The car club is dead... Long live the car club!

Reported in the most recent edition of Classic Car Weekly is a story on how car clubs are experiencing a dearth of volunteers to fill roles crucial to their survival. This is something I care about so I wanted to dig into the detail here.

It comes as no surprise to me that this is happening. It’s the central theme in ‘the future of classic cars’ I wrote last year. I’ve spent enough time as a club member and briefly committee member of car clubs to recognise this challenge. But what can be done about it?

‘Surveying’ the situation

I’m a firm believer clubs are there for their members and so we need to start by listening to their needs. Several years ago I ran an independent survey of classic car enthusiasts and there were some clear take-home points:

  • Lack of diversity of members is an issue for clubs, with many younger respondents citing this as a reason for not attending club meetings

  • There was a lot of interest in classic cars and car maintenance among those that took the survey

  • In terms of improving clubs people showed clear interest in there being more local events and getting help with access to tools, services and equipment to work on their cars.

  • Some did feel car clubs could be elitist or ‘cliquey’ which put them off.

  • There was also a reported lack a focus on cars and car oriented activities like driving events within clubs

  • Specifically relating to social events: lack of time and to a slightly lesser extent money were expressed as reasons for not attending

Ultimately most people young and old nowadays just want to quickly and easily find information about cars, clubs and events online with a few clicks or taps on a mobile device and smoothly carry out their intentions e.g.

  • get help with their car

  • become a member

  • find out about upcoming events

  • book into a show

  • buy parts or merchandise

  • access special discounts

And getting involved in helping / organising as a volunteer should be just as easy.

What needs to change?

Removing bureaucracy will definitely help: for example do small clubs really need a written constitution consisting of several pages of text no one reads or an AGM that takes place at some grand motoring establishment? I’m not talking about throwing the baby out with the bathwater - I’ve found there is overwhelming support for some formal structure and paid membership in car clubs as long it’s clear why it’s necessary and what it goes towards.

Organising a club online is made difficult by the fragmented nature in which we all interact. Social media is usually the fastest and most widely adopted form of communicating online these days. However it is not as simple as a club having a general social media presence on one platform. For example I do use Twitter, but I don’t use Facebook and Instagram. Other users might do the opposite. But investing time in managing multiple accounts can be daunting for some, particularly older, organisers of clubs. They may know they need to manage social media to keep people engaged, but they may not be confident in how best to do it. And don’t forget some people still want to communicate via “old fashioned” media such as ‘e-mail’, ‘forums’ and dare I say it ‘post’! For some things those are a much more appropriate form of communication too.

So clearly there needs to be a drive to recruit social media savvy ‘coordinators’ or ‘communications officers’, and also develop an overall strategy that works, which may require a bit of experimentation too. The presence of a good website should also be paramount and can I be frank and say that many club websites are truly crap (I helped develop and maintain one for a while and I’m not too proud to say elements of it were crap too!).

Crucially I think it’s important to keep in mind throughout everything you do as a club are the people you are trying to reach. They’re probably just like you - most likely very busy but spending the odd spare couple of minutes online looking to do more with their car hobby. You have to capture their interest, make them feel a part of something and get the most out of that little precious time they have. The easier you make it for them, the chances are the more time they’ll spend contributing eventually.

I’m not saying any of this stuff is easy! But technology can also help reduce the burden of the time consuming elements of running a club; make use of video calls, online polls / surveys and voting. Don’t box yourself into a corner by requiring 5 or 10 different people be in the same room to discuss minutiae or make some decisions.

Keep the scale of your efforts proportional to the amount of resources you have - your website or social media doesn’t have to have mountains of information - you can build content up over time with help from volunteers, but keep in mind most people just want to know the simplest of things.

Easy collaboration is key and making all people welcome. Work to reach out to those who are underrepresented in your club, help them out, and make it easy for them to lend a hand, if they want to. If you don’t do that and you operate like an old boys club, then your club will wither. It won’t happen overnight but in years to come that car club will die. Long live the car club and those that put in the work to ensure that doesn’t happen!

Get radical man

As an addendum to this I’d like to suggest that maybe sometimes thinking completely outside the box is worthwhile. This could be anything from:

  • trying different formats for club events (such as more informal ‘cars and coffee’, ‘road runs’ or ‘fix it days’)

  • reaching out to publishers and social media stars with a presence in the classic car community offering them the chance to attend events and cover the club, cars, owners stories etc.

  • joining forces with other clubs on specific things, or if one club is really struggling consider a permanent merger.

  • considering a complete restructure or reboot of the club

It can be infuriating for club members to hear the same old arguments against doing anything new particularly when a club is stagnating or membership is dwindling. Of course there are often many vocal opinions and few willing to lend a hand, but if you don’t figure out how to work with your club members, the club wont work at all.

Please note this whole piece isn’t an attack on clubs or their dedicated volunteers, many of whom put heroic amounts of effort into this stuff, but just some food for thought that I hope might be useful.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to comment below or reach out to me on twitter

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