In 1908, the first Model T rolled off the assembly line, quickly asserting itself as a dream machine that would take America down the highway and into the future. Bill Moyers shows how that future represented not only a new landscape bustling with high-speed transport and travel, but a new vision of ourselves.
BILL MOYERS: Right from the start, we crowded around it, fascinated by what it could do. It wasn’t much to look at. It wobbled and panted. And scattered things in its path. Noisy and insolent, it threatened everything that stood motionless, and much else besides.
And the faithful horse could still beat it on the track. But somehow, the auto was meant to be ours. And with hardly a backward glance, we let it brush us towards the future into a century on wheels.
I’m Bill Moyers. Like so many of you, I could tell much of my personal story in terms of the cars that have owned me as much as I own them. Cars that took me to specially remembered crossroads in my life.
There was the ’46 Ford that I borrowed $600 to buy when I went off to college in 1952. But soon I gave my heart to a big black Buick convertible, much used when I bought it. Something was always happening to the starter especially at midnight in the moonlight parked by Lake Dallas. I had to skimp on meals to afford that Buick, because to a sophomore some things are just more important than eating. Among them wooing and winning the girl you cherish.
Then came a Nash with seats that made into a bed. A graceless machine that looked either like an El Producto cigar or a very sick whale. When it played out on the road one Thanksgiving, as my wife and I were going home, we bought, on the spot, a little two-toned Plymouth coup with the Nash as a down payment and the balance of $550 in 18 payments. Then, in Scotland to study and teach, we bought a 1934 Wolseley with a green body and a stately top. A magnificent machine that cost only 26 pounds, and had to be promptly sold when we discovered it got only four miles to the gallon.
But my favorite of all was the ’52 two-door Chevy which I bought for $200 1960. It had high seats and a body like a bulldog. But it sounded like a tractor and looked so unseemly that Lyndon Johnson ordered me not to drive the thing onto the White House grounds. It broke my heart when I sold it.
You could go on with tales of your own about your car, because almost all of us have had a special fascination with this machine, so passionately did we invest it with our aspirations once we adopted it from Europeans. To look at the evolution of the automobile through this century in America is to discover something about ourselves, clues about how a nation and its industry, how a people and its dreams, come together and unfold one with the other. Of course, the story of the car in America reminds us that progress is not without its price. Only in fairy tales does the magic chariot never need a tune up or a tank full of gas. But at the beginning, it seemed like a fairy tale come true.
At the turn of the century, Americans were ready for more than the calendar to change. There were harsh aspects to life in the 19th century that we were eager to leave behind. But at a time when millions of pounds of manure and thousands of gallons of horse urine were left daily on city streets, only the urban trolley marked a path beyond the horse age. The first appearance of the automobile was evidence that our hopes might be rewarded. To the city bystander in 1900, it offered, literally, a breath of fresh air. Many of the first cars were built and repaired on the horse’s own turf. The more adaptable blacksmiths learned a new trade.
Since our earliest days, skilled artisans had honed the manufacture of carriages into a major industry, and America was now ready for the production and care of the automobile. The pioneers at it were often the sons of bicycle and carriage manufacturers. They started out as small business men with big ambitions, obsessed with finding the way to the best machine. People like Henry Leland, a master at precision engineering who brought us Cadillac. And Charles Kettering, who invented the electric self-starter. Or Ransom Olds, who opened the first car assembly plant for his merry and popular Oldsmobile in Detroit in 1901. He was a plain-looking wizard, and Detroit an unlikely land of Oz. But it was here the romance began.
It took money to be merry. You could own a horse for 1/10 of what it cost to buy a newfangled automobile. Not surprisingly, the car was denounced by some social critics as a mere plaything for the arrogant display of the wealthy. Ah, but it went in their head like champagne. It offered adventure. And soon was the seat of more intimate arts.
But we also found ways to make it more practical. Before long, we were testing its endurance and reliability, and those of the drivers in the roads as well. It promised, above all, what a nation in a hurry truly craved– speed. Naturally, it found a place in our fantasies too, from the race to the chase, Hollywood was soon in the act. But a farmer’s son had more realistic plans for the automobile. Let the rich and the romantic play as they might. Henry Ford intended his car for the common folk. By the time I’m through, everyone will be able to afford one, he said. And about everyone will have one.
In 1908, Ford introduced his Model T. Black and boxy, reliable and cheap. $850 at first, and down to $290 by the mid-’20s. Here was the car for the masses. Here was the car to get America moving. Ford did it by standardizing the parts of a uniform design. That meant the car could be assembled on a moving belt in a hurry, routinely, with little wasted time or motion. His assembly line brought about a revolution of production. The Tin Lizzie, they called it affectionately. Or the flivver. Whatever, one writer described it as nimble as a jackrabbit, tough as a hickory stump, and unadorned is a farmer’s boot.
And like a farmer’s boot, it was expected to wade through thick and thin. Although sometimes, especially on bad roads when Lizzie foundered, the horse could still have the last laugh. That was some year, 1908. Henry Ford brought out the Model T, and the flamboyant Billy Durant brought on General Motors. Durant took companies like Oldsmobile and Buick, later added Chevrolet, and offered the consumer a choice of style and color and class. Through GM, he would make a spectacular a flash in organizing the industry as Ford was making in production.
But Henry Ford had another big idea. Why shouldn’t the men who made his cars be able to drive away in one? There was a lot of turnover on the assembly lines, the results of monotony and low wages. It was hard to maintain productivity.
So, in 1914, Ford captured headlines around the world, announcing a pay raise for his workers. The eight-hour, $5 day. In one stroke, Ford doubled manufacturing wages and turned his workers into consumers of their very own product. You have to wonder what Karl Marx would have thought about the mobility of the masses.
SONG OVER MONTAGE:
“In an automobile
with sweet Molly O’Neal,
Every Sunday I’d fly through the park.
And the birds on the win,
Seem to know as they sing
That we’re out for a merry old lark.
Up the Riverside Drive
We’d just east them alive,
Reaching Claremont in time for a meal.
What a jolly affair
In the crowd dining there,
With yours truly, and Molly O’Neal.
You just ought to see me and Molly
Ride out in our automobile
You just ought to see all the glances
and sly little kisses we steal
You just ought to come to our wedding
It’s bound to take place pretty soon
In a nice new machine
I will go with my queen
On an automobile honeymoon!”
BILL MOYERS: In just a few years, the car was changing society. No other intention had so shaken up traditional living patterns in so short a time. Moving the old boundaries, taking the city to the country, and the country to the city. And giving women access to a much larger world.
In step with the suffragette era, the car, equipped now with a self-starter, helped women in their bid for independence. It took them visiting and shopping, and more to more to work outside the home.
For all of us, men and women alike, the car made friendships possible over larger distances. It took social life off the front porch and onto the road. The new crossroads of American life, said Sinclair Lewis, was the filling station. There we found the common place to compare and share our fascination with this machine.
As services were delivered faster and more efficiently and the distances between towns more easily bridged, the nation became more unified. With half the population still living in rural areas in 1920, the car helped to break down their isolation. For farm families, the weekly trip to town to visit and to sample new ideas, became a treat, as well as a necessity. When a country housewife was asked why her family had a car but not a bathtub she replied, bathtub? You can’t go to town in a bathtub.
Motor vehicles were taking over many of the farmer’s grubbier tasks. The bigger cousins to the car — the tractor and the truck — enabled an emerging economy to be ever-more productive. Fewer and fewer farmers to grow more and more food. The automobile industry itself fed the nation’s growth. It was as if all roads led to Detroit. Auto plants gobbled up large portions of petroleum, steel, rubber, and glass, and put hundreds of thousands of Americans to work.
America’s entry into the Great War in 1917 only temporarily slowed car production, as the industry contributed thousands of trucks and ambulances to the war effort, as well as some of the earliest warplanes. When our soldiers came home from Europe, we were producing some 1.5 million cars a year. It was a new era of industrial prosperity which would have been unthinkable without them.
But the appeal of the plain Tin Lizzie was beginning to wane beside the colorful model changes being introduced each year by General Motors. To counter his rivals, Ford began to spruce up Lizzie and to give her a more fashionable look. The look, if you will, of a flapper. Well, sort of. She was still pretty dowdy beside GM’s beauties. And there was a new vamp on the block, a tantalizing creature from Chrysler. In just four years, Chrysler climbed to third place in the sales charts. The big three would rule the automakers’ roost for decades to come.
By 1927, Ford had to admit that the facelift hadn’t worked. With his son Edsel, he rode the last of 15 million Model T’s off the line, then posed with the first car he’d made. The death of Lizzie marked the end of the first great era of the automobile. The industry’s health would now depend on people’s willingness, every few years, to trade in their durable used car for a shinier new one, to make planned obsolescence a fountain of American youth. And the roaring ’20s became the rolling ’20s.
As the Great Depression hit, new car sales declined 75%, and 1/4 of the nation’s workforce was out of a job. Even the fabulous Billy Durant, the creator of one of the world’s largest conglomerates, would soon be ruined and end his life in poverty and obscurity. And poor Herbert Hoover. In 1928, he had promised us two cars in every garage. But soon farmers in North Carolina were hooking their gas-less Tin Lizzies to mules and calling them Hoover carts. In 1932, these farmers helped to elect Franklin Roosevelt in the hope that he would get us moving again.
Through all of this, people did everything they could to keep their old cars. There were more automobiles in the US during the Depression than telephones or bathtubs. And America was on the road, searching not for adventure but for work. In many states in the South and Southwest, the Dust Bowl had blown away the last chance for tenant farmers to scratch out a living from the soil. So the owners shoved them off the land, and, with tractors, plowed their homes under. The farmers, with their families, salvaged what they could and piled into their jalopies for massive, westward migration. What the highway revealed in the 1930s was the desperate heart of an uprooted people.
In John Steinbeck’s classic account of their plight, The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family often fed their old Hudson with gas before feeding themselves. The dispossessed were drawn west, from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico. Families, tribes, dusted out, tractored up. A homeless, hungry man driving the roads with his wife beside him and his thin children in the back seat.
And the man driving the trucks, the overloaded cars, listened apprehensively. Listened to the motor, listened to the wheels. Maybe the oil isn’t getting someplace. Maybe a bearing is starting to go. If it’s a bearing, what do we do?
What will we do? With a broken down car and no money, there was nothing to do. Documenting their passage, the photographer Dorothea Lange found one woman literally at the end of her road. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food for herself and her children. There was no place to go. Hers became the face of the Depression. But right out there in Southern California, the road ran to rainbow’s end, to another world where the pot of gold was a sleek new chassis. Here, at the opening of Hollywood’s Grand Hotel in 1932, some of the most luxurious cars ever made were on display. Shimmering in the night, they carried names that were poetic rhapsody. The Flying Cloud, the Blue Streak, and Silver Era.
Was Hollywood ever more glamorous or extravagant as movie stars posed with their prized possessions? Idols, in their oasis of splendor, in the midst of depression. But at least movies were cheap to see. So we spent our nights watching the stars. With the car as the mobile prop, Hollywood sustained our dreams of romance and action. Set against prohibition and the real life crime of gangsters like Chicago’s Al Capone, taking somebody for a ride acquired another meaning.
In real life, Henry Ford received a letter from Mr. Clyde Barrow of Bonnie and Clyde. Quote, even if my business hasn’t been strictly legal, it don’t hurt anyone to tell you what a fine car you got. I’ve drove Fords exclusively. When I could get away with one. A sense of humor helped many hang on for better times. And anything went if it dispelled despair. From polo matches by car, to cars that ran on nothing at all. The Depression inspired some strange contraptions. But not even hard times could make them work. Gasoline sales remained virtually untouched by this passing fancy.
There were even more spectacular put ons for willing audiences, invited here to share in the fate of this old Tin Lizzie. Once the pride of prosperity, no a symbol of gloom, she was to be destroyed and exorcised like an evil spirit, a ritual scapegoat cast out. I can’t think of anything in any other culture that has played so many parts as the automobile in America during the Depression. From home to the transient poor, to a means of forgetfulness, to a dream machine of luxury and glamour, the car became a touchstone of survival, a totem with which we remembered the good time that had been and would one day return.
In the 1935 study of American life in Muncie, Indiana, called “Middletown in Transition,” Robert and Helen Lynd observed that people clung to their cars as they clung to self-respect. It was important to their dignity for families to drive up to the relief offices to stand in line for their weekly food dole. Muncie was an auto town in 1935, as were many in America, with almost half the factory workers producing for the auto industry when they could find jobs.
So the car helped people to carry on. Marriages, divorces, new babies, other measurable things both large and small, said the Lynds, might be put off during hard times. But not the use of the car. Not if people could help it. They’d buy two bits worth of gas at a time just to keep going. In less than 30 years, the fate of the auto and the economy had become inseparable. The government in Washington, trying to spin this back to prosperity, knew this, as it sought to provide work for the unemployed.
Roosevelt couldn’t start the auto plants going again on his own. But the government could and did finance the network on which the cars could move when prosperity returned. In the ’20s, government expenditures for new street and highway construction exceeded the capital outlay of any single line of private enterprise. Now in the ’30s, the number of miles of paved road in the United States doubled. And after years of push and shove, we were finally out of the mud for good. The first high speed toll highway was completed in Connecticut. And the first cloverleafs appeared.
NEWSREEL NARRATOR: $35 million worth of bridge goes into service across the Golden Gate, the longest suspension bridge in the world.
BILL MOYERS: What had been an army of the unemployed built these projects, and the mobility they made possible helped to return, in time, the vigor of our economy. Halfway into the decade, car sales began to rise. And the factories that supplied the auto industry were producing once again. By 1936, the president of General Motors, Alfred P. Sloan, proclaimed the beginning of the end.
ALFRED P. SLOANE: It has been almost a popular belief that the automobile industry would, as in 1922, again lead the country out of the Depression. Now, for the first time, we are hopeful in General Motors that recovery is on the way.
NEWSREEL NARRATOR: The automobile industry calls men — thousands of men — back to work. Jobs and more jobs. 65,000 letters go out from one company. The call cuts WPA roads, and President Roosevelt hears that perhaps a permanent relief cut can be made as more men report to factory employment offices. And as factory gates welcome a growing army of workers, the whole nation’s business pulse beats stronger. 1 million men and women have gone back to work since June first. There’s a happy hum as the assembly line rolls along and America’s industry faced brightly forward.
BILL MOYERS: But there was grumbling under that happy hum. Things had changed since Ford’s $5 day in 1914. Depression pay cuts and assembly line speed ups had auto workers talking militantly since 1930. But industry spies harassed union sympathizers, many of whom were fired.
Late in 1936, under the banner of John Lewis’s CIO, they were ripe for organizing. And in the following, year both GM and Chrysler were hit with labor’s new tactic of the sit down strike. Instead of leaving the factories, the workers bedded down inside them, holding America’s wheels hostage. Their women brought them food and marched outside in solidarity. Spreading from Flint, Michigan, auto towns across the country were shutting down. And the sit downs stirred controversy as far away as Washington, DC.
SENATOR JOHNSON: The sit down strike is the most abominable and outrageous thing that has happened to America in this generation. Unless this thing is curbed, it threatens to destroy all of the good relationships that have been built up, in these many years, between labor and capital.
BILL MOYERS: At GM, sit downers were met with violence as the bosses sent in strike breakers to flush the workers out with tear gas. But the strikers held on. Finally, after 44 days, GM shook hands across the bargaining table with United Automobile Workers of America. Chrysler took just two weeks to do the same, with labor and management meeting again, represented by John Lewis and Walter Chrysler.
NEWSREEL NARRATOR: Sit down strikers evacuate the automobile plants under a truce between the corporation and union leaders. And labor history is made. The agreement came shortly after the greatest labor mass meeting in Detroit’s history and heard union leader Homer Martin speak of Ford motor labor.
HOMER MARTIN: The best thing for you to do, Henry, is to get ready to do business with your organized workers.
BILL MOYERS: But Henry wasn’t ready. The folk hero of 1914 remained a bitter foe of unions and stubbornly fought to keep them out of his plants. But in 1941, old and outvoted, Ford reluctantly signed with the UAW. Auto workers, led now by Walter Reuther, were once again labor’s elite, setting the pace in production, wages, and consumption.
NEWSREEL NARRATOR: The auto world keeps in step with national business recovery and offers for 1938 an ultra smart and swift product.
BILL MOYERS: By the end of the ’30s, recovery seemed just around the corner. It was time to pick up the parade and let fancy roam. And the manufacturers knew how to do it.
NEWSREEL NARRATOR: — automobile before the close of the calendar year. So look them over, folks. They’ve employed every device to show you the stuff the cars are made of. This is done with mirrors, and this car has coil springs for the rear wheels, absolutely the latest. and for streamlining, how’s this? Don’t miss the square headlights. Shifting in safety from the steering wheel instead of on the floor of this car. Luxury and comfort, they’re the keynote today…for a doggy!
BILL MOYERS: As we know now, looking back on the closing years of the ’30s, events in Europe were a dark contrast to those gay and upbeat car shows taking place in Detroit. Yet, in their own way, those shows were a symbol of things to come — a longed for, hoped for, better way of life. The Second World War would frustrate what had been called an American sacred right to drive his car as far and as fast as he liked. But the end of the war would restore that notion with a vengeance.
We emerged in 1946 the richest and most powerful nation in the world. And more than anything else in the postwar years, the family car would come to represent the American way of life. To ourselves, to be arriving immigrants, and to the foreigner looking from afar. 10 years after the war, our car population had doubled to 52 million. By 1975 it would double again. In a boom of consumer goods, our dominant desire was for the automobile. Any fancy we could conjure, Detroit could provide. And more. The industry had the means and Madison Avenue the magic to shape our yearning for a machine that spoke to our most extravagant material selves.
To understand these pent up appetites, we have to go back a few years to 1942. That’s when the government slammed the door on civilian car production and the assembly lines went silent, awaiting conversion to war production. But not for long. From the autos former domain came rolling guns, airplanes, tanks, jeeps, and trucks. Thousands upon thousands of trucks.
By war’s end, the auto industry had turned out $29 billion worth of weapons and material, 1/5 of our entire war production. But while the industry state fat on war contracts, the tires on the home front were getting thinner and thinner. Rubber rationing, gas stamps, old cars, and a speed limit of 35 miles per hour slowed us down for the duration. The car moved over to make room for the war.
NEWSREEL NARRATOR: When a B-17 pilot says, fill her up, he means 2,000 gallons. At that rate, it takes 2 million gallons of gas to send a single 1,000-bomber raid over enemy territory. Now, where would you rather see that no gas sign? At his station, or here? Now just take a look at this. About 5,000 of our cars are going off the road a day, 1.5 million a year. And it’s going to be a long wait before any new cars are made. What’s the answer? The best way to stretch the gas left over for us civilians as to save our cars and tires is by carpooling. It’s the only way this great nation on wheels can keep on rolling, rolling right on to victory.
BILL MOYERS: Victory. After 16 years of depression and war, we were ready to build and splurge. The cars were rolling off the lines again a year after V-J Day. And both makers and buyers joined in the binge. From the drawing boards up, the auto industry spun wheels of fantasy, dream boats offering instant gratification for yearnings deferred so long. And, for some, not yet created.
Returning veterans and their families found affordable housing in the new suburban developments, where construction raced to keep pace with the baby boom. Once the preserve of the affluent middle class, suburbia eventually became home to almost half of all Americans. But as the suburbs spread out from the city on a ribbon of pavement, they needed some way to get from home to work and back again. And as the number of suburbanites grew, the auto industry found its steadiest customers. In the growing number of teenagers, it found its most devout groupies. The young could run on a little more than imagination, zipping along in the last go kart races and soapbox derbies for the college crowd before motors took over completely.
In towns large and small across America, a brassy Detroit was showcasing its particular vision of what America could be. Even plain folks were encouraged to think big, to step up to a Cadillac or a Lincoln. By now, owning a big car was an essential part of being America. And at country fairs, promoters could pull in a crowd with display models of what the car was helping to spawn. A measure not only of how far we had come since the Model T, but a signpost of where we would go in the next 20 years. No lotus land had anything like this living room on wheels, whose rewards did not even require you to get out of the seat. You had only to open your window. The more gadgets and gimmicks, the more we ate them up. And one just led to the other.
There was even a car that popped its top at the hint of a drop. And a ’55 Firebird that looked ready to take off. In a word, bigger was better. And more was best. Heavy on chrome and long on tail fins, it took the power of a V8 engine just to carry the weight. Never mind, they kept the showrooms full. Our peripatetic poets rhapsodized about the great American road. The US, one writer put it, would sooner have driven a ’57 Chevy than ridden in the chariot of the Lord.
SONG OVER MONTAGE:
“Hey, Hey, Hey, On the road again
Now I locked my door
The sun went down
I said good-bye to Boston town
Mass turnpike to Route 15
Take me on down to the New York scene
Hummin’ on the tires
It sure is pretty
Thinking about the women in New York City
On the road again.
Now I can’t stop more than just a few minutes
Baby makin’ love to you
Hey, Hey, Hey, On the road again.
You take the Holland Tunnel to the
Then roll through Philly
In the middle of the night
I’m on the road again.
I went downtown D.C.
Runin’ all around the town
Tryin’ to find a littly lady
Help me when I’m down
Nobody answers, ain’t anybody home?
Grab me a cab
Get to Baltimore
She’s got great long hair
Big old smile, and
Great long legs that drive me wild
I’m on the road gain.
Now I can’t stop more than just a few minutes
Baby tell you about my love for you
Hey, Hey, Hey, I’m on the road again.
Now I hate to go
I just can’t stay
Gotta make it to Atlanta
by the break of day
Hey, Hey, Hey, on the road again.”
BILL MOYERS: But the road, as a journey of revelation, grew predictable. How could a modern Huck Finn cope with a world that teemed with gas stations, parking lots, billboards, motels, and fast food outlets? By the 1960s, we truly were a drive-in civilization. And Main Street was a shopping mall, a one-stop market accessible only by a car, a Parthenon of parking places, the new American meeting ground connected by a labyrinth of highways. Once, farmers took the road to town. Now, the town was already there at road’s edge. Look alike towns, flowing one into another.
So close, and yet so far. And so divided. The car made it possible for us to get around without getting together. The poor were left in the inner city, made more disagreeable by gridlock, freeways, and fumed, while the suburbs prospered. Never the twain would meet.
Out here, a generation grew up on wheels. It was a generation spending hours tuning up those customized machines for the supreme teen ritual — cruising. Being 16 in America means being old enough to drive. And sports cars like the Thunderbird, the Corvette, and the Mustang were designed with the young in mind. This is how you could get a girl, or a guy. And the best place to get to know them.
1ST CATCALLER IN CAR: Hey, I’m staying with you tonight.
2ND CATCALLER IN CAR: Wait for a good girl. Wait for a good girl. In that red car. Oh, daddy’s car. Daddy’s car. Man.
3rd CATCALLER IN CAR: I want to marry you.
BILL MOYERS: But unnoticed by the joyriders, the debris of our car culture was piling up around us. Traffic deaths has reached 55,000 a year. And our roadsides became convenient dumps for the wreckage left behind. But it was a reality we tended to ignore as we cruised toward fresh novelties.
“DRIVE-IN” MINISTER: Let us unite in prayer. This is a very special day for you, oh, God, and for all mankind. For you are permitting man to conquer space. And on this very day to plant his footsteps on the moon. Bless the three intrepid Americans who are privileged to do this. And may the banner of peace to be placed on lunar surface herald a better day. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
BILL MOYERS: It is, after all, a love/hate affair we carry on with the car. Just consider the young who challenged the gods of the status quo. Had not the poet Robert Lowell told them that cars were part of the sickness of the nation? And were they not to purify? But not only was the Woodstock rock festival in ’69 an event on the Aquarian calendar, it was also dubbed the biggest parking lot in the world. When half a million of the young flocked to Woodstock to celebrate their disenchanted with materialism, they came in cars. For the road was still the only way back to Eden. The sentiments are real, for sure. The idea of progress technology’s inexorable blessing is beginning to be measured in other ways.
CROWD DEMONSTRATING: What do we want? Clean air! When do we want it? Now! What do we want? Clean air! When do we want it? Now! What do we want? Clean air! Stop pollution! Stop it now! Stop pollution! Stop it now!
BILL MOYERS: Rivals from abroad successfully challenged Detroit’s supremacy and complacency. The rudest shock of all was the higher cost of driving, the oil-producing nations raised the price of fuel, and many Americans turned from the gas guzzlers we adored in ’50s to foreign sweethearts who got more mileage to the gallon.
Our auto industry was forced to think small. But whether on a Datsun, a Ford, a Volkswagen, or an Old, America’s wheels keep rolling. Although, not as fast at rush hour. There are 102 million cars on the road today, almost one for every other American. And their number keeps growing. Can you imagine this century without the automobile? We may curse it when it stalls, kick it when it’s flat. We may even want to shoot the beast, as one social critic recommended. But live without it? Not likely. Not in this century. We have struck a bargain with this thing. It gave us mobility, romance, freedom, status, and jobs, and required in return only that we come utterly to depend upon it. That we did it.
A journalist can observe the phenomenon of our romance with the car, but for understanding it, well, you wish for the encompassing eye of the anthropologist and the lyrical tongue of the poet. They speak to this capacity of machines to fulfill human longings.
Way back in 1918, Carl Sandburg wrote one of the first poems on the subject. “Portrait of a Motor Car.”
“It’s a lean car, a long-legged dog of a car, a grey ghost ego car. The feet of it eat the dirt of a road. The wings of it eat the hills. Danny the driver dreams of it when he sees women in red skirts and red socks in his sleep. It is in Danny’s life and runs in the blood of him. A lean, grey ghost car.”
Can you think of another machine we have personalized as this one? Or so endowed in our minds with the quirks and qualities of life? We give our cars nicknames, complain about their costly ailments, praise their “feel” for the road. We say that their engines “purr,” their brakes “scream,” and their springs “groan.” I’ve wonder at times what women think of this macho side of this long affair. There’s E. E. Cummings sly, ribald valentine that compares driving a new car to making love to a virgin. And Carl Shapiro’s erotic address, comparing the movement of his Buick to the hips of a girl.
I don’t know. I thought only the primal mind gave souls in human form to lifeless objects. Maybe that’s it. One bard of the road said that when a youth steps on the gas and feels that surge, it’s “as if wolves howled from extinct caves in the bloodstream.”
Do we roll towards the future, never quite losing our animal link to the past? Or is this just nonsense, and all we feel is the gratitude toward the one piece of the machine age that still leaves us in the driver’s seat? I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on April 7, 2015.