Friday, November 25, 2016

Thoughts on Doing Recent Automotive History

A large percentage of what might be called “buff” automotive history focuses on one particular model or brand. This work goes into extreme detail and satisfies hobby car owners who relish pointing out subtle features and alterations. However, examining an automobile’s history without placing it in a critical historical human context is fraught with distortion.  Such an isolated study can become nothing more than an exercise of limited explanatory power and less than satisfying to a broader audience. How do older enthusiasts interest a younger generation who might follow them into the car collecting hobby? Not by writing pedantic books and articles on carburetors and spark plugs.
Integrative forays can prove as wide-angle windows into the human and societal past. For example, probing into how car culture reflects, anticipates, or follows the political, social, and economic environment can lead to powerful explanations about everyday life.  Bringing a large number of varied sources to a story adds dimensionally to any history.  Chronology, location, and deep knowledge about a broadly construed topic matters. It is one thing to write scissors and paste history, yet another just to repackage what others have written without batting a critical eye.

The dynamic structure of the automobile industry, its geographical locus of activities, management-union relationships, assembly line processes, government oversight, market dynamics, consumer preferences, and the products themselves have all changed dramatically during the past thirty-five years. Car culture(s) remains of general interest; but profound generational, regional, social, and economic differences related to the so-called “love affair” with the automobile exist. For example, in the Dayton, Ohio, area where I live, on any summer Friday night gray-haired men and a few of their wives gather around hot rods and cars from the 1950s and 1960s at a defunct car dealership lot.  The next morning a very different group – mostly young people with their wives and girl friends and middle-aged upper middle-class enthusiasts -- meet for cars and coffee at an upscale suburban shopping village to look at tuners, newer sports cars, and a few odds and ends. Further, a large number of urban millenials avoid cars or at least love of the car, altogether.  Having moved back to the heart of Dayton, they find entertainment in the historical Oregon District or downtown, and status in the cell phones they own. Every region and community has its own sui generis car culture, lived out quite distinctively.

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