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The twentieth-century American experience with the automobile has much to tell us about the relationship between consumer capitalism and the environment, Tom McCarthy contends. In Auto Mania he presents the first environmental history of the automobile that shows how consumer desire (and manufacturer decisions) created impacts across the product lifecycle—from raw material extraction to manufacturing to consumer use to disposal.
From the provocative public antics of young millionaires who owned the first cars early in the twentieth century to the SUV craze of the 1990s, Auto Mania explores developments that touched the environment. Along the way McCarthy examines how Henry Ford’s fetish for waste reduction tempered the environmental impacts of Model T mass production; how Elvis Presley’s widely shared postwar desire for Cadillacs made matters worse; how the 1970s energy crisis hurt small cars; and why baby boomers ignored worries about global warming.
McCarthy shows that problems were recognized early. The difficulty was addressing them, a matter less of doing scientific research and educating the public than implementing solutions through America’s market economy and democratic government. Consumer and producer interests have rarely aligned in helpful ways, and automakers and consumers have made powerful opponents of regulation. The result has been a mixed record of environmental reform with troubling prospects for the future.
The public knew William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., Foxhall P. Keene, Albert C. Bostwick, David Wolfe Bishop, Edward R. Thomas, and Harry S. Harkness from the society and sports pages, their social lives in New York and Newport, and their exploits as sportsmen. These young heirs to the great Gilded Age fortunes owned and raced yachts, bred and ran thoroughbred, steeplechase, and harness racing horses, and played competitive polo, golf, and tennis against one another. When Vanderbilt and his friends seized the automobile and took to the roads to have fun, they became Thorstein Veblen's "conspicuous leisure" and "conspicuous consumption" on wheels. Less fortunate Americans gaped in awe, envy, and exasperation. Americans later lionized the automobile's inventors and early manufacturers, but they forgot the men who actually showed them what the automobile was all about. No group did more to popularize the gasoline-powered automobile, stimulate the imaginations of their fellow citizens, and give substance and trajectory to the relationship between Americans and automobiles.
Vanderbilt and his fellow sportsmen first demonstrated publicly the greatest pleasure of the automobile-speed. The newspapers and automobile magazines of the time make clear that no appeal approached it in importance in the first years of the automobile's existence. Speed had nothing to do with getting somewhere sooner. Driving fast was simply fun. The human experience of speeds greater than those provided by the horse dated only to the advent of the railroads in the 1840s, but early automobile drivers gushed with enthusiasm over the new thrill of having the speed and direction of an open-air vehicle entirely in their own hands. "When one sees several miles of clean road ahead," wrote an early enthusiast, "he enjoys shooting it at the highest speed possible." New York City automobile owners quickly found the flat, well-maintained country roads of Long Island ideal for this purpose.
Commentators soon wrote of "the speed craze" and "speed mania." "Those who indulge in abnormal speed simply for its own sake ... are mostly degenerates, devoid of all self restraint and having absolutely no control over themselves," wrote the editors of the automobile enthusiasts' magazine Horseless Age in 1903. "The speed habit resembles the alcohol and morphine habits ... in the last stages the victim indulges it with complete abandon." These editors, who took a more utilitarian view of the automobile, worried that the overexuberance of sportsmen like Vanderbilt would provoke an excessively negative reaction that would cripple the new technology in its infancy.
William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., enjoyed driving fast and showing off, but he also played for a larger audience and sought more tangible markers for his exploits. In June 1900 he bought an imported, twenty-eight horsepower Phoenix-Daimler for ten thousand dollars with the expressed intent of having the largest and fastest car in America. In July he used his newly dubbed White Ghost to drive the dirt roads from Newport to Boston in two hours, eighteen minutes, half the time of the previous record, and almost as fast as the railroad. For reporters, Vanderbilt coyly painted the dash as a pleasure trip but noted that the speed register he carried on the car had shown sixty-five miles an hour on the run into Boston on Blue Hill Avenue. He allowed that, if he hadn't been stopped for speeding, he would have beaten the railroad's time.
Not to be outdone, in August 1900 Albert C. Bostwick brought back a prizewinning twenty-four horsepower Panhard-Levasseur from France that he had purchased from Count Rene de Knyff for thirteen thousand dollars. A showdown was in the offing. When Bostwick pleaded the need for new tires, though, Vanderbilt in the White Ghost won the automobile races held at Aquidneck Park outside Newport a month later, on 6 September. He repeated his triumph in 1901 before seven thousand spectators when he vanquished Foxhall Keene in a new Mercedes that Vanderbilt christened the Red Devil. Though he had passed on Aquidneck, Bostwick soon dominated rivals in races held in the New York City area. In these and subsequent vehicles, Vanderbilt and Bostwick won races and set world speed records at various distances over the next few years.
Newspapers around the United States widely reported these exploits. Vanderbilt, Bostwick, and their automobiles became sensations. The first national automobile show, held in New York in November 1900, featured Bostwick's Panhard as an attraction. Vanderbilt later in life recalled his early trips on the open road in the White Ghost. "We couldn't rest when we wanted to. We even were forced to go hungry because every time we stopped at a restaurant we were forced to fight our way through a dense crowd to get back to it." This publicity colored Americans' early consciousness of the automobile. "My dreams at night," one early automobile purchaser recalled, recounting how he had come down with "automobile fever," "were visions of Red Devils, White Ghosts and Black Phantoms."
Using their expensive imported European cars to set speed records between cities and to race one another on the track and in hill climbs, Vanderbilt and his friends generated publicity that influenced consumers. Automobile buyers, Horseless Age noted, sought vehicles with "such high motor power that the car will 'romp right up' any hill on the high gear." For many prospective buyers, hill-climbing power constituted the acid-test of any particular model. "Most of the larger cities," wrote the magazine's editors in 1905, explaining the auto-purchasing public's decided preference for high-powered internal combustion engine vehicles, "have some well known test hill on which customers require cars to be demonstrated to them, and which must be climbed at a considerable speed, and sometimes on the high gear, if the prospective purchaser is to be satisfied." The hill climbs, more than any other context, showed people the superiority of gasoline-powered automobiles over electric and steam-powered vehicles.
By 1904, when vehicles such as Vanderbilt's ninety-horsepower Mercedes proved too powerful for the annual hill climb at Eagle Rock, New Jersey, the hill climbs had made their point. "The public has been educated by the commonness of large and powerful cars," Horseless Age wrote, "to expect a certain lavishness of power and size in everything called by the name automobile." When Vanderbilt and his fellow sportsmen lent a glamour and prestige to large gasoline-powered automobiles that made irresistible copy for the press, they shaped American tastes in automobiles that persisted. People think of Henry Ford as the father of the American automobile, but Ford was actually the midwife to mass ownership. William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., and his fellow speeding sportsmen fathered the American love of large, fast, powerful cars.
More than thirty years later, Alden Hatch remembered the excitement of the first automobiles, as he watched Foxhall Keene lead the inaugural Vanderbilt Cup Race:
Beyond the curve of the narrow, macadamized road there sounds a tremendous, staccato roar that swells awesomely with the passing of each tense second. Everyone climbs onto the rail fence and strains his eyes in the direction of the uproar. I need Father's steadying touch as I balance precariously on my perch, half insane with excitement.
Then it comes, tearing the morning mists apart. Orange flames shoot from its flanks; dense black smoke swirls in its wake. It leaps toward us with unbelievable speed. Seated in the midst of that streak of fire and smoke, I can see a slim, calm figure, like a god riding the cosmic storm. Father shouts in my ear, "That's Foxie."
Vanderbilt and his fellow sportsmen were not alone among wealthy Americans in popularizing the automobile. A much larger number helped introduce the automobile to the country through the "touring craze." The automobile freed people from having to travel with other passengers by a fixed route on the railroad's schedule. Best of all, it enabled people to explore the vast spaces between the railroads. Early automobilists found with excitement that in many ways rural America had changed little in the nineteenth century. The countryside also gave the early automobilists a chance to get closer to nature. History and nature offered escapes from the daunting new realities of turn-of-the-century urban America and represented an earlier innocence that the automobile now placed within reach.
Promoters quickly saw the potential in touring. "The automobile," Horseless Age predicted in 1901, "will, in a measure, bring back the times of yore when the wayside inn flourished and the stage coach was the vehicle of interurban communication. To-day stage coach travel would have no fascination for anyone, although it has its good points. The bad points are practically all absent when traveling in private automobiles, and for this reason we expect to see automobile touring become one of the most popular pastimes in America within the next few years." This prediction was fully realized. The first purchasers of automobiles invariably took off for the countryside, not only to speed where they could, but also to explore a new world. Speeding and touring-often combined-constituted the twin pleasures that sold wealthy Americans on the first automobiles. Both pursuits provided those who could afford automobiles an irresistible source of pleasure as well as adventure.
Along with the thrill of speed, touring confirmed early American automobile owners' preference for large, powerful cars. They found large cars necessary to carry passengers, of course, but the longer wheelbase also made for a smoother and safer ride on the wretched backcountry roads. The greater weight required greater engine power, and the conditions of the roads demanded even more. But the American preference for large, fast, powerful touring cars, especially of the popular open tonneau style with low sides, is a reminder that the point of touring was not merely to see but also to be seen. Whether they drove cars or fixed them, other people saw them with their autos. No doubt, they preferred to be seen riding, if not speeding, in them, but being seen fixing them provided satisfactions as well. Only a public failure to fix the vehicle and the need to ask for help brought embarrassment.
Automotive historian Gijs Mom has called the automobile an "individual adventure machine," an apt description and reminder that the automobile was far more than merely an improved form of transportation for its earliest users. To appreciate this description requires underscoring the link between adventure and a new conception of manhood at the turn of the twentieth century. Noting that adventurous young men pioneered both bicycles and automobiles, Mom showed that bicycling had its subcultures of racing and touring, as well as its mechanical challenges to test the rider's skill. The automobile offered intensified experiences in each of these areas for men to distinguish themselves further from their more timid fellows. There could be no adventure without risk and no distinction without accepting the risk and successfully demonstrating oneself the master of the technology in public.
Bicycle and electric vehicle maker Albert Pope famously derided the gasoline-powered automobile, arguing that "you can't get people to sit over an explosion." But he misunderstood the people who bought automobiles. Internal combustion engines appealed to Vanderbilt and the speeding sportsmen for precisely that reason. They used large, powerful gasoline-fueled automobiles to set themselves apart and to communicate the message that they were privileged men-that it took money, skill, and "balls" to drive an automobile. Americans got the message.
"No American sport ... has ever enlisted so much power and money," the Washington Post wrote of the automobile in 1902. "No other sport, bar none, has ever aroused such direct personal antagonism. No other sport has come so surely to stay, and no sport in its very beginning has ever promised so surely to become a matter of vital concern for the whole country." The introduction of a major new consumer product can cause turbulence. When it is a highly appealing, expensive, and publicly used product with strong class and gender associations, it can also be socially destabilizing. Suddenly, one group in society enjoys a new set of pleasurable experiences while everyone else does not. For the have-nots the result can be discomfort, since the high cost of the product prevents them from acting on their desire to have it. Class distinctions suddenly become painfully obvious. The speeding millionaire sportsmen so effectively demonstrated and publicized the speed and power of the automobile that its introduction had an "in-your-face" quality. Their behavior aroused strong emotions in other Americans, provoking a bitter reaction while also stoking the desire of millions to own an automobile, too.
A century later, Americans, if they had any inkling of a negative reaction against the automobile in its first years, knew only the jibe "Get a horse!" that called to mind shortsighted, antimodern rubes who failed to recognize the automobile's obvious potential utility. These skeptics, so the usual story goes, soon came around. Yet in fact, many people reacted to the automobile with intense anger, and even acts of violence-often tinged with class hostility-that were conveniently forgotten in the post-Model T democratization of American automobility. "The aggressive and drastic opposition ...," observed the Washington Post at the time, "is unique in the history of the development of any new sport in this country." This reaction had little or nothing to do with a preindustrial mindset or the knee-jerk rejection of a new technology. Far from it. Nearly all Americans initially reacted favorably to the automobile, saw its potential, and viewed its future with optimism. But many resented how the new technology was introduced by the wealthy. More to the point, they disliked what being automobileless said about their status. Americans have repressed this part of the story.
The automobile may have been the plaything of the wealthy, but it was not something that they played with at home. To indulge in the twin pleasures of speeding and touring, they took their vehicles out on the public streets and roads with everyone else. Here the problems began. By far the biggest one derived from the automobile's greatest pleasure: speeding. As early as November 1900, the editors of Horseless Age warned their readers that "the need of reasonable consideration on the part of automobilists in the matter of speed is a thing that cannot too often be insisted on. Both on account of runaways of horses and because of the apparent danger to pedestrians, the public sentiment aroused by the apparent disregard of others' rights on the road is very apt to find expression in legislation quite unnecessarily oppressive." The magazine's warnings made little headway; the mania among wealthy Americans for automobile speed waxed unabated.
More than anything, the attitude that accompanied the speeding outraged the public. "There is plenty of reckless driving which endangers no one but the foolhardy chauffeurs [that is, drivers] themselves," the editors at rival magazine Automobile noted, "but with it is an appalling amount of cold-blooded, deliberate disregard ... of the rights of other users of the road.... Every suburban road has seen the motor hogs who refuse to give half the road, and force horse drivers, and even cyclists, into the ditch." "The abuse of powerful signaling horns," wrote Horseless Age, "has perhaps done as much as anything to stir up opposition to the automobile in country and fashionable residence districts. Who has not at one time or another seen an automobilist speeding along the road at an illegal rate, continually tooting his horn as a signal for other road users to clear the way? The practice savors of a spirit of arrogance or domination, and is resented by all who are annoyed by it." Legislators responded quickly by imposing speed limits in the northeastern states. This legislation, as many of the automobile's boosters rightly sensed, was a kind of "class legislation" intended to put the wealthy speeders in their place, but that task proved exceedingly difficult. If William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., can be called the father of Americans' love of automobile speed and power, he should also be remembered as the father of the American speed limit, traffic fine, license plate, and revocable driver's license-successive steps taken in an escalating battle to curb speeding.
Excerpted from Auto Mania by Tom McCarthy Copyright © 2007 by Tom McCarthy. Excerpted by permission.
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Introduction: The Great Experiment
1 The Arrogance of Wealth 1
2 Foresight and Emotion 16
3 A Monstrously Big Thing 30
4 An Industrial Epic 55
5 The Death and Afterlife of Automobiles 77
6 Cadillacs and Community 99
7 Disenchanted with Detroit 130
8 If We Can Put a Man on the Moon 148
9 The One Who Got It 176
10 Out of My Dead Hands 193
11 Small Was Beautiful 207
12 The Riddle of the Sport Utility Vehicle 231