Friday, March 27, 2015

The Golden Age of the Automobile in America: the 1950s

No one, I imagine, escapes the authentic involvement with this gathering symbol of our pervasive materialism. But the 50th annual Auto Show, it seems to me, gives the lie to surveys . . . and to motivation researchers who suggest that 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.1
            In his essay “The Altar of Automobility,” a young Martin Marty, later destined to be one of America’s preeminent theologians, recorded his observations after visiting the 1958 Chicago Automobile Show. Marty argued that the enthusiasm and passions surrounding the automobile had created a true, universal, and practical religion that was directed towards the “dinosaur in the driveway.” For Marty, passions for automobiles in America were fueled by more than just sex; rather, the automobile was worshiped by true believers. And during the 1950s the church of the automobile, like the Protestant Church in America, had an unprecedented number of followers. Only later would allegiances begin to wane.
            The 1950s proved to be a golden era for the automobile in America.2 Particularly after 1955, it was a time characterized by cars featuring tailfins and chrome, high horsepower V-8 engines, and numerous accessories. The car influenced culture as no other technology of the day.3 Yet was it really a golden age, or an era so complex that it defies any simple characterization?
            This complex interaction between human beings and this machine was reflected in contemporary literature, music, and film. While these cultural manifestations of automobility – or at least the ones scholars tend to focus on – often dealt with troubling matters like alienation and rebellion, the average family preferred to drive on without much thought concerning the larger issues raised by concerned observers, the Beats, and critics of the new lascivious rock and roll music. Despite the uncertainty and anxiety of the period, for many it was an era of smooth rides and good times.4 Or so our faded memories want us to believe.5
            During the 1950s, and indeed in previous decades as well, the family car was more than transportation. It was part of the family, and like children in the family, nurtured and cherished. Perhaps it was a substitute for a lover or girlfriend, as in the case of the tale Stephen King spins in Christine, where a 1957 Plymouth Fury both is loved and loves (to the death). This passion between person and machine was well expressed in Henry Gregor Felsen’s Hot Rod, published in 1950. The book’s key character is Bud Crayne, a 17-year old high school student. Crane is a loner and often alone, as his parents died long ago. Only a fickle girlfriend, approval from school mates, and especially a car he built from the ground up, keep Bud going.
            No matter what his mood or his feeling, his trouble or his joy, it made everything right and good to be guiding his car, the car he had built, that belonged to him, that owed everything it was to him. Not a day passed without Bud’s taking time for a spin. It was more than a ride; it was more than speeding; more than killing time. In some ways these daily sessions on the road were his hours of meditation, of true expression, the balm for his soul and the boast of his spirit. In these flying hours he had sought himself out, molded himself into what he was, and found his creed.
            Bud’s car, variously called his baby, hop-up, strip down, roadster, heap, hot rod, jalopy or set of wheels, was like Bud himself. In a way he had built a mechanical representation of his life, and its oddly-assorted parts could be likened to his patch-work past.6
            There were many Buds in America during the 1950s. The typical family car (perhaps like my own family’s 1954 blue and white Chevrolet Belair) often had its exterior lovingly waxed for protection with Simonize, and its interior protected with plastic seat covers. More than occasionally the car was accessorized with steering wheel spinners, fender skirts, and continental kits. Interestingly enough, when in 1958 Life featured a young man living in Wichita, Kansas, purchasing his first car, the things done after bring the 1951 “Merc” home were: 1) remove chrome on the front and hood, and 2) buy an imitation shrunken head to hang from the rear view mirror!7 Thus for a large number of young men (I have no idea how many women), this interest in care and the improvement of looks and performance became a hobby. Hot rods, sports cars, or customs captivated many who during this prosperity decade had increased leisure time and disposable incomes. In a world of increasing conformity (punch cards and time cards, for example, were prevalent) brought on by the stresses of the Cold War and competition with the Soviets, these vehicles gave their owners a distinctive individuality, and, if desired, entrance into a subculture of fellow enthusiasts. It was also a sexy hobby, unlike like that of another hobby popular during that day, stamp collecting. Cars were sex objects, and it was perceived that working and riding in cars enhanced one’s sexiness. A piece of colored paper could never be loved quite like a car. As social critic John Keats argued in 1958, “automobiles were love objects from the start. Venerated, called friends, lovingly polished and assigned the virtues of ponies, veterans, and dogs.”8

            Despite critiques concerning the automobile and its design, place, and purpose in American society, this intense love affair with the car was unparalleled. Perhaps, as David Gartman has suggested, the two-toned, V-8 powered car of the era was nothing more than an opiate for hard-working Americans during the Cold War era. According to Gartman, the automobile, no matter what model, was essentially the same. It served to lessen the rather harsh realities of a competitive capitalist system with its class structure, repetition, dehumanization, and repressive impulses. In sum, it was at the heart of a “contradictory system.”9 Therefore, during the 1950s, the car was a symbol and an expression of freedom at a time in American life when autonomy was in retreat.


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