America Got Hooked By Little Bugs and Monster TrucksAnd Everything
in Betweenand 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
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.
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
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
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
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-
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
Three Little Letters...
Enter the SUV.
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
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
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.
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
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.