Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Why this Car Matters -- Perspectives from the Classroom

Hi folks -- a draft of a presentation for a conference October 20-22 at the NHVA Laboratory in Allentown, PA.

John Heitmann – NHVA, October 2016.

“When a Car Matters: Historical Context, the Technological Sublime, and an Undergraduate History Course.”


It has been said that the automobile is the perfect technological symbol of American culture, a tangible expression of our quest to level space, time and class, and a reflection of our restless mobility, social and otherwise. In my undergraduate course we explore together the place of the automobile in American life, and how it transformed business, life on the farm and in the city, the nature and organization of work, leisure time, and the arts. This is a most complex transition, as the automobile transformed everyday life and the environment in which we operate.  It influenced the foods we eat; music we listen to; risks we take; places we visit; errands we run; emotions we feel; movies we watch; stress we endure; and, the air we breathe.

In doing both scholarship and teaching about the automobile, the process of selection is central to the historians ‘craft.  Why are certain automobiles and stories included in pedagogical discourse, and others are not?  How does nostalgia on one hand and political, economic, social and technological factors on the other lead to decisions concerning what to include in my accompanying text, The Automobile and American Life and undergraduate course?  How do those decisions influence the parables that are told? What supplemental readings, photographs, and films are also brought to bear? Finally, what is the overall objective of the offering – humanistic understanding, artifact analysis, or a powerful synergistic combination that highlights scientific, engineering, and artistic creativity along with everyday life.


I. Introduction

What specific cars were and are matter when putting together an undergraduate history course on automobile history directed to students with a wide array of majors? Using my The Automobile and American Life as a primary text, I have taught auto history as a lecture, a seminar, and a summer abroad course since 1998.  Yet until I was confronted with the writing of this presentation, I never thought much beyond the intuitive in terms of what to include and what not to include in the course content, particularly the cars themselves.  Yet they are the central artifacts in this endeavor, contextualized with textual, photographic and film sources. Given the current emphasis in higher education on student learning outcomes (SLOs), academic Pharisees might consider this neglect egregious.

Let’s begin with a discussion of the last photograph included in my The Automobile and American Life, an image taken in 1953 of my mother, my aunt, and myself as I sat on the hood of a 1950 Oldsmobile Rocket 88. The photograph was taken in my aunt’s driveway, with Kenmore (NY) Motors, a Ford dealership, across the street and in the background. Why include the photograph and the car?

As I see it, you write what you know about, and that car opened my mind and senses to the exhilaration of speed. And freedom. My much older cousin, who incidentally the book was dedicated to, owned the car. The Rocket 88 represents more than nostalgia, however. The Rocket 88 was a technologically path-breaking car, one powered with the Kettering overhead value V-8 engine and hydramatic transmission. Thus the car reflects the technological sublime in addition to my nostalgic memories. But there is even more to its significance. Jackie Brenson’s 1951 song, “Rocket 88” is arguably the first example of Rock and Roll, at least if we are to believe Sam Phillips, the owner of Chess Records who was there at the beginning of the era.  Thus, that highly affordable car made in large numbers has made a powerful impression on the human mind broadly construed. It resulted in a cultural as well as technological and personal legacy.

My cousin’s blue 1950 Olds 88 had a vacuum-assisted plastic bird mounted on the dash. It popped up like magic every time the vehicle accelerated.  It is that car, now probably crushed and long gone, that sets the tone for this essay. I will comment on the role of nostalgia, the technological sublime, economic, and social factors as well as culture in exploring the question of pedagogically “why this car matters?” For purposes of time, I have brought copies of my current course syllabus for your review; feel free to contact me if you want to follow up. My course began in 1998 as primarily a history of technology and business history offering.  However since then I have shifted increasingly towards cultural history, examining music, literature -- including poetry -- and film.  I work chronologically forward, and recently have updated this material with a dedicated chapter on the 1970s and new material covering the period 1980 to 2015.


Certainly for many classic car hobbyists a personal relationship with a specific car or a model is the primary motivating force for why they spend money and time on an old car.  It could be one’s father’s car while growing up, or a son’s car before he tragically died, or a memories of a romance or road trip. Just read any issue of Hemming’s Sports and Exotic and the warm and fuzzy stories flow. Nostalgia has proven to be such a powerful force precisely because it takes the ostensible reason for the obsession away from a piece of metal or a system of technology to love and the human experience, often lost in the present.  It can be rooted deep into the subconscious mind. Is nostalgia a good reason to designate a motor vehicle as historically significant in the broadest sense of the term? Pedagogically nostalgia prove to be important in my course because I have students write their “Auto-Biography.” And like some of my students, to those who are motivated to own and collect cars for this reason it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about their car. One gets behind the wheel of a car that a loved one once drove, and images of a romantic past that probably never existed flood the mind with a reassurance that life has meaning, and the past is recoverable with things one can touch and hold. Nostalgia contributes to good anecdotal history.  After all, people are the key historical actors that drive the past, not cars.

The Technological Sublime, or perhaps better said, the Technological Demonstrator has a place in history

At first glance, this category might be the easiest handle to get at “Why this Car Matters?”  A highly innovative car that has no direct influence on future models might be easy to throw out of a select list, but even then one must be cautious. For example, how do you assess the historical legacy of the 1924 Oakland and Charles Franklin Kettering’s Copper-Cooled” engine?

In 1919, Kettering had become convinced that there was a great future for an air-cooled, as opposed to a water-cooled, engine. Light and maintenance-free in terms of freezing and adding coolant, the air-cooled engine had been developed in Europe and America, the most notable successes being the early Franklin engine and the designs of British automobile engineer Frederick W. Lanchester. Kettering and his research staff, including mechanical engineer Thomas Midgley, focused on the use of copper fins to dissipate heat emanating from cylinders. By 1920 a team of engineers and scientists had developed a technique to fix the copper fins to the exterior of cylinder walls. Pierre DuPont, at that time in charge of GM and trained as an engineer, saw the possibilities of this design, and encouraged Kettering to move forward on the project. What DuPont and other GM executives recognized was that this light and economical engine could be inexpensively manufactured in both 4- and 6- cylinder versions, and be used in the low- priced Oakland and Chevrolet models. Especially with regard to the Chevrolet, it was thought that the copper cooled engine would provide the edge for Chevrolet to compete with the Ford Model T.
            Despite the enormous resources that GM dedicated to this project, however, the copper–cooled-engine failed in the end. Kettering and his group could design and make small quantities of engines that worked in Dayton, where GM research laboratories were located. But in Detroit, manufacturing engineers could not or would not make engines that consumers were satisfied with. These engines often lacked power; pumped oil, threw fan belts, overheated, or just ran poorly. In sum, the research engineers and manufacturing engineers were at odds, and until GM in 1925 formed  a technical committee to bring the two groups together, ventures like the copper cooled engine were doomed to failure. And while the motor never was adopted at General Motors, the failure of the Copper-Cooled engine resulted in the restructuring of GM that brought research and engineering bureaucratically together, research facilities moved to Michigan, and the firm poised for remarkable growth as it linked its business strategy to planned obsolescence.

In sum, we must be not so quick to judge failure. But what about the many,  path-breaking cars with a clear link to sustained technological change? And how does one create some sort of hierarchy among them? Will we write technological genealogies? And has anyone thoroughly examined patent records related to the automobile? Since inventive simultaneity often occurs, complexity and priority disputes often cloud work in the history of technology.

Let’s take a more common sense route to selecting key technological demonstrators. If we go through my textbook, I have mentioned a number of examples that you may or may not agree with:
The Benz Tricycle – highlighting the idea that the automobile was “European by Birth, American by Adoption.”
            In 1881, Karl Benz (1844-1929) designed a two-stroke engine in his small shop located in Mannheim, Germany and began selling them in 1883. Because Deutz Co. patents had been invalidated in the courts in 1884 and 1886, Benz could design his own 4-cycle engine, and in placed that engine on a tricycle between 1885 and 1886. This 2/3 horse power vehicle with its unreliable ignition took wife Bertha Benz on the road trip from Mannheim to Pforzheim and back in 1886, and was the basis a model placed on sale in 1888. Benz exhibited a design at the 1889 Paris Exhibition. By 1893 he had constructed an improved four-wheel car with a three-horsepower engine that sold well and was fairly reliable. More than 100 Benz vehicles were sold by 1898. An early leader, Benz was soon passed technologically, especially by French manufacturers.

Panhard et Levassor – the Rise of the Historically Important French Automobile Industry

According to James Laux,  Emile Constant Levassor was the key French inventor-engineer of the late nineteenth century European automobile industry. Levassor took Gottleib Daimler’s engine and placed it in the front of the vehicle where for the most part it has stayed to this day. Its crude slider transmission became the standard on vehicles until Cadillac introduced synchromesh in 1928. Before Levassor’s untimely death, he proved the merits of his design as practical in the 1895 Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race. At first, and for only a relatively short time, Paris was the center of the nascent global automobile industry. Perhaps this was due to excellent French roads or social, economic, or political factors that remain to be explicated and are currently discounted.

Steam and Electric – Powered Vehicles – perhaps seen as technological dead ends by WWI, but in the long sweep of history that includes the 21st century, perhaps a reappraisal is needed.

The 1901 Curved Dash Olds and the 1908 Ford Model T – cars for the American masses.
The curved dash Olds was significant not only for design and production techniques, but cultural influence, as evidence by the wildly popular song “In my Merry Oldsmobile.” Built in Michigan, the Olds was an industry leader, with a production volume of 5,000 units in 1904 after making 1,400 vehicles in 1900, 2,100 in 1901, 2,500 in 1902, and about 4,000 in 1903. A dispute unfortunately followed – disputes were all too common among pioneer inventors, investors, and manufacturers of the era – and while Olds would later set up another company called REO, his influence on the industry diminished. Former employees of Olds who got their start there and then proved to be influential later in the automobile industry included Jonathan D. Maxwell, Robert C. Hupp, Roy D. Chapin and Howard E. Coffin.

The Model T was in a league of its own. Despite all of the critiques leveled at Ford, his company, and mass production, his machine was simply remarkable. Its dashboard had a gasoline gauge, speedometer, oil gauge (there was no dipstick) temperature indicator, and odometer. To start the car one put on the hand brake, got out of the car, reached below the radiator and turned the crank, and hopefully the engine would come to life after a cough and sputter. The car had two gears, high and low, and instead of a gear shift one had a foot pedal, which the driver pushed down for low and released for high. To go to neutral, one pushed the pedal halfway. To stop the car, one pushed the gear pedal halfway while at the same time pushing down on the brake. There was no accelerator pedal; rather, there was a lever on the steering column that when pushed, gave more gas. There was also a spark lever that often did little unless in the wrong position, which then caused a loud and embarrassing backfire. To engage reverse there was a third foot pedal. Depressed with either foot, you backed up. Steering was stiff, and the wheel itself abruptly snapped back to its original position when one released tension on it. One final note on the Model T: the four-door version actually had only three doors, with the driver’s side door not a door at all – it did not open. The contours of the door were merely stamped on the body at the factory. Entering the car from the left side required climbing over the fake door. In sum, with the Model T rural Americans no longer saw the car as a devil wagon, but rather as transportation technology that could meet and be modified for their varied needs.

The topic of many jokes, there was also a true admiration for this remarkable machine. In 1915 the first of two volumes about the Model T, entitled Funny Stories About the Ford, was published. The following are a few excerpts:

The Formula in Poetry
A little spark, a little coil,
A little gas, a little oil,
A piece of tin, a two-inch board –
Put them together and you have a Ford.

I could go on with this discourse on the technological demonstrator category that might include descriptions of the Duesenberg, Cord, Jeep, 1948 Tucker, MG TC, and Mercedes 300 SL. My point here is that there is a wide array of candidates all reflecting the technological sublime.  Where do we draw the line?  How do we select from the evidence?  I would argue those are primary functions of the knowledgeable historian. My concern is that the scarcity of a vehicle, and its monetary value, will trump historical significance as determined by broad context. It is all too easy to vote for a 1935 Bugatti Royale and express distain for a Renault Dauphine.  

Social and Economic Impact

Perhaps single no car had more impact in terms of social and economic history than the Model T. The Model T ended rural isolation, made possible the Sunday drive,  took courtship out the of parlor, convinced authorities to improve roads, created a generation of shade tree mechanics, and enabled Americans to vacation in the new National Parks. Economically the car, led by the model T became a primary consumer of glass, rubber, steel and textiles. In 1920 it was first in value of product and third in exports.      Was there any other car rivaling the Model T in shaping the first three decades of the 20th century?  Can you think of any other motor vehicle that later in the 20th century – in any national history – compare with the Model T in terms of shaping the century?


Finally we have the last of my categories, cultural and social significance and how they may come into play in determining whether a car matters in terms of inclusion in an historical registry. What cars have made a lasting impression on the human mind as a result of their inclusion in song, literature, or film?  Contextual complexities surface immediately. For example, would you include the 1924 Jordan Playboy, not because of the technological virtues of a car largely assembled from common parts, or because of its image central to the “Somewhere West of Laramie” advertisement, an ad that set the tone for beauty, aped sexuality and spirituality in modern advertising.

A truly enduring classic is one that that makes an impression on the human mind. It is when our culture realizes that it cannot do without that vehicle that status has been realized. It might be the shape of the Volkswagen, or the design, performance, and accessibility of a 1960s Mustang.  In addition to direct contact with an artifact, culture— music, literature, and film -- were central to the mass idolization of the automobile that took place between the 1920s and the 1960s. “Rebel without a Cause” did more to ensure the legacy of the somewhat bland 1950 Mercury than any advertisement. It could be a car as commonplace as the BMC Mini, featured in two versions of “Italian Job” and the “Bourne Identity.” Or, for example, consider the film “Cars,” spawning interest in a number of vehicles amongst Millennials. Additionally, songs by the hundreds were written early on during the 20th century concerning the Ford, and then a bit later on the Cadillac. Undoubtedly,  Chuck Berry’s , Dizzy Gillespie’s , and Prince’s lyrics have done more to shape desire for the automobile than Dynaflow, Hydramatic, and Powerglide transmissions or fuel injection.


The NHVA has very real future challenges. The love affair of the automobile is no longer what it once was.  Driving may be displaced with autonomous Uber vehicles. It may be that in 2050 few Americans will care about automobiles, classic or otherwise. The car collector maybe as hard to find as a stamp collector.

Education is clearly one strategy to follow through on. What are the motor vehicles that truly matter, and what are the criteria to make those decisions? One path of least resistance primarily focuses on scarce and expensive cars, thus satisfying the high-end collector car market and speculators.  Of course, luscious vehicles, derived from a designers’ imagination and drawing are to be celebrated. As a historian, however, I am mostly concerned with being true to the past, broadly construed. It is a mistake to fall into traps from well-worn interpretations that distort American’s love affair with the automobile. Specific automobiles not often thought of as iconic have at times had a powerful influence on mass culture, the economic and military power of nations, and the working classes and women. These artifacts also need to be recognized and certified for having both broad and deep significance. And may I not overlook those outliers when teaching automobile history.

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