I’m sure that you’ve all heard Groucho Marx’s famous words on club exclusivity: ‘I sent the club a wire stating; Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.’

Whilst I doubt that many of you have ever had a wire (or even an email) like this, it illustrates an issue facing many car clubs as we progress into an increasingly divergent and digital world. Indeed, much time is spent while in passenger seats, applying carnauba wax and over beers discussing just who should be in a club, and more existential questions surrounding what the actual purpose of the club is in the first place.

Should we be growing the club as much as possible and spreading the good word wider? Or should we be homing in on a very specific make and model, and deeply preserving its history and bringing its current enjoyment to life by carrying on the traditions of the club as has happened for decades before?

Laying down the battle lines

I’ve had a number of conversations recently on this topic, and there is clear passion on both sides of the debate. Grow as much as possible, or stay true to the cause?

I have heard of many committees who are deeply divided on the subject. One group (who I’ve heard referred to as ‘The Establishment’), advocate sticking to the existing focus and maintaining the good work that the club has been doing for many years. Another group, the (often self-proclaimed) Young Upstarts, want to expand membership by including more modern vehicles and sharing the club benefits with a wider audience.

The Establishment are not wrong

At the heart of any club are its people – both the volunteers who make it all work, and the members themselves. Meeting, talking, offering help and support, organising and sharing trips together. Summing up recent events and news with a magazine or newsletter, and digesting it all over a drink in the pub. These events and touch points are what a club is all about.

Sure, there are many benefits which more than repay the cost of a membership, insurance benefits being the most obvious, and there are normally many members who have joined simply to enjoy these benefits. But the real value lies with the hard core of the club, who have a true passion for the vehicles and give up so much of their own time to the cause.

Failing to maintain the events and services that these core members and volunteers seek would be a grave error. After all, one member who gets actively involved is surely worth at least 10 who do not. When we start simply talking of member counts alone, we’re missing the real reasons why we got involved in the first place.
Ignore your core at your peril!

The Young Upstarts have a point

At the same time as preserving and growing the heart of the club, we also need to look to the future. Who will be the custodians of these vehicles in 10 years’ time? How will we communicate with and attract these new people?

The Young Upstarts are thinking about these things and are impatient to get things moving. They want to see growth and they are looking to attract some different people, as well as some different vehicles. Whilst it’s easy to appreciate the beauty of a highly original old classic, what about the modern classics? What about modified cars? Track day cars? Rally prepped vehicles? Drift cars? Restomods?

And how will we communicate with these new people? In the U.K. alone, there are some 40 million social media users who spend, on average, 1hr 48mins per day on it. Some of us wouldn’t spend that much time in a month reading the club magazine. The number of forums, groups and online communities has grown exponentially, and a lot of the value that we used to get from a call to a club expert is now available online, at the click of a button. Google any technical matter, no matter how esoteric, and you’ll get a dozen answers within a second or two.

It’s not that these new digital channels have replaced the magazine and the face to face conversation; far from it. But they certainly add to the discussion, and some of the new members we seek will expect us to use them alongside our traditional means of communication. If we don’t, they’ll naturally get involved with people and clubs who do.

Adding the most value is what really matters

Both of the approaches outline above (and, in reality, we’re all various shades of grey) are ways for the club to give more value to its members; either by offering the same benefits to a wider audience, or by offering more benefits to existing members. As long as we are doing this, then we’re adding value to the industry and we deserve to flourish.

If we grow our membership but do nothing to increase the number or size of events, or improve club benefits, then in many ways we dilute the club experience and risk damaging the core. If we fail to include new people and offer them the things they are looking for (and can’t get elsewhere for free), then the club is likely to decline. The energy and goodwill of the existing volunteers will be used up, and the club will ultimately lose what made it so special in the first place.

Can the two sides co-exist?

I believe that they can, and actually in a very healthy way. Within every club there are ‘sub clubs’, whether local chapters, special interest groups or just people who naturally gel, and to treat everyone the same would be a mistake. In this way, people can define for themselves why they want to be a part of the club, and which elements they identify most closely with.

It is said that each of us can only hold around 150 meaningful relationships, so in a club of several thousand people, by definition, we need sub groups. Using regions, registers, motorsport groups, modified car groups, concours groups and tour groups, we can carefully tailor and then offer the right ‘menu’ for each person. And yes, these different factions will disagree and are likely to be vocal about it, but it’s up to the leadership to ensure that this remains as friendly competitive banter, and does not become antagonistic. Tolerance is bred from understanding, so getting different the groups to share their enthusiasms with each other, and promoting a bit of banter, is the key.

 

To finish, a couple of quotes. One for The Establishment and one for the Young Upstarts, summarising in wiser words than mine:

 

Electric communication will never be a substitute for the face of someone who with their soul encourages another person to be brave and true
Charles Dickens (1812-1870), British novelist.

Everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal.
Anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it.
Anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it, until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.
Douglas Adams, The Sunday Times, August 29th, 1999.

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Ian Quest