Clunkers Just Got Cool

Just after grabbing his diploma, Casey Taylor-Perry wanted nothing more than to grab a set of car keys as a graduation gift from his parents.

Taylor Perry's wish came true. He got a Pontiac Parisienne just as old as he was. "It's a great car with only 85,000 miles on it, but it has some problems, and I can't wait to fix it up," he said.

Who would have ever thought this new generation of grads used to living in a disposable world would think a 22-year-old Pontiac nearing six-digit mileage would be a "cool" gift.

Taylor-Perry is part of a new breed of both high school and college graduates who want to fix up old clunkers. Some do it for vanity, some do it as a hobby, some do it to save money, and some do it for the environment. Despite the reason, one thing is certain: getting an old clunker and spending the summer fixing it up is hot.

However, for the automotive industry this could be a very scary proposition. The college graduate market alone represents about $15 billion for the automotive industry, according to the College Explorer Survey conducted by Harris Interactive.

"Memorial Day weekend is one of the three biggest weekends of the year for sales in the industry," said Marc Cannon of Auto Nation.

Environment Loves It

The last thing Taylor Cahill wants is a new car. He's still waiting for his parents to get his graduation gift and hopes they get him an old diesel Mercedes 300D to drive through the cobblestone streets of Boston.

Cahill wants to work on making that old diesel run off waste vegetable oil. He says he got the idea from a buddy. "One of my friends has a waste veggie oil-powered bus. He inspired me a lot to get my own environmentally friendly automobile."

Cahill wants a clunker so he can do his own high-quality repairs. That's another added incentive -- he'll be saving money. With gas and diesel prices hovering around $3 a gallon, Cahill can say goodbye to high-priced pumps when he says hello to veggie oil.

"I want a classy ride that's environmentally friendly and independent of big energy companies. And I'd like to have a mural painted on it, essentially turning it into an art car," said Cahill.

The hybrid route is not the answer to Cahill's eccentric requirements for transportation. He, like many of his college-aged friends, wants to forge his own path and show off his own identity, all while staying environmentally savvy.

Parents Love It, Not Dealers

Parents love it because they're saving money but car dealerships aren't so happy. "May is a big month for sales. Our graduation business gives us a 10 [percent] to 15 percent increase in sales," said Greg Dickson of Los Angeles-based Alexander BMW.

Dickson said parents come to buy their grads anything from a Mini Cooper for around $20,000 to a BMW that pushes $40,000. Just three years ago, nearly 40 percent of car buys for the college-age consumer were purchased at new car dealerships, according to Harris Interactive.

Now those numbers may be diminishing, according to Marty Bocola, owner of Automania, a vintage and late model car seller.

"Our sales have quadrupled in the last few years, now we're opening our third showroom," Bocola said. "If you were to ask us when we started this business what our age group would be, we would have never have said this age group. We've seen a dramatic increase in young people coming, and they come in with their parents. The parents encourage their kid's interest in the cars because the parents are living in their nostalgia."

Bocola says at least 20 percent of his business comes from college students.

Love-Hate Relationship

But some experienced owners of clunkers would say take the new car. Shane Pena of Phoenix bought himself his own graduation gift, saving almost $4,000 for a 1978 Chevy El Camino. He said he thought buying the car would give him a good opportunity to bond with his father by working on the upholstery together.

But Pena said it was also a big mistake. Even after replacing the engine, the old clunker remained unreliable. He said the car caused him to lose two major jobs.

"My job was 20 miles away. There were times where I couldn't make it to work, the tire would blow. After losing my job, I had an interview and I missed the interview because I had problems starting up my car," said Pena.

But Pena said he wouldn't trade his baby in for anything. "There's no way I can get rid of it. I've got plans for it. But I don't want to blow this new job I got; I just got great benefits. But I still love my car. It's like an abusive relationship."

Although it would just be easier to drive off a lot with a new car, it seems more important to these new grads that they reveal their own identity through a clunker with some character.