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AMERICA'S LOVE AFFAIR WITH CARS

by Leigh Donaldson

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The Montréal Review, October 2012

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The Automatic (oil on canvas) by Robert Burkall Marsh (Private Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library)

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One of my most enduring childhood memories is when my father brought home a battery-operated car dashboard panel designed to simulate the experience of driving. It was an intricate and obviously expensive toy that rested on any tabletop and included a steering wheel with gear-changing levers, a plastic windshield with operable wiper blades, a horn, a working AM radio, glove compartment and, oddly enough, I do believe, an imitation cigarette lighter and ashtray with a package of bubblegum cigarettes inside. My mother frowned at the entire setup but did allow me to borrow her sewing machine pedals so I could pretend accelerate and brake.

I still recall my excitement and utter fascination with this device, even more than I had with my first typewriter. My fantasies abounded as I amused myself with this foreign made plaything for hours each day. I imagined that I was riding through the streets of New York, braking at crowded intersections, stopping for red lights and pedestrians, safely dodging errant taxi drivers, and heading for the highways toward the country. During city travel, I pictured myself cruising in fast red sports car. For leisurely country jaunts, I reclined in a roomy station wagon with wood-paneled siding and a suitcase rack on top, like the ones I saw families driving on television shows. Even though I was only about seven years old, the urge to be mobile, particularly in the comfort of a car, was profound.

The idea of driving a car, especially an attractive one, was embedded in my mind long before I would be old enough to take a driver's education course or apply for a motor vehicle license. Somehow, I had formed a relationship with the car, as a necessary consumer product, largely based on overheard conversations of my parents and family members, print, radio and television advertising and very likely from mere observation while walking along city streets and noticing the prevalence of cars, taxi cabs, police vehicles and ambulances. Even with the availability of an reasonably efficient public transportation system, city life and culture remained then and now dominated by individualized vehicular motion, day and night. The most commanding of urban sounds are associated with traffic: people honking their horns, yelling out of car windows and emergency sirens.

In their book, "Cruisin': Car Culture in America", authors Karl Witzel and Kent Bash argue that "mobile contraptions" have been part of a child's world from birth. From being wheeled to the mother's hospital room in a gurney, to the car ride from the hospital, to being walked through the city park in the obligatory baby carriage, the child is in motion on wheels. The authors contend that even in the carriage, a child is somewhat on display and the that the carriage itself, as well as the cars the parents drive, become "the outward indication of the parents' prosperity, social standing, style and personality." As I spent hours playing with my car panel, I was probably developing a deeply felt desire for eventually owning a car and being able to drive it, as well as show it off, along with many other very young people.

At that time it seemed that owning a car was largely associated with having the physical mobility to leave the congestion of the city or to take a vacation away from the an urban setting. At least, these were the terms in which my parents spoke of in reference to a car. To them it represented a means of escape or recreation. The world outside our immediate lives was made more accessible through the conveyance of an automobile.

Living in Detroit as a budding teenager during the 1970s, a city dubbed as "The Motor City", meant that we scarcely knew  a soul who didn't own at least one car or have access to one. Being a center of automotive manufacturing companies such as Ford Motors, General Motors and Chrysler who generated a large percentage of the city's job market, made it quite literally a car town. City thoroughfares such as Eight and Nine Mile Roads were designed farther apart than in other cities such as Boston and New York and remain interconnected by a series of freeways such as the John C. Lodge. The first paved road was laid down outside Detroit in 1908. So, owning a car became a necessary mode of transportation to conducting normal daily activities like shopping, taking children to school and going to and from work.

The necessity of getting to and from work was certainly the most dominant reason for my parents purchasing their cars. The expense of a car, insurance and maintenance became essential items in their annual budget. Because we lived in the outskirts of the city, my parents had to travel relatively longer distances to get to work in town. Just as business class people at the turn of the century saw the growing need to own a telephone as an essential component of business culture, automobile ownership has become an accepted essential to everyday living. In what was then considered a comprehensive analysis of automobile culture in a small town called Middletown during the 1920s and 30s, researchers, Robert and Helen Lynd discovered that the car had become a habit on the business class, a comfortable convenience, but they also noted:

     "...it {the car} represents far more than this to the working class, for to the
     latter, it gives the status which his job increasingly denies, and, more than
     any other possession or facility to which he has access, it symbolizes living,
     having a good time, the thing that keeps you working."

Perhaps this is why game show contestants display an often maniacal excitement over even the possibility of winning any kind of car, truck, sports vehicle over, say, a bike and helmet or even a boat. Certainly my parents would not have been able to effectively participate in their working, social and commercial lives without a car. They, like practically everyone around them, had no other choice.

My own leanings towards car frenzy are perhaps more emotional and personal. I had all the symptoms of typical adolescent urges to own a car, with the stoic determination to take on the responsibilities it entailed. While in high school, my father "gave" me a 1967 Chevrolet Impala for $500 with the strict proviso that I took care of the registration, insurance and maintenance. Compared to some of my friends, regardless of their parent's income, it felt like somewhat of a raw deal, but I stood vigilant. Though it wasn't in the best shape, it possessed a charm of its own for it afforded me mobility. Where conflict arose was in the social hierarchy of my high school. The make, physical attractiveness, color, noise level and perceived retail price tag value were of peculiar significance when classmates made decisions about what social circle you would be allowed the revolve within.

Guys and gals who drive shiny, brand-new, equipped Mustangs, Monte Carlos and Firebirds, for example, held elite status and got their pick of the premium dates. My dinged-up, used Chevrolet, even if they ran smoothly in all seasons, was almost universally frowned upon. In his summary paper, "The Social Psychology of Objects", Hugh Miller maintains that objects play an important role in social psychology and that material possessions such as cars have a profound symbolic significance for their owners, as well as for other people.

Even though I attended an outstanding public high school, I doubt that my colleagues were especially philosophical about their car biases. One of the few mitigating factors in my favor was that I was the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. This relative status might have made it possible for the more charitable among my classmates to overlook my unsightly vehicle in the parking lot. A few more socially alert misfits, bless them viewed all cars as part of the inevitable destruction of our environment and all humankind.

Perhaps that was the time that I got on my high horse and began reading books like "The Theory of the Leisure Class" written by Thornstein Veblen who termed the phrase 'conspicuous consumption'. The importance of the car as a status symbol that conveys the economic prosperity and social rank of the owner, then and today, cannot be overly emphasized. Perhaps this is the point where necessity evolves into luxury. I somewhat shamefully remember the thrill of my Uncle Stacy and Aunt Celeste taking me and my two younger brothers on summer Sunday rides in their sleek, dark blue Lincoln Continental. It was such an event for us that we got dressed up to go to the movies and then out for sundaes. I'll never forget the coolness of the air-conditioned interior and the suppleness of the plush, leather seats. Pedestrians would stop and watch us as we sailed almost silently by and opened admired the car when we parked. Each year, my uncle, who also worked for the car companies, bought the latest custom-built model. Consumers, like my uncle and students in my high school, gravitated to certain cars often because they connoted "a class act." In his article, "What Ca-rmakers Learned from Consumers about Branding", Eric C. Evarts reports that many consumers will pay a premium for a label perceived to be more prestigious and trustworthy.

Imagine no airplanes, televisions or refrigerators, but the car or "horseless carriage" being in existence for 14 years. That's the way it was just at the turn of the century, according to Scott Oldman in his article, "A Century of Cars: A Look Back at the Defining Device of the 20th Century".  Regardless of the more current problems associated with the car such as rapid depreciation, costly gas expenses, toxic emissions, traffic fatalities, never mind road rage and the texting while driving, it continues to be an inbred technological part of American culture, out stepped perhaps only by cell phones and computers. According to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics for 2009 there are 254,212,610 registered passenger vehicles, excluding buses and trains. That's a lot of cars. In all likelihood, precious little of this country's terrain from the snow-capped mountains of Colorado to the pine tree forests of Maine, hasn't been trampled upon by a motor vehicle. Even as far back as the 1920s, the automobile industry helped sustain a variety of related industries including the petroleum, steel plate, glass and rubber industries, according to James J. Flink in his book "The Car Culture".

Much of the country's interstate highway system could be attributed to initiatives of the Eisenhower administration and the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. For better or worse, the nation's physical landscape would be irrevocably altered by the massive construction that followed. Land travel would become faster and more convenient, yet somehow less personal. People were suddenly able to travel farther distances to larger towns and cities, while smaller towns were gradually bypassed by major thoroughfares. This is quite evident in my home state of Maine, where Interstate 95, for example, bypasses countless New England towns steeped in fading cultural history. The evident result is a sense of lost culture, traditional and history, overshadowed by strip malls, garish billboards, big box stores, parking lots, car dealerships and, of courses, cars themselves. Since the car has permeated our society, we have been inundated with drive-thru restaurants and drive-thru banks. In a society already obsessed with speed and time, the ways in which we perform routine daily activities and even our leisure ones have been accelerated by the gas pedal. We no longer have time to walk to the corner market, even if we've lucky enough to have one in walking distance.

In his essay, "Driven Societies", Daniel Miller writes about telling his young son a story about seeing the earth from the sky and discovering that it is the car and the infrastructure associated with it, not the human being, that dominates the landscape. He expounds on what he terms the humanity of the car, what people achieve through its use, and how it is an integral part of our cultural environment within which we see ourselves as human. He writes: "The car today is associated with the aggregate of vast systems of transport and roadways that make the car's environment, and yet, at the same time, there are highly personal and intimate relationships which individuals have found through the possession and use of cars." Personally, I resist any implication that a piece of tin, chrome and plastic, in any manner, defines me as a person. Short of having to live in a car because I was rendered homeless, knock on wood, I don't see how a person could get that intimate with a noisy, gas-guzzling, money-eating machine you can never quite fully rely on. But, I can see that the car can, for many, be an extension of self and a communicative device. These days they are readily available with innumerable credit arrangements, including no money down, so that almost anyone can drive off a car lot in one the same day. Here, we find that the product, especially  the pricier model, represents dreams and aspirations, and this often trumps whether or not a person can afford it or not. Advertisers, more than ever, create and nurture appetites for products outside the consumers pocketbook limitations. Catering to the general buyers' irrationality, their psychological vulnerabilities, they make the car a "must have" item for everyone.

Clearly, the automobile has been much more than simple a means of transportation for most Americans. Once man and woman felt the breeze blowing on their faces as they sped along a road, a passion was created. The car is just about everything today including a form of art and craftsmanship, a collector's item, a cultural icon. Wealthy collectors amass countless numbers of them and store the over-sized garages. For those of lesser means, there are car museums and shows where we can pay to gawk at them. Television, radio shows, films, and songs are loaded with car references and advertisements. National Public Radio's "Car Talk" program remains wildly popular nationwide.

But, what jazz alto saxophone player, Jimmy Lyons once called, "an invention which makes people go fast and money faster", the car is an integral part of our collective psyche from childhood throughout the rest of our lives. Even in literature, our peculiar relationship with these buckets of bolts comes through. In books by F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Burroughs and Chester Himes, one running theme is our simultaneous embracing of the car and it leading us toward a path of destruction, according to Nicholas Zurbrugg in essay, "Oh What  a Feeling! The Literature of the Car". The car is indeed one of the first things you see when you approach most American cities and towns. It is a potent image, a mirror of our society and reflects not just our buying habits but how we see ourselves and the world around us.

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Leigh Donaldson's book "The Written Song: Antebellum African-American Press in the Northeast" will be published by McFarland & Co. next year.

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Resources

Evarts, Eric C. "What Carmakers Learned from Consumers about Branding", Christian Science Monitor, 19 June 2000. p. 15.

Flink, James J. "The Car Culture". Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1975. p. 140.

Lynd, Robert and Helen M. Lynd. "Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture". New York: Harcourt Brace, 1921. p. 251.

Miller, Daniel, ed. "Driven Societies" in "Car Cultures (Materializing Culture Series). New York: Berg Publishers, 2001. pp.1, 2.

Miller, Hugh. "The Social Psychology of Objects" (A Summary Paper Presented at the Understanding the Social World Conference, University of Huddersfield), 1995. p. 2.

Oldham, Scott. "A Century of Cars: A Look Back at the Defining Device of the 20th Century", Popular Mechanics, 2000 January. p. 30.

US Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2009.

Witzel, Karl and Kent Bash. "Crusin': Car Culture in America", Oseola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1997. pp. 12-13.

Zurbrugg, Nicolas. "Oh What a Feeling! The Literature of the Car" in Thoms, David et al (eds). "The Motor Car & Popular Culture in the 20th Century. Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 1998. pp. 8, 9.

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