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Features & Articles : Car Culture

Car Culture: How America Got Hooked By Little Bugs and Monster Trucks—And Everything in Between—and Why It's Time to Park Our Automobile Obsession.

By Rebecca Johnson

Ever since Henry Ford began churning out the motorized hunks of metal en masse, cars have been vehicles for dozens of things other than their intended purpose. We can't deny it- we are a nation head over heels over wheels. But can we still love our cars- and rely on them less?

O, LeCar! O ye Gremlins and Pintos, ye Foxes and Thunderbirds and Mustangs! How we love thee! Let us Probe the depths of our national obsession to the very Maxima! For you represent all that is American and Continental, from sea to shining sea, from Metro to Suburban, Dakota to Tahoe to Malibu. A Century ago you were naught but a horseless carriage. But today you are Regal, a true Celebrity. You are our Explorer and our Escape, our Sidekick as well as our Amigo. A real Trooper, you Rolls on, never losing your Integra or your Spirit. No, you Blazer forth; you always Aspire to Achieva the Ultima and never fail to be our Escort. You Charger mercilessly, as our Pathfinder, our Land Cruiser, always RAVing up to the occasion. Thanks to you, we are an AutoNation, a Volk of Wagens. Because of you, we live Cavalier and carefree; our Bravada is restored. To be quite Acura, we remain in Accord with our dreams, we are like a little Skylark literally filled with Allegra. And so we Caravan together, we Jetta on, with you as our Passport to new Discovery and Excursion. Wherever Yugo, there go we!!!!

Growing up, we joked that we never knew what kind of car our dad might pull into the driveway. We were half serious. Our dad had- and still does- a strange addiction to trading cars. For a while, the bigger it was, the better. The car I learned to drive on, for instance, would have been more at home on an intercoastal waterway than a Southern downtown street, and I think I learned to steer not so much left or right, but port or starboard.

Some of my dad's cars lasted little more than a month. The banana-hued '65 Mustang- his "midlife crisis car," we joked- hung around for a couple years. And at his very worst, late last year, he owned two Buicks, a GMC truck, and a Monte Carlo. Somewhere among them, my mother managed to find a place to park her little Nissan. Although we laugh at him a little, among the glutted driveways and garages of this country, my dad is not that unusual. (He's now down to the truck and a Buick- albeit, a different, newer Buick.) My dad has simply fallen prey to a national romance that has obsessed America for decades.

We are a nation in love with our cars.

Go to any small town in this country and count how many souped up Hondas and restored classic cars you see, chromed and gleaming, outfitted with flashing neon taillights and bouncing hydraulics. Pull into a corporate garage or shopping mall parking lot and count the luxury models and SUVs. Ask any teenager how badly he or she wants to get a driver's license, or any senior citizen how long he or she would like to hang on to theirs.

How We Met
Ever since the first Model T rolled off Henry Ford's assembly line in 1908, our hearts have been stolen like so many hubcaps. Sure, the early days of our relationship were awkward and a little stiff. But gradually we warmed up to the automobile. Like Ford's overwhelming success, the car came to epitomize prosperity, the shiny new fulfillment of the American dream. By the 1920s, the car claimed partial responsibility for the heady rebellion of an entire youthful generation and the creation of the word "teenager." After World War II, middle-class whites flocked to the suburbs in large numbers, taking their automobiles with them.

In the Fifties our car culture really began to sail. More jobs and economic growth paved the way for the institutionalization of driving: drive-in movies and drive-thru restaurants. Cruising and convertibles. Customized rides. Hot rods and rock'n'roll--which spread the idea that cars equalled freedom- hot, fast, unbridled, good-looking freedom . Songs like "No Particular Place to Go," "I Get Around," "Hitch Hike," and of course "Drive My Car." (On the darker side a whole slew of teenage tragedy songs bemoaned the too-young victims of motorized accidents: "Tell Laura I Love Her," "Leader of the Pack.") We were On the Road, we did dead-man's curves into the Sixties, barreling out of the VW microbuses into the Seventies muscle car. When the 1973 Arab oil embargo took care of that trend for a while, we eventually tired of gas rationing, jumped into economy cars, snapped up Japanese hatchbacks and boxy German status symbols.

next page:  Herbie the Love Bug, the Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee, Knight Rider's KITT...

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