Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Coming of the Interstate Highways, Automobile Design, and the 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser

hi folks -- reading Cotton Seiler's very good Republic of Drivers inspired me to put on a bit from my book, The Automobile and American Life on the development of Interstate highways. After Tom Lewis's Divided Highways (1998). I didn't think much new could be said about the history and significance of Interstates, but Seiler has done that in his book, which I urge folks to read. The Interstates serve people desiring mobility in a similar way to American rivers during the 19th century. They control the flow of people and goods from one part of this country to the other. but they are far more than that. They are the backbone of our internal national defense system. They enable us to move largely unimpeded from place to place, and on the downside, unless you are a druggie, facilitate the flow of illegal drugs from Mexico and Central America to the nation's heartland. They expand our vacation horizons, and have made weekend getaway trips from LA and San Diego to Las Vegas, or from Dayton, OH, to Chicago, a relatively easy excursion. Their design, however, called for a new kind of vehicle -- a relatively high powered, interstate highway cruiser.

When we discuss American automobile design exceptionalism, we usually fail to link the road to the car in an intimate way. American preferences for high-horsepower, room vehicles are connected to the fact that we do so much interstate highway driving. It is not simply true that we like big, roomy vehicles -- including SUVs, because a number of us are obese, egotistical, or we are wasteful.
Perhaps the first of these kind of cars was the 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser.

The Mercury Turnpike Cruiser was produced from 1957 to 1958.
At introduction of the 1957 line up the Turnpike Cruiser series offered two and a four door hardtop body styles. They are best known for the unique styling cues and wide array of gadgets including a power rear window that could be lowered to improve ventilation, "twin jet" air intakes at upper corners of car's windshield, "seat-o-matic" automatically adjusting seat, and an average speed "computer
For 1957, the Turnpike Cruiser was the premium model range for Mercury. In addition to its unique features, the car was further differentiated from other Mercury models by a gold anodized trim strip in the car's rear fin. It came standard with an automatic transmission and a 368-c.i.d. engine producing 290 horsepower (220 kW); this engine was optional on other Mercurys.
Later in the model year an open car named Convertible Cruiser was added to this series. From the beginning it was created only to be used as the official pace car of the 1957 Indianapolis 500. On January 7, 1957 it was announced that the Convertible Cruiser would be available as a production model as well. All Convertible cruisers had a continental tire kit and were painted yellow (Sun Glitter), similar to the original pace cars.
In 1958 the Turnpike Cruiser joined the mid-range Mercury Montclair line with only minor trim changes to the car from the previous year, but the convertible version was not offered this year. Standard engine became the 383-c.i.d. "Marauder" engine, with the 430-c.i.d., 360 horsepower (270 kW) version available as an option. A triple-carburetor "Super Marauder" 400 horsepower (300 kW) version was available across the Mercury line.
The Turnpike Cruiser was discontinued for 1959.

Here is some of my general stuff on the topic of the Interstates:

The Coming of the Interstates
Initially Kerouac’s Sal Paradise had planned to take US 6 across America, but things changed and other routes were taken as he made his way to Denver to be reunited with his Beat friends. Ironically, just a year before On the Road was published, the interstate highway system was established, and the way Americans traveled across the country would be dramatically changed in future decades. Writers that included William Least Heat Moon and Michael Wallis waxed nostalgically about travels along the two-lane black top, but beginning in the late 1950s limited access, divided highways became the preferred mode of travel for most folks traveling to far destinations, and even in and around densely settled urban areas.91
For those driving in the period before WWII, two lane highways certainly had their limitations, both in terms of safety and traffic flow. For example, US 1 connecting Baltimore and Washington, D.C. was only some forty miles in length, but it was intersected by approximately 1000 driveways, as motels, hamburger joints, clubs, used car lots, and occasionally a home were located along the highway’s edge. Since one could make a left turn across traffic through its entire length, lanes were only 10 feet wide, trucks were ever-present, and collisions were inevitable. Yet this road, despite its many limitations, typified the best thoroughfares that one could take in 1939.
The first impulse to transform interstate highways took place during the Depression, but in 1938 the Senate rejected an $8 million bill, despite its obvious employment benefits. A year later, Thomas MacDonald, chief of the Bureau of Public Roads, began to promote a plan for constructing 30,000 miles of expressways.92 A few years later, FDR appointed a seven member Interregional Highway Committee. From their deliberations, MacDonald drew up a proposed interstate highway map that closely resembles what was actually built. From that map one can clearly see the outlines of what became Interstates 15, 25, 35, 55, 75, and 95, along with 10, 40, 70, and 80. Some important links are missing, but MacDonald’s 1941 preliminary effort proved prescient.
After WWII, a number of states began building toll roads, including Maine, New Jersey, and West Virginia. But it was only after the Korean War and the election of Dwight David Eisenhower, when a strong nucleus of leaders, including Francis DuPont, emerged to politically forge a bill that overwhelmingly passed Congress in 1956. The Federal Highway Act promised something to virtually every constituency, including trucking interests who would not be imposed high taxes. Financing came from taxes on gasoline, rubber, buses, trucks and trailers. The federal government was to pay for 90 percent off all the construction costs, and the states had the right to determine where to locate the routes. While some thought that the money would merely improve existing U.S. highways, in the end these routes, like U.S. 40 passing north of Dayton, would become used only for local traffic.
Indeed, these new interstates were quite different from all other American highways except the few toll roads built immediately after WWII. To begin with, these thoroughfares cost far more than undivided highways, approximately $1 million per mile, compared to $60,000 per mile for the construction of US 1. The older highways had pavement 5 to 6 inches thick, but the new interstates had concrete 9 to 10 inches in thickness that were placed on a carefully prepared roadbed that sometimes went down 50 inches. Earth moving was done on a heroic scale in building the interstates, with new designs of pavers, excavators, dump trucks, graders and concrete plants located on site.
There was no golden spike ceremony to commemorate this effort, as work continues on the interstate system to this day, as is so apparent every spring with the reappearance of the orange barrels. Its benefits for some were enormous, with a dramatic rise in property values, the development of new tourist sites, numerous new motels, truck stops, and fast food restaurants. The interstates made travel between major cities within a region fast and much safer than previously experienced. But they also damaged the cities they went through, often dividing urban areas racially and economically. Some cities, like San Francisco and New Orleans would stop freeway development and save historic views, but in many cases cities were far worse because of them. With White flight and the development of exurbs, further divisions in the nation’s fabric resulted.

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