sports-car club; we've got everything Chrysler has ever built, and you see that reflected in the ages of our members," club board member Roman Robaszewski said.

When it comes to Oldsmobiles, this is your father's Oldsmobile club - and then some.

"The Illinois Valley Chapter of the Oldsmobile Club of America is one of about 40 chapters in america," said Joann Wagerman of the chapter in which she is active.  "We have 262 members in our chapter, but we're known internationally, with over 6,500 members worldwide."

Members own Oldsmobiles from 1897 to 2000.

"Our club began in 1955, when Volkswagens were scarce in this country and owners needed support," said Shell Tomlin of the Volkswagen Club of America.  "People needed technical support and sources for parts.  Now, the focus is largely social, along with the hope that you'll get to know someone who knows the answer to a particular problem you might be having with your car."

Robert Thomas said the Chevy and Geo Club of North America focuses primarily on cars formerly known as Geo.

"Geo is a name Chevrolet made up, calling some models of cars from 1989 to 1998 'Geos' instead of Chevrolets, those models being the Prizm, the Tracker, the Metro and the Storm," Thomas said.  "The organization appears to attract members from the maker's target market - owners in their mid-20s to mid-30s."

As with any organization, these clubs have regular meetings where they plan outings or charitable events.

"We have just two meetings per year," said Wagman, "but we put out a large newsletter that can run as long as 16 pages every month.  Normally, we hold about three shows per year."

At the shows, autos are judged based on quality of workmanship by the manufacturer and the owner.

The newsletter is a good way of keeping up to date with technical problems, she said.

"You just put in a blurb stating what kind of help you need, and you'll usually get a response.  Or if you're looking for parts, it's a good way to network."

The Saturn Performance Club participates in "autocrossing."  "We go to a mall parking lot or other open area, and a course is laid out," LeTourneau said.  "Then you race the cars through the course and compare your times to similar vehicles'.  You get to know the performance level of the cars."

"It's the most fun you can legally have in the world," LeTourneau said of the Solo-II races, where there is nothing to hit but the safety cones.  The local events hosted by the club draw participants from around the country and Canada.

Though the Volkswagen Beetle was once the most widely owned car in the world and "the new Beetle has become very popular since 1998, our focus is pretty diverse, which is one of the reasons for our success," said Tomlin.

Some Volkswagen Club of America chapters focus on particular models, others, such as the local chapter, on all models.  But the largest event for all chapters are the shows.

"We like to get together and admire each others' cars," said Tomlin.

All mentioned the social aspects of being a car-club member.  "It's just a fun thing to get together with people who have similar interests," said the Buick Club's Kelly.

"There's always something to talk about when the subject turns to working on your car," said Thomas of the Chevy and Geo Club.

"I live in Rockford," said Wagaman, "and my best friend in the world lives in a Chicago suburb.  I never would have met her it it hadn't been for the club."

"We get involved in several community events," said Kelly, "like shows at nursing homes, and we're involved in some food pantry projects, too."

The Oldsmobile club has worked with St. Jude and other children's hospitals in fundraising events, and the Chrysler club has participated in shows at veterans' hospitals.

Recently, a Volkswagen club in Indiana put together a program to educate the public on shaken-baby syndrome.

"One of the members in that group is the grandfather of Matthew Eappen," said Tomlin of the infant whose death apparently from shaken-baby syndrome captured national attention.

Club memberships are relatively inexpensive.

Averaging $20 to $50 anually, they include car shows, camaraderie, idea sharing, problem solving, community events and good causes.

But, to Tomlin, "just being able to share pride in our cars" is where the rubber really meets the road.


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