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40 2013 Number 2 | E n g l i s h T E a c h i n g F o r u m
by Phyllis McIntosh

At the beginning of the 20th century, few Ameri-


Massachusetts, shop. The first mass-produced car
cans would have guessed that the newfangled con- was the 1901 Curved Dash Oldsmobile, built by
traptions some called devil wagons would prove toRansome Eli Olds, who went on to manufacture
be a godsend for the average family and would dra- more than 400 vehicles in the next three years.
matically change the face of a nation. Just 30 years It wasnt long before the new machines were
after cars were introduced, 50 percent of families in
making news, not all of it good. The first recorded
the United States owned one. Within a few decades, automobile accident occurred in 1896, when the
the automobile would affect virtually every aspect driver of a Duryea struck a bicycle in New York
of American lifewhere people lived and worked, City, breaking the riders leg. Concerned about
where they shopped, and how they spent their lei- noise, dust, and frightened horses, some towns-
sure time. For many Americans, the car is more thanpeople hung steel cables across roads to keep cars
simple transportation. It is a reflection of themselves.
away. The State of Vermont passed an impractical
Car enthusiasts lovingly restore classic models andlaw that required a person waving a red flag to walk
display them at thousands of car shows that attractahead of every car to warn both people and animals
of the approaching hazard.
crowds throughout the country. Americas love affair
with the car, it seems, is never ending. In a more positive development, in 1903 Dr.
Horatio Nelson Jackson, accompanied by a bicycle
From Novelty to Necessity mechanic and a bulldog in goggles, completed the
The first commercial car manufacturers in the first cross-country automobile trip, traveling from
United States were Charles and Frank Duryea, San Francisco to New York in 63 days. Their daring
bicycle makers who in 1896 built by hand 13 adventure did much to publicize the potential of the
gasoline-powered automobiles in their Springfield, new horseless carriage.

E n g l i s h T E a c h i n g F o r u m | Number 2 2013 41
tion of the Model T in 1927, more than
15.5million had been sold.
Around the same time, Ford opened
the massive River Rouge plant near Detroit.
The ultimate example of efficient auto pro-
duction, this plant had a deep harbor, the
worlds largest (at that time) steel foundry,
94 miles of railroad track, and 19 buildings
with facilities for every aspect of car assem-
bly. The burgeoning auto industry, led by
Ford and up-and-coming manufacturers
such as General Motors, attracted thou-
sands of workers from the rural South and
the Midwest. Detroit would henceforth be
known as Motor City.
ichardR T
hornton /S .
hutterstock com To accommodate the growing number
Henry Ford introduced the Model T Ford, known as the Tin Lizzie, in 1908. This restored Model T, of cars, state and local governments paved
owned by a California car enthusiast, is still in running condition. roads and passed laws governing traffic and
car ownership. The first red and green elec-
But it was the genius of Henry Ford tric traffic signal was installed in Cleveland,
that turned the automobile from a rich Ohio, in 1914. By 1918, all states required
mans plaything into everyday transpor- license plates on cars, and many began to
tation. After achieving some success in mandate licenses for drivers as well.
building race cars, Ford founded the Ford
Motor Company in Detroit, Michigan, in The Age of the
1903. His goal was to mass produce cars Automobile
that the average American could afford. In For average Americans, especially in
1908, he introduced the Model T, fondly rural areas, the advent of cars meant new-
known as the Tin Lizzie, a basic black found mobility. Within a few decades,
vehicle that was easy to operate and cheap automobiles came to dominate the land-
to maintain. It was an immediate hit. scape and revolutionize American society.
The key to the Ford Motor Compa- Important changes brought about by the
nys success was the assembly line, where a automobile include:
worker added one component to each car Suburbs. Cars made it possible for
as the line moved continuously along. The Americans to work in the cities but
process improved efficiency to the point live in outlying communities where
where the company could turn out an housing was cheaper and the living
auto chassis every 93 minutes and could was pleasant. In sharp contrast to the
sell a Model T for less than 400 dollars. noisy, crowded city, suburbs featured
In another revolutionary move, Ford paid detached, single-family homes with
workers five dollars a day, more than twice large yards and green spaces, situated
the typical wage, to compensate them for along winding streets and cul-de-sacs.
the monotonous laborand, not coinci- The growth of suburbs began
dentally, to enable them to buy his cars. in the 1920s but accelerated dra-
By the time the Ford plant ceased produc- matically after World War II. The

42 2013 Number 2 | E n g l i s h T e a c h i n g F o r u m
housing needs of veterans and their
young families fueled mass construc-
tion of affordable, often look-alike
homes in huge new suburbs such
as the Levittowns outside New York
City and Philadelphia.
Today at least half of all Ameri-
cans live in suburbs, and suburban
life still revolves around the car.
Many residents commute long dis-
tances to work, and children ride
to school on buses or are driven by
parents. Individual businesses and
shops have been replaced by large Andrey Bayda / Shutterstock.com
supermarkets and shopping centers A 1957 Corvette parked out front draws visitors to Hackberry General Store, a museum along
and malls surrounded by huge park- Route 66 in Arizona.
ing lots. Not surprisingly, a promi-
nent feature of modern suburban
homes is the garage, often designed
to accommodate more than one car.
Freedom for women. For women,
the automobile afforded unprece-
dented mobility, especially as the
two-car family became the norm.
Women were free to shop and
visit family and friends when they
wished, to transport children to
school, activities, and appointments,
and as more women joined the labor
force, to drive themselves to work.
National highway system. As more
Americans took to the road, demand Shutterstock.com

for new and better highways


Popular for family road trips, the Pacific Coast Highway in California ranks as one of the most
increased. In 1913, planning began beautiful drives in the United States.
for the first transcontinental high-
wayfrom New York City to San troops of Boy Scouts placed (about
Franciscoto be named in honor one every mile) along the route.
of President Abraham Lincoln. With Perhaps the most iconic of Amer-
private and corporate donations, ican highways, Route 66 traversed
the Lincoln Highway Association only half of the country, from Chi-
funded stretches of the road and cago to Los Angeles. Begun in 1926,
encouraged local governments to do it became known as the Main Street
likewise. The association dedicated of America because it wound through
the highway to Lincolns memory numerous small towns in the South-
with 3,000 concrete markers that west and spawned a host of strange

E n g l i s h T e a c h i n g F o r u m | Number 2 2013 43
tourist attractions, such as a totem Appalachian Mountains through Vir-
pole park and a motel with cabins in ginia and North Carolina, is packed
the shape of wigwams. Popularized in with sightseers, especially during the
song (Get Your Kicks on Route 66) colorful fall foliage season.
and in literature (author John Stein- Roadside services. To accommodate
beck called it the Mother Road), the legions of auto travelers, gas sta-
the highway carried farmers escap- tions, motels, diners, and chain restau-
ing the Midwest Dust Bowl during rants mushroomed along main arteries
the Great Depression and families and around highway interchanges. Gas
seeking new opportunities in sunny stations, which numbered 200,000 by
California after World War II. Now 1935, offered a variety of services,
largely bypassed by newer interstate including windshield washing and free
highways, historic Route 66 remains maps and travel guides.
a nostalgic part of Americana. Hometown businesses also
In 1956, President Dwight sprang up to supply food and enter-
Eisenhower signed a law mandating tainment to customers in the com-
construction of a 41,000-mile inter- fort of their own cars. By 1958,
state highway system that would nearly 5,000 drive-in theaters, where
link cities across the country. The people watched movies from their
highways were designed for fast and cars, provided an inexpensive night
safe travel, and access was limited out for the whole family. Drive-
to major interchanges, where ramps in restaurants featured waitresses
allowed drivers to enter and exit known as car hops, often on roller
without slowing traffic. Superhigh- skates, who delivered food to people
ways such as I-80, which crosses the in their cars. No doubt drive-ins
country from San Francisco to New inspired the drive-through windows
Jersey, and I-95, which runs from popular at todays fast-food outlets.
Maine to Florida, now define long-
distance travel in the United States. From Excess to Efficiency
Family road trips. With better American cars reached their heyday
roads and roomy, comfortable auto- in the late 1950s and 1960s. Having
mobiles, more and more families swallowed up smaller competitors, the
traveled by car to vacation destina- Big Three automakersGeneral Motors,
tions, such as national parks, sea- Ford, and Chryslertried to outdo one
shores, and historic sites. Billboards another with annual model changes and
and historical markers sprang up to bigger, fancier, more powerful cars. Design
alert tourists to points of interest. excess reached a pinnacle in the late fifties,
Some routes became famous for when manufacturers embellished their
scenery alone. Californias Pacific cars with huge tail fins and outlandish
Coast Highway, which hugs the coast amounts of decorative chrome. That era
from San Francisco to Los Angeles, also produced classic, sporty models that
ranks as one of the most beautiful are still prized by collectorsiconic cars
drives in the United States. In the such as the Ford Mustang and Thunder-
East, the Blue Ridge Parkway, which bird, the Pontiac GTO, Chevy Corvette,
runs more than 400 miles atop the and the ever-popular 1957 Chevy Bel Air.

44 2013 Number 2 | E n g l i s h T e a c h i n g F o r u m
keiTh bell / shuTTersToCk.Com keiTh bell / shuTTersToCk.Com

(Left) Tail fins, like this one on a 1957 Chevy Bel Air, were a popular design element of cars produced in the late 1950s. (Right) The shiny interior of a
Chevy Bel Air attracts attention at a Wisconsin car show.

However, the next two decades would Although the auto industry
bring a dramatic shift in the American fought the regulations, within the
auto market. The gigantic gas guzzlers next two decades, all new cars were
would give way to smaller, safer, cleaner, equipped with features such as fuel
more fuel-efficient cars, many of them injection, catalytic converters, and
imports from other countries, especial- computerized systems that dramati-
ly Japan. Influences that brought about cally reduce emissions. Lead, a major
these changes in car design include: environmental pollutant, was phased
Safety concerns. By the 1960s, out of gasoline.
Americans were becoming more Energy crisis. In 1970, an OPEC
concerned with automotive safety. oil embargo led to gasoline shortag-
In 1965, consumer activist Ralph es, long waits at the gas pumps, and
Nader published a blockbuster book, restrictions on when drivers could
Unsafe at Any Speed, which made the refuel. Congress mandated more
issue front-page news. Nader accused fuel-efficient cars, and consumers,
Detroit automakers of putting style shocked by the shortages and rising
ahead of safety and pointed a finger gas prices, demanded smaller, more
at some of the unsafest models, such economical models.
as the Chevy Corvair. Imports. Detroit, heavily invest-
Faced with new federal safety ed in its gas guzzlers, could not
regulations, manufacturers respond- respond readily to new consum-
ed by building more crash-resistant er demands. Americans turned in
cars equipped with safety devices droves to small, inexpensive, fuel-
such as seat belts, air bags, and anti- efficient imports. By 1980, Japanese
lock brakes. cars accounted for 20percent of all
Air pollution. By 1966, motor new cars sold in the United States.
vehicles accounted for more than American automakers would never
60percent of atmospheric pollutants again dominate the market as they
nationwide. With Los Angeles ranked had for much of the 20th century.
the smog capital of the nation, Cali-
fornia became the first state to estab- Cars in the 21st Century
lish emission standards for new cars. Cars today, whether domestic or
In 1963 and 1970, Congress passed imported, are safer, cleaner, and smaller
clean-air laws that established federal than those of 40 or 50 years ago. A 1960s-
controls on vehicle emissions. era car looks immense next to a full-size

E n g l i s h T e a c h i n g F o r u m | Number 2 2013 45
modern model. Still, the pendulum swings. Websites of Interest
Americans love of roomy vehicles led to a Automobile in American Life and Society
boom in sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and www.autolife.umd.umich.edu
This University of Michigan website features
minivans in the late 1990s and early 2000s. highly readable essays from leading scholars about
Classified as light trucks, they are exempt the influence of the automobile on various aspects
from the fuel economy standards imposed of society, including women, the environment,
on cars. and race relations.
Steadily rising gas prices have caused Henry Ford Museum
a shift once again. Demand increased www.thehenryford.com/exhibits/hf
for crossovers, SUV-style vehicles on car The official website of the Henry Ford Muse-
um in Dearborn, Michigan, this site features infor-
platforms, which get better mileage and
mation about Fords background, the company he
which ride and handle more like a car. By founded, and his innovations in the auto industry.
2006, crossovers accounted for more than
half of all SUV sales, and their popular- The Age of the Automobile
ity shows no sign of waning. Economy- www.ushistory.org/us/46a.asp
In addition to a quick rundown of the his-
minded consumers are also turning to tory of the automobile in the United States, this
hybrid carshigh-mileage vehicles that webpage offers links to articles about the Lincoln
combine an ordinary gasoline engine with Highway, a fictional family taking their first trip in
an electric battery-powered motor. a Model T, and a legendary race car built by Henry
Large or small, SUV or sedan, the car Ford in 1902.
is and will likely remain an enduring part Phyllis McIntosh is a freelance writer whose
of American culture. work has appeared in many national magazines.

Darren Brode / Shutterstock.com

Ford unveiled this crossover vehicle at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January.

46 2013 Number 2 | E n g l i s h T e a c h i n g F o r u m
Richard Thornton / Shutterstock.com

Classic cars, restored to their original glory, line the streets of Bakersfield, California, for a car show.

Almost as much as they enjoy driving cars, in Monterey, California, where some of the most
Americans love to look at cars. Every year thou- valuable and rarest collector cars in the world are
sands of car shows are held throughout the United exhibited and judged.
States, ranging from casual gatherings in fields Antique and classic cars are found at more
or parking lots to fancy affairs for the affluent than a hundred museums across the country, rang-
car enthusiast. Shows typically feature classic cars ing from the Smithsonians National Museum of
dating from the 1950s and 1960s; sporty, high- American History in Washington, D.C., to road-
horsepower muscle cars from the same era; or side establishments with modest collections, found
antique and vintage cars from before 1930. Some in almost every state.
shows are sponsored by car clubs or commercial Classic car auctions also have a loyal follow-
enterprises, such as a car-products company; oth- ing. The Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction,
ers are loosely organized by collectors who simply which has sold specialty cars for as much as five
enjoy showing off their prized vehicles. million dollars, is broadcast live on the Speed
The most famous and glitzy U.S. car show channel, a cable TV channel devoted to all things
is the annual Pebble Beach Concours dElegance automotive.

E n g l i s h T e a c h i n g F o r u m | Number 2 2013 47
The Road Trip: A Recurring Theme
The road trip is a popular staple of Ameri- was the Oscar-winning It Happened One Night,
can literature and film. Perhaps the reigning a 1934 romantic comedy about a runaway heir-
classic is the novel The Grapes of Wrath by John ess who ends up hitchhiking with a reporter
Steinbeck, the story of a poor Oklahoma family played by Clark Gable. More recent comedy
setting out during the Great Depression to seek favorites include National Lampoons Vacation,
a new life in California. Later in life, Steinbeck the story of a familys ill-fated cross-country
penned Travels with Charley, a travelogue of his trip to a California theme park, and Little Miss
1960 trip through the United States with his Sunshine, the chronicle of a dysfunctional family
poodle. On the Road by Jack Kerouac, a largely transporting their daughter to a beauty pageant.
autobiographical work that chronicles a series of One of the most iconic road movies, however,
cross-country journeys by two friends, defined is Thelma and Louise, which features two outlaw
the Beat Generation of the 1950s. friends who lead authorities on a cross-country
One of the first American road-trip movies chase in their Thunderbird convertible.

shuTTersToCk.Com

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