As we stop to take a photo of Parker Nirenstein standing next to his car, a group of women emerges from the adjacent parking lot. They all want their pictures taken with it.
“Is it like that everywhere you go?” I ask.
“Yeah, pretty much,” he admits, matter-of-factly. Nirenstein is an engineering student at the University of Michigan with an unusual hobby: When he’s not studying for exams, the 21-year-old spends his off-hours, weekends, and breaks driving exotic high-performance cars and criticizing them. Using multiple cameras — including one GoPro he attaches to his face to create point-of-view driving shots — he records himself and posts the videos to his YouTube channel, Vehicle Virgins, which has gained more than 200,000 followers and generated millions of video views in the last year alone. That, in turn, generated enough revenue to ennstein to buy this dream car — a lightly used bright yellow Lamborghini Gallardo — and lease a 2016 Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
Collecting cars is usually an expensive hobby, but in Nirenstein’s case, it pays for itself. On 20 March of this year, Vehicle Virgins neared a milestone when it generated $996.25 in a single day. We caught up with the college senior in his adopted home of Ann Arbor, Michigan, to find out exactly how he’s done it.
In some ways, it turns out, it’s what he’s not doing. Nirenstein is decidedly unlike most college students in that he doesn’t spend much time partying, playing video games, or just hanging out. That makes room in his schedule in which to shoot and edit lots and lots of videos. The subjects of the videos are typically automobile he borrows from local dealers or private owners, but increasingly, manufacturers such as Hyundai and Toyota have begun sending him their latest cars to test out for a week at a time. “Jaguar won’t let me borrow anything until I’m 25,” he explains, “so I’ll just borrow a Jag from its owner if I want to drive one.” Some enthusiasts loan him cars directly; three Nissan GT-R owners showed up at a local airport runway one lazy Sunday to let him do his thing. (A video of one of the GT-Rs entitled “GTR Snow Launch Control Flamethrower” went viral when he filmed it doing donuts in a parking lot during a snowstorm.)
Jaguar won’t let me borrow anything until I’m 25, so I’ll just borrow a Jag from its owner if I want to drive one.
According to Socialblade, a statistics website that tracks YouTube channels, Vehicle Virgins generates anywhere from $3,300 to $27,000 in revenue per month. For context, that’s roughly four times the revenue consumer magazine brands Car and Driver and Road & Track make on YouTube — combined. You begin to see how traditional media companies are increasingly competing not just with other magazines, but with their own readers, for attention. At this rate, Socialblade predicts that Vehicle Virgins will surpass Car and Driver in total subscribers by May of next year. That’s because despite its relatively small scale, Vehicle Virgins is producing more engaging content than most of its closest competitors.
The key, Nirenstein says, was discovering what makes videos go viral. “In December of last year, the month of January of this year was just some massive, massive growth, when I went from 8,000 views a day to two months from that, over 100,000. So it was over ten times growth. Previously, my most-watched video was a ‘How to drive a manual’ tutorial [which currently has nearly 3m views].” With every car he reviews, Nirenstein now creates separate positive and negative videos.
“The love and hate videos are just me figuring what I love and hate about the car when I’m driving it for the first time with no preconceived notions,” he says. “It’s kind of just raw opinion. Then I do a review that’s more cinematic. I spend a lot more time on that, get a lot of nice shots, do a lot of research on the car.”
People used to advise him to intern for Motor Trend. “I could do that, but I kind of already have my own Motor Trend,” he says.