hi folks -- above are some photos taken by my sister-in-law in Houston of a recent art car parade. In my book The Automobile and American Life, I discuss the paradox of our love of the automobile and its reflection of our individuality verses the fact that the automobile is an inanimate, mass produced thing, the consequence of uniform machining processes and economies of scale. Yet, we often see ourselves as persons tied to this technological system, and modern advertising plays up to this primal emotion.
Styling is an important attribute of the automobile in a way that is certainly unique in American life. Thus, the car is an expression of our individuality as we live in a Machine Age; it is very much like fashionable clothing that moves. Once an accessory market developed in the wake of the uniformly produced and black Model T, cars could be changed to suit personal taste. Therefore, the common citizen could distinguish himself from others. Beginning in the mid-1920s, this trend was accelerated with the development of flexible mass production, so that the range of colors, engine and transmission options, and accessory choices seemed nearly limitless. For example, in 1965, the Chevrolet division of General Motors offered 46 models, 32 engines, 20 transmissions, 21 colors plus 9 two-tone options and more than 400 accessories.7 Designer cars and sport utility vehicles bearing the names Bill Blass and Eddie Bauer have taken this desire for individual expression to the next level. But it is more than simply style. A Hyundai Tiburon has a serious style to it. It is Brand as well. And the badge that represents that Brand has enormous significance.
The owner of a Mercedes possesses refined elegance. Similarly, a Lexus driver is a person who has wealth often coupled with a sense of economic stability. Audi owners are well-off and like to think of themselves as a bit different. Can anyone behind the wheel of a Porsche be a loser?8
Brands must be protected by their manufacturers at all costs. A C-30 Volvo with a problem of unintended acceleration must be dealt with by the organization immediately and conclusively, for above all Volvos are equated with safety. Some would argue that the Depression-era decision to broaden the Packard market base beyond its elite niche to the middle classes might have temporarily saved the company, but in the long run weakened the Brand.
Psychologists have asserted that the colors of our vehicles tell much about the owners. Supposedly, cars are usually painted in bright colors and primary tones like yellows, light blues and reds during economic boom times. On the other hand, when the economy cools, so do the colors to include gray, brown, and dark blue. On one website the following is listed about colors and who you are:
Black: First choice of ambitious drivers who want to project an image of success.
Red: You’re outgoing and impulsive with a youthful attitude, but easily bored.
Silver: You have great style and are often successful, but tend to be pompous.
White: The first choice of doctors and drivers who are reliable and methodical.
Gray: expresses understated good taste and indicates a safe, cautious driver.
Blue: A team player who’s sociable and friendly, yet lacks imagination.9
To further individualize our cars, in more recent times we have resorted to “identity bracelets,” or vanity car tags that allow us to get in a final word about ourselves. These vanity tags may be official state license plates or custom tags that are especially popular in states where is only one tag is required on the rear of the automobile. Of course names are important, proper or otherwise, including: “Parrot Head,” “High Roller,” “Country Boy,” and “Pork Chop.” So too are religious inscriptions, like “Meet Me in Church on Sunday,” “Galatians 2:20,” “Happy Christians,” “Prayer Changes Things,” or the sign of the fish, a fish encircling the name of Darwin, or cross. Then there are business names, patriotic license plates, and names and inscriptions about sweethearts.10
We often have a relationship with this mass-produced machine, right or wrong, demented or healthy. As in a more primitive society where one has a relationship with animals where both partners profit from it – say the North American Indians who once relied on the buffalo for their existence – we live in a largely urban, third wave industrialized post-modern society, where we identify and depend on the car.11 We repay it with a passion often bordering on obsession. It is that affinity, or love, that results in our naming these machines Lulu, Lazarus (because it was raised from the dead), Betsy, Bessie, Freddy, Nellie, Pumpkin, Little Willy, White Pony, and so on. We talk to these machines as if they have a mind of their own, pleading with them to go another mile in a violent rainstorm, or in extreme hot or cold temperatures. We also pray for them, no different than for an afflicted relative, as we drive through a storm or sense a faltering motor as we drive down a lonely stretch of highway.
For my generation, and the two generations before it, the automobile was at the center of our family life. It was so important that many of my photographs that include my mother, father, relatives and me feature an automobile at the center of the photograph. For a family whose fortunes were ravaged by the rise of Nazism and World War II, the progression of our family photos reflected our annual increased fortunes, as well as the well-dressed children who were growing up.
If we think about it, this behavior of attachment to a thing is rather silly, but it is one reflection of an attachment to more than an object. One such relationship is mentioned in the thoughtful book Driving Obsession. It is the case of multimillionaire oil heiress Sandra West, who stipulated in her will that upon her death she be buried in a lace nightgown in her baby-blue 1964 Ferrari, with the seat comfortably slanted. In 1977, with West dead, her executor, eager to comply with instructions because only then would he inherit $5 million, precisely followed instructions and buried her in a 9-foot deep concrete tomb at the wheel of her beloved car.12 Communities also bury cars. In 1957, the citizens of Tulsa, Oklahoma buried a 1957 Plymouth, using it as a 50-year time capsule. Oil, gasoline, and a case of Schlitz beer were put in the trunk, just in case these commodities would not be available in 2007.13 Unfortunately, 1957 Plymouths were prone to rust even without being buried, and thus when the car was unearthed during the summer of 2007 it was a near blob of rust, although its elegant Virgil Exner designed fins remained clearly recognizable.
For many Americans the automobile – the apex of twentieth century mass production technology – is also at the heart of an internal contradiction concerning individuality. Out of a drive for sameness and regularity, born on an assembly line so ably but comically depicted in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times or Ben Hamper’s Rivethead, we achieve the ultimate expression of self and personal freedom. At the extreme of expressions of individuality we have art cars. Harrod Blank, who wrote a book and made a video on the topic, has perhaps done more than anyone to publicize these very funny examples of artistic desire, like that of Volkswagen with a television mounted on top, a car covered with glued buttons, or a vehicle possessing scales imitative of a fish.14
Indeed, it can be said that cars are an art form, as Le Corbusier commented in 1928 when he claimed that the car was as powerful a symbol of the Machine Age as the Gothic Cathedral was to the Middle Ages. They can be very beautiful – or ugly – things, but whatever the case, we worshiped them at mid-twentieth century and for some, our obsession with them continues to this day.