Monday, June 4, 2012

The Four Stages of Automobile Consciousness, 1895-2012

Hi folks -- some material taken from a Powerpoint related to a lecture that I am giving at BMW-Leipzig later today. The first three pages are based on an important paper published in the American Quarterly in 1972 by Professor James Flink:

The Four Stages:

•1895-1910: From the introduction of the motor vehicle to the opening of the Ford Highland Park plant in 1910.
•1910-1958: The mass idolization of the automobile and mass accommodation to automobility.
•1958-1980: The emergence of the motorcar as a major social problem.
•1980-2012: A complex, at times ambivalent, pluralistic response reflective of race, class, political ideology, and generation
Stage 1 --  The Pioneer Era, 1895-1910
Characterized by the rapid development of an attitudinal and institutional context that made the automobiles domination of American civilization inevitable.
It was envisioned that within the foreseeable future a utopian horseless age would dawn

Why America where the automobile was adopted so readily?
.Volume production commonplace
Abundance of raw materials.
A more equal income distribution than Europe.
Absence of tariff barriers between states.
The motor was always seen as cleaner safer and more reliable than the horse.
It fit within prevailing notions of American individualism – control over the physical and social environment and as a status symbol.

Stage 2 -- the Automobile as the backbone of a consumer -oriented society
By 1920s first in value of product, 3rd in value of exports
The lifeblood of the petroleum industry
One of the chief customers of the steel industry
The biggest consumer of plate glass, rubber and lacquers 

Stage 3 -- The automobile at the the center of a religion
“…at the root of America’s disproportionate reverence for automobility there is something profoundly sexual.  Few people give ultimate devotion to sex; their really ultimate devotion goes to religions like this one.” – theologian Martin Marty, 1958

Stage 4 -- 1980-present

Most difficult to sort out
Has the automobile age ended as in the 19th century the open American frontier became settled?
However, the automobile remains key to America’s prosperity, as government can employ only so many and do only so much!
The love affair was tempered by the fact that the peak of our per capita income was reached in the 1968
Perceptions of the automobile refracted through race, class, political ideologies, and generational differences.

Despite the critics, in general and part from the wishful thinking of bi-coastal intellectuals, Americans will always be wedded to the road and their automobiles! (They may be electric, however! And the most successful will be fun to drive.)
It is a part of our innate restlessness and mobility.
It provides psychological satisfactions that mass transit cannot.
It plays into our notions of individualism and freedom, class mobility, and status.
Many different fragmented groups will continue to love the cars they own, and to value cars from the past.

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