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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.

The Way We Were
We can't look back at these decades without thinking of the cars that guided us through them, our collective memories tangled with that of a prized Bel-Air, a double-finned Thunderbird, a dangerously cool Corvair, Herbie the Love Bug, the Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee, Knight Rider's KITT. I wasn't born until the mid-Seventies (just after the gas crisis, in fact), but I have my own nostalgia cars: the 65 Dodge Dart GT with Slant Six engine that I just sold, the bright orange Volvo station wagon my friends' mother drove, my grandfather's El Camino and also his lemon yellow Volkswagen, another grandfather's old green Ford truck, the Chevy Nova my mom drove 'til its bitter overheated end. (My father, as you might guess, never held on to a car long enough for me to form a real attachment.)

However, unlike many kids growing up today, my automobile memories are dwarfed by those of roaming through our town and woods every day, by walking home from school with my friends, biking to the store and swimming pool. In her book Asphalt Nation, The Nation architecture and planning critic Jane Holtz Kay cites a study which pitted the lives of ten-year-old children living in an unwalkable southern California suburb against those of children growing up in a walkable small town in Vermont. The researchers found that the California children watched four times as much television as did the Vermont children. Their inside world was simply much more inviting than the unsafe outdoors.

Are today's kids going to wax nostalgia about the sight of a clogged highway as seen from the backseat of the minivan? Of eating dinner in Mom's SUV? I sure hope not. But that seems to be the way we're headed. As a child I remember being enchanted by displays of custom vans with beds, televisions, and mini-bars. At that time, that kind of excess was rare, as novelty and foreign to me as a bubbling jacuzzi in a stretch limousine.

Living Rooms on Wheels
"Cars have gotten too comfortable," fumes septuagenarian Ina Evans of Chapel Hill, N.C. "I recently read an advertisement for a car with chintz seats. Chintz seats! I thought it was a living room."

For many of us, that's exactly what cars have become.

More than an SUV, it's an office on wheels. With a power outlet located in the dash, center console box and rear cargo area, you can connect your fax machine. Plug in your laptop. Then tell your assistant in the back to hold all calls.

A vehicle so large, it has two separate climates... You must admit those heated front seats are quite inviting after yet another corporate takeover.

       —Ad copy for the 2000 Lexus 470

The Lexus is one of the most egregious examples of car comfort. But many drivers would not consider its amenities the least bit outrageous. Cars have always been vehicles for dozens of things other than their intended purpose.

We live in our cars. We blast music and listen to books and the news. We try to learn languages. We rehash the day's events-- or try to forget them. We talk on the phone: we conduct business. We chat. We argue. We eat and drink. We shop. We check our e-mail. And- oh yeah- we drive.

In Atlanta, Ga., a city notorious for its out-of-control sprawl, commuters spend an median time of 31 minutes in their car every day, more than any other large city on the planet. Some people spend more time in their vehicles than they do with their families.

And at what cost? By some estimates we average upwards of $6000 yearly to own and operate an automobile.

Every second we drive 60,000 miles, use 3,000 gallons of petroleum products and dump 60,000 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And the amount of energy used and waste procuced to manufacture 15 million vehicles a year is not well documented. We give over half our cities to roads and parking lots.

       —Jane Holtz Kay, "Overheated Car Culture"

Only every so often do we stop and consider the impact that car culture has on our planet. Environmental awareness really took hold in the 1970s when cars formed huge centipede-like lines at the gas pumps during that decade's fuel crisis. It caused some Americans to opt for more fuel-efficient vehicles- for a while at least. But when money is aplenty and gas prices are cheap- which, until this spring was the case- it's easy for many of us to ignore the environmental organizations and others who point to statistics about the damage caused by our automobile dependency.

Those Three Little Letters...
Enter the SUV.

Twelve yards long, two lanes wide, sixty five tons of American pride, Canyonero, Canyonero! Top of the line in Utility Sports, unexplained fires are a matter for the Courts, Canyonero, Canyonero! She blinds everybody with her super-high beams, she's a squirrel squashin' deer smackin', drivin' machine, Canyonero, Canyonero!
      —The Simpsons Episode AABF10:
        "Marge Simpson in: 'Screaming Yellow Honkers'"

Much maligned and much admired- depending on which side of the walnut accented-dash and plush, leather-trimmed seats you're sitting- the sports utility vehicle or SUV is the most ostentatious popular product of car culture. Jokes and critics abound. The parody site, poseur.org for instance "created" their own SUV line. Among the features of the "Dominator" are eight rear wheels "for handling those trips to Sam's Club," and a seating capacity of 20. And, the site is quick to point out, the Dominator fits under MOST bridge underpasses. (If you choose to upgrade to the Grand Dominator, you'll enjoy cathedral ceilings, full lavatory, four cell-phones, TV/VCR/Nintendo 64, Sony DSS satellite, and a permanent cellular link to the internet.)

Although real-life SUVs haven't yet caught up with the Dominator, they're certainly ambitious. Writing for the New York Times Magazine last year, Jeffrey Goldberg invited an utterly disgusted Ralph Nader to ride along as he took the Mercedes Gelandewagen for a spin. Goldberg described the vehicle as being "built like a tank," weighing nearly three tons, and going "from 0 to 1,000 in about two seconds." Nader simply dubbed it the "Stupidwagen." Originally designed for the German military, at $135,000 the "G-wagen" is the most expensive SUV on the market.

At that price tag, the average SUV-buying American is highly unlikely to purchase a G-wagen; when Nader and Goldberg test drove the vehicle last fall, its 150 owners were concentrated mainly in wealthy sections of Southern California and New York City suburbs. But for the less affluent, the Ford Motor company offers a bigger (I didn't say better) option: the Excursion. Although it weighs in at nearly four tons, at $35,000-50,000, the Excursion costs only a fraction of the G-wagen. When the Sierra Club found out the Excursion gets 10-18 miles per gallon, they ran a contest to give it a new slogan. The winner? "The Ford Valdez. Have you driven a tanker lately?" When it became public that the Excursion boasts an optional V10 engine, has six doors and seats nine passengers comfortably, prospective buyers rang up Ford dealerships to get the exact dimensions (it's 19 feet long) of the thing: they wanted to know if it would fit in their garages.

A Love-Hate Relationship
"How can you rough it with a leather interior?" the Dominator's "makers" beg to know.

The truth is, most SUV owners don't. Admittedly the percentage of persons who use the SUV in the true sense of its name "for offroading more than once a year (gravel roads don't count: cars and trucks have been handling them just fine for years), hauling rock climbing and camping gear, etc., is disproportionate to the number of owners.

"No, I've never taken my Explorer off-road," admits one SUV-owning man in Greensboro, N.C. "I guess the point is, I could if I wanted to. And I've had more fun driving this car than anything other I've owned." The majority of SUVs are driven to do the same old everyday errands as a Honda Accord: truth be told, you're more likely to spot an SUV in a stadium parking lot, or waiting outside a super store than you are hurtling up the side of a mountain.

In fact, while taking a lunch break during the writing of this story, I happened to witness a freshly dealer-tagged Cadillac Escalade solidly ram into the side of a gourmet grocery store. Fortunately no one was injured. The motorist was an experienced driver, but obviously not yet accustomed to manuevering the mammoth mobile: quite simply, the hood was too large to see over. In the process of trying to secure a space in the busy parking lot, the Escalade destroyed two newspaper boxes, each the height of a small child.

Even Ford Motor Company president William Clay Ford, Jr. has publicly admitted that "SUVs are generally worse for the environment than passenger cars." Despite their overwhelming popularity, with their environmental damage, safety reputation, and practicality in question, SUVs have received more widespread criticism than any model in recent years.

But is overgrown car culture really the SUV's fault? Or is the SUV merely a warning symptom of our automotive psychosis? After all, the SUV is by no means a recent phenomenon. As Hayes Reed pointed out in "I Want My SUV" in the Sacramento News and Review, "In fact, the longest continuously manufactured model in the country is, believe it or not, the Chevrolet Suburban. That particular four-door heavy-duty truck was introduced in 1935, and GM's been cranking them out every year since."

Time to get off the Wagen?

Enter the SUV.

Why stop now? After all, the nineties saw SUV sales explode from 900,000 in 1991 to nearly 2.8 million last year. The numbers are hard to argue with, and most car companies certainly haven't. To make more room for SUV models like the popular Tahoe, Chevy shut down production of the Impala, for instance. And although Bill Ford calls himself a lifelong environmentalist and pledged to make his car company the leader in producing "clean" vehicles, he obviously couldn't resist producing the Excursion.

Until automakers stop making fuel-guzzling vehicles- until tougher government regulations are placed on automakers- or until the economy boom ends- or until gas prices shoot up more unbelievably high- or until we all literally "run out of gas," the desire for cool cars and SUVs is not likely to cease. In all honesty, we needn't waste our breath waiting for the former two scenarios to take place. That is, unless we change our own thinking. The auto market is of course consumer-driven. Therefore it's up to the consumers to determine and demand what we want. We've opted for cars that symbolize independence, ruggedness, adventure. But can we really be free when we're sitting in a backed-up honking jam of a mile of other so-called rugged, adventurous automobiles just like ours? Of course not. And the only tried and true method of reducing traffic is to drive less. For most of us, giving up our cars entirely is not a realistic option, at least not yet. But as most happy couples know, the key to a successful long-term relationship is
giving each other space. If we truly love our cars and if we want to keep driving them and feeling free, we need to free ourselves from depending on them the way we do now. And a crucial first step in doing this involves understanding the psychology of car culture.

Subconscious Desires
Obviously the automotive industry has a pretty good handle on it. Besides automobile make and model brands, probably the only other brand names more indicative of our psychological desires and "Obsession"s are bestowed upon perfumes and cologne. Before World War II, advertisements for cars lauded their practicality and reliability. "Plymouth, 'the car that stands up best' and 'goes through in all kinds of weather,' says rural nurse Margaret Davidson," ran a 1937 ad. Such a mundane treatment would hardly lift an eyebrow in today's world of lifting techno and rock songs to arouse deep-seated notions that cars are conveyors of freedom and power.

As Ruth Shalit reported on Salon.com last year, a recent marketing and design trend for automakers and oil companies involves delving into the subconscious connections between consumer desire and their products. When Daimler Chrysler wanted to rethink the look and engineering of their PT Cruiser model, for instance, they sought out not the expertise of a hotshot design team, but instead first looked to a psychiatrist. In essence, Jungian archetype specialist Dr. Clothaire Rapaille put a psychological spin on Chrysler's traditional mode of consumer research.

David Bostwick, director of market research at Daimler Chrysler told Salon: "The more we learn about American culture, the more we see how these vehicles fit into our psyche- the more we see how it is that we fit into the overall scheme of living. . .

'Freedom in America, means something different here than it does anywhere else,'Rapaille told me. 'It is tied in to this notion of wilderness.' . . . What that said to us is that people are looking for something that offers protection on the outside, and comfort on the inside."

Shalit also found that the Shell Oil company hired a psychiatrist to conduct market focus groups under hypnosis. Taking participants back to their first memories of being in a gas station, the psychiatrist was able to elicit emotional responses that bridged the connection between those long suppressed recollections to becoming like the present-day adult who said always filled her tank with the same brand of gasoline because she "felt good about Texaco."

The power of intuition and psychology has more influence over our car culture than we think. Since the Environmental Protection Agency and others' warnings haven't deterred many of us from making an average 15 car trips per day, or from buying gas-guzzling vehicles, it's time to try a different tactic. We have a lot to learn from Shell Oil- but it doesn't have to do with what brand or grade gas to pump in our tanks.

Instead of recalling our first encounter at the gas pump, it's time to think back to our first memories of walking and bicycling through our neighborhoods, to the store, home from school, to a friend's house. Maybe we'll find that we feel more free when coasting down the street on a bike or more comfortable strolling down a pleasant greenway trail. Or maybe we'll simply stop and think a little harder about whether it's really worth it, whether we really need to drive a mile to get a quart of milk.