Lifestyle

Gift Guide for Gearheads


It's easy to buy holiday gifts for auto enthusiasts. You can even give them a tie—as long as it has a picture of a car on it

Don't look now, but it's time—maybe past time, for certain highly organized people—to start thinking seriously about holiday shopping for the auto enthusiasts on your list.

Halloween is still a fresh memory, so in coming up with a list of gifts for car lovers, we borrowed a favorite principle from that holiday: Never buy candy you wouldn't want to eat yourself.

In this case, we wouldn't recommend anything we couldn't see ourselves enjoying. That ruled out a lot of otherwise fine, automotive-themed stuff—thousands of items, like cufflinks, watches, jewelry in general; car-related ball caps, T-shirts, polo shirts, most clothing; above all, no car-washing and detailing gear, although there are plenty of good choices for automotive Felix Ungers. You know who you are.

What's left?

First, gadgets and "tech" items are hot.

Second, safety sells.

Third, and possibly our favorite, are "experiential" gifts, like renting a luxury car, or high-performance driving on a track. Those tend to be the most expensive. Most high-tech gadgets are more attainable and longer-lasting.

"In general, gadgets and technology gifts tend to be the most popular searches on our site, so it's no a surprise that automotive gadgets do quite well, too," said Megan Howard, editor-in-chief of Gifts.com, a subsidiary of IAC/InterActiveCorp (IACI), which compiles and categorizes gifts and links to retailers. "These gift ideas really cater to both the tech-savvy and hard-core commuters out there who want to bring some of their creature comforts into the car," she said.

Those gadgets include items like a portable GPS navigation unit. Since electronics evolve so much faster than cars, chances are good that if you own or lease a car for even a few years, aftermarket electronics will be smaller, cheaper, more capable, and easier to use than many factory-installed systems.

"The automotive category is big for us, and it's growing," says Drew Reich, executive vice-president for merchandising at gadget-lover's paradise Sharper Image (SHRP).

Hands-free phone equipment is another popular and fast-growing category, Reich says.

"Hands-free speakers for the phone system—the quality is much better than in the past. Hands-free could be very difficult for the other person to hear," he said. That is beginning to change, with "ear buds" getting smaller and lighter and more effective.

Motorola, for instance, is offering a hands-free, wireless, Bluetooth headset that's not much bigger than a hearing aid.

Reich said that for him, the biggest surprise of the early season is a little gadget called a Swiss Tech BodyGard 7-in-1 Platinum Series Emergency Tool. It fits on a key chain, but like a Swiss Army knife (no relation) it does a lot of things. Chiefly, it can be used to break a window and cut your seat belt, in case you're trapped in a car that's been in an accident—and maybe even ended up underwater. And at $29.95, it's affordable.

So-called experiential gifts, where you buy a memorable experience, tend to be at the other end of the affordability scale.

For instance, for $100,000 (plus $500 monthly dues), amateur race car drivers can buy a 50-year membership to the Club at Lime Rock Park, including exclusive track time on the famous small circuit in rural Connecticut. At least that's a long-lasting experiential gift.

For a shorter time, though it's more expensive by the hour, there are many places that will rent exotic luxury cars—perfect for a class reunion, if there's a rental available in a nearby city.

"Experiential gifts allow recipients to take an active role with their gift," says Howard of Gifts.com. "We find experiential gifts to be very well-received amongst thrill-seeking auto fans."

Our experience has been that the best track-driving experiences actually get less thrilling—that is to say, safer—as they go along, as you pick up a better feel for how a car performs and how to follow the contours of the track.

"The automotive category is becoming more utilitarian," says Reich of Sharper Image. "It's not just for car enthusiasts."

Click here to see a round-up of super gifts for car lovers.

Jim Henry is a reporter covering the automotive industry and automotive trends in BusinessWeek's New York office.

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