Divorce Your Car!: Ending the Love Affair With the Automobileby Katie Alvord
Alvord's perceptive gloss of the late, great, 20th century's pitiful auto intoxication is a fascinating read and a stunning contradiction of the fatuity that technology is neutral. Her gathering of stories illuminates the existence of a vital planet-wide, counter-car-culture. Witty, substantial and penetrating, Divorce Your Car! is a mighty persuasive job of/i>
Alvord's perceptive gloss of the late, great, 20th century's pitiful auto intoxication is a fascinating read and a stunning contradiction of the fatuity that technology is neutral. Her gathering of stories illuminates the existence of a vital planet-wide, counter-car-culture. Witty, substantial and penetrating, Divorce Your Car! is a mighty persuasive job of work.?Stephanie Mills, from the Foreword
Our romance with cars, begun with enthusiasm more than 100 years ago, has in fact become a very troubled entanglement. Today's relationship with the automobile inflicts upon us pollution, noise, congestion, sprawl, big expenses, injury, and even death. Yet we continue to live with cars at a growing cost to ourselves and the environment.
What can people do about this souring affair? Divorce your car! Re-meet your feet, board a bike, take a train, pull out of this dysfunctional relationship with the automobile! Divorcing your car can take many forms, from simply using it less to not owning one at all. This practical guide shows how divorcing a car can be fun, healthy, money-saving, and helpful to the planet in the process.
Most other transportation reform books emphasize long-range political and economic policy. Divorce Your Car! speaks less about policy and more about realistic actions that individuals can take now to reduce their car-dependence. It encourages readers to change their own driving behavior without waiting for broader social change, stressing that individual action can drive social change.
Car-dependency is a serious problem, but Divorce Your Car! is leavened with love-affair and self-help analogies in the text as well as cartoon illustrations. From commuters crazed by congestion and soccer moms sick of chauffeuring, to environmentalists looking for auto alternatives?Divorce Your Car! provides all the reasons not to drive and the many alternative ways we can all get around without our cars.
Table of Contents
Introduction PART 1: LOVE'S BEEN BLIND: HOW WE ENDED UP MARRIED TO CARS
1: Falling Head Over Wheels: The Advent of Cars
2: Other Suitors Drop by the Wayside: The Decline of Non-Car Transport
3: The Possessive Auto Takes Over the Lands
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Read an Excerpt
Falling Head Over Wheels:
The Advent of Cars
"If you're married, there'll have been times when
you've said to yourself, `Why the hell did I do it?'"
GEORGE ORWELL, COMING UP FOR AIR
In 1882, German engine-builder Karl Benz took his fledgling internal combustion carriage out for a spin on the streets of Stuttgart. He was promptly arrested. Benz, though, did not let apprehension by the law stand in his way. Once home in Mannheim, he did the same thing as many young lovers forbidden from flirtation: he snuck out at night for testing trysts with his experimental auto. About the same time and also in Germany, engineer Gottlieb Daimler began pursuing his own dalliance with the car, building four prototypes between 1885 and 1889. Benz was first to announce a car for sale, advertising his gasoline-powered three-wheeler in an 1888 prospectus claiming the vehicle posed "no danger whatever" French agents, entranced by automobility, soon started selling Benz buggies and cars with Daimler engines to wealthy Parisians who used them for status-displaying promenades along the Champs d'Elysees. And across the Atlantic, an 1889 Scientific American article on the Benz car caught the rapt eyes of American inventors who'd been toying with their own steam-, electric-, and gasoline-powered versions of the horseless carriage.
The 19th century had already seen major changes in human travel. Passenger trains started running in 1825 in England, quickly spreading to other countries. Cable carsand then electric trolleys came to cities in the 1870s and 1880s, soon carrying loads of urban passengers. When bicycles showed up around the same time, the public marveled at the personal freedom they allowed. Expectations of travel changed; horizons broadened. Then cars motored into the mix. Even before Daimler and Benz began romancing the car, several other inventors had dabbled with "locomobility," though reactions to these early experiments were often less than enchanted. Several places, including New York and Chicago, banned self-propelled vehicles for periods in the 19th century. In 1865, an alarmed British Parliament passed the Red Flag Act, placing two- to four-m.p.h, speed limits on "road locomotives" and requiring they be preceded by a walking attendant carrying a red flag. When Siegfried Marcus tested a motorized handcart on Austrian roads, he was called a public nuisance and sent home by police. In France, Count Albert de Dion developed a steam quadricycle; when he tried to produce it commercially, his own father won a court order to restrain him.
By the 1890s, though, public response began to shift. In 1893, cars displayed at Chicago's Columbian Exposition got scant attention. But in 1895, the first auto road races began to turn heads. A French car took only 48 hours to complete a 732-mile course from Paris to Bordeaux and back, averaging an astounding 15 miles per hour. Later that year, the Chicago Times-Herald sponsored a race which got publicity perhaps more dramatic than the contest itself; after several postponements, the cars finally ran in a snowstorm and only two finished the course. Still, newspapers worldwide trumpeted excited race reports, and the public began to swoon. French motoring enthusiasts founded the Automobile Club of France. The British, eager to pursue their own auto romance at faster than four m.p.h., lobbied to repeal the Red Flag Act and succeeded the following year. The flow of motor-vehicle-related applications into the U.S. Patent Office accelerated, growing to 500 on file by September 1895. That same year, Thomas Edison told reporters: "The horseless vehicle is the coming wonder." By the end of the century, scores of small carmakers in France and the U.S. made those nations the world's two top auto producers the love affair with the car was underway.
In many ways our romance with the car has followed a pattern common to human courtship, something we might call "The Early Flash of Insight that Soon Gets Forgotten." It happens when you meet someone, feel some attraction, and go out, but early on a red flag goes up and you have an intuitive flash that this person is unsuitable for long-term partnership. At first, the headiness of attraction leads you to forget this insight. You go out again and pretty soon have a full-fledged relationship on your hands, maybe even marriage. Eventually, though, the relationship develops problems for the very reason you foresaw. At this point you remember your insight with a big, loud "Oh, yeah," and re-examine why you ever got involved in the first place.
We are now collectively at this stage with the car. Some of us, in fact, have been asking: How did we end up married to motor vehicles? Many factors led us down the aisle desires for improved independent mobility, idealism about the changes cars might bring, and fascination with automotive technology among them but as they did, we lost sight of some initial red flags. Maybe we dismissed bad news that might have interfered with the infatuation, maybe encouragement of the love affair by media, industry, and government policies distracted us from drawbacks that might otherwise have cooled our automotive ardor. Whatever the case, what's interesting is just how many early warnings there were about motor vehicles, and how frequently we seem to have forgotten them. As this chapter explores the early romance, it serves in part as a reminder a kind of "Oh, yeah" that although cars can be quite seductive, we've known on some level from the beginning that they'd be problematic as a long-term love match.
Love Letters to the Car
"From the outset of its diffusion in the United States," writes historian James Flink, "the motor vehicle was given extensive and overwhelmingly favorable coverage in popular periodicals coverage well beyond what an objective appraisal of the innovation's importance and potential at the time could have justified." He adds: "Close cooperation between the press and the automobile industry was established early." Besides the races co-sponsored by carmakers and the press, one famous early collaboration was that of car-builder Alexander Winton and Cleveland reporter Charles B. Shanks. In 1899, Winton took an auto-endurance trip from Cleveland to New York with Shanks in tow; around a million people saw them motor into New York, and the reporter's dramatic dispatches got credit for bringing these crowds. Others, too, credit the press with much of the early positive attention paid to cars. Historian Kenneth Richardson describes the British press as "one of the most powerful auxiliary forces in forwarding the development of motoring." The same was apparently true in France, where enthusiasts could choose from 25 different car publications by 1900.
Many early reports about cars glowed with enthusiasm. "With the glitter of polished nickel and the sheen of many-colored enamels," wrote the New York Times in November 1900, "the first show of the Automobile Club of America was opened last night at Madison Square Garden." The next day, the paper gushed about the "never-ending whirl of animation" and "sweeping curves of the self-propelled vehicles" displayed at the show. Such early descriptions of autos abound with the language of love. Motor World wrote of the automobile's "charm"; a 1900 Scientific American article waxed eloquent about the "great beauty" of one car and the "distinctive details ... dear to the heart" in another.
The press helped the public open its arms to cars even before many cars were built. When Horseless Age premiered in 1895, pre-dating the U.S. auto industry, its editors wrote: "The appearance of a journal devoted to a branch of industry yet in an embryonic state, may strike some as premature." But, the magazine said of the impending auto, "the growing needs of our civilization demand it; the public believe in it, and await with lively interest its practical application to the daily business of the world." If people needed cars, though, not everyone knew it at that time. In 1896, at the first U.S. auto track races, bored spectators invented the cry "Get a horse!" and left in disgust.
Press descriptions of the car's unending benefits continued nevertheless.
* It is the greatest health-giving invention of a thousand years," Frank Munsey wrote in 1903.
* Car trips were considered good for the liver and were prescribed to treat tuberculosis; a New York City health commissioner wrote that drivers got "actual physical exercise" from "the slight, but purposeful effort demanded in swinging the steering wheel."
* Driving offered "a brisk activization of the entire organism," advised a German writer.
* In cities and towns the noise and clatter of the streets will be reduced, a priceless boon to the tired nerves of this overwrought generation," forecast Horseless Age in 1895. And, the magazine claimed, "streets will be cleaner, jams and blockades less likely to occur, and accidents less frequent."
* Scientific American predicted in 1899 that cars would "eliminate a greater part of the nervousness, distraction, and strain of modern metropolitan life."
Replacing horses with motors did solve some problems, among them that of city streets filled with manure. But many early writers also believed cars would make families closer, resolve overcrowding and pollution in cities, save money, eliminate class distinctions, and abolish slums.
* They idealized commuting by car: "Imagine a healthier race of workingmen ... who, in the late afternoon, glide away in their own comfortable vehicles to their little farms or homes in the country or by the sea twenty or thirty miles distant! They will be healthier, happier, more intelligent and self-respecting citizens."
* They lauded cars as generators of serenity, forgiving less gentle attributes: "Instead of being a disturber of the peace, the automobile encourages the calm pleasures of repose and reflection. To be sure it is an occasional breaker of bones; but that is due alone to man's propensity to blunder."
* They predicted cars would enhance access to fresh air: "The possession of a car ... Think of what it means, Every friend within 3,000 square miles can be visited, any place of worship or lecture or concert attended ... and with it all fresh air inhaled under exhilarating conditions."
* The car, echoed Country Life in 1911, "has brought God's green fields and pure air seemingly nearer."
By 1906, magazines frequently referred to cars as necessities. In 1907, Harper's Weekly stated as "fact" that "the automobile is essential to comfort and happiness" (perhaps helping readers realize they'd been uncomfortable and unhappy until the late 19th century). Composers began writing love songs about cars. "Come away with me Lucille, in my merry Oldsmobile," urged 1905's most popular tune. "The automobile is the idol of the modern age," commented one writer praising the car's romantic utility. "The man who owns a motorcar ... is a god to the women." Others claimed religious benefits for cars, as when E.C. Stokes declared, "Next to the church there is no factor in American life that does so much for the morals of the public as does the automobile ... If every family in the land possessed an automobile ... many of the problems of social unrest would be happily resolved ... The automobile is one of the country's best ministers, and best preachers."
The Romance Heats Up
In 1900, bike and carmaker Col. Albert Pope declared his 15,000 dealers were "fairly howling" for cars in response to "enormous demand." A few years later, Ford Motor Company investor John W. Anderson wrote his father: "Now the demand for automobiles is a perfect craze." By 1901, 130 car manufacturers clustered around Paris; by 1905, 280 had started in Britain; from 1900 to 1908, 485 companies entered the U.S. auto business. There was money to be made there, and since early auto builders bought components from parts makers and assembled cars instead of constructing them from scratch, it was easy to get started without much capital. Car sales skyrocketed, especially in the U.S. where motor vehicle registrations swelled from 8,000 in 1900 to more than 458,000 by 1910.
Around the turn of the century, steam, electric, and internal-combustion cars all received about equal attention from carmakers and the public. But developments like Texas oil discoveries and Detroit carmakers' use of gasoline power helped internal combustion pull ahead of the pack. As gasoline cars gained ground, the U.S. made advances in mass production and overtook France in 1904 to become the world's top auto producer. Low raw materials costs, the world's best machine tool industry, and favorable tariffs all fostered the auto industry in the U.S., which also had the world's biggest market for cars with its sizable middle class living in communities dispersed over a large area. The Ford Motor Company played crucial roles both in expanding U.S. car production and in encouraging mass consumption of cars, by mass-producing inexpensive Model Ts in 1908, then making them even cheaper in 1913 by using a moving assembly line. Cars rolled off the line at the astonishing speed of one every three minutes. Mesmerized by mass production and agog with the affordability it gave the Model T, the public flocked to dealers. By 1920, fully half the world's motor vehicles were Model T Fords. Model T sales sparked car cultures in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, too, where as in the U.S. long distances between communities and relatively high, equitably distributed incomes encouraged car sales.
As production picked up in the U.S. and Canada, car culture in North America and Europe began to diverge. While Europe imposed horsepower taxes, the U.S. had none; North America had cheaper, more plentiful gasoline; and both factors promoted the manufacture of more powerful but less efficient engines in the U.S. and Canada. Industrial culture also differed; American carmakers focused on quantity while Europeans retained a labor-intensive, quality-oriented but low-volume production style. And U.S. carmakers were more aggressive than Europeans about not only satisfying car demand, but expanding it. By lowering prices on mass-produced vehicles like the Model T, paying auto workers wages that helped them afford cars, advertising extensively, and selling cars on buy-now-pay-later plans more widely available than in Europe, U.S. carmakers induced more and more consumers to desire and buy cars. As of a few years after World War I, auto manufacturing was North America's top industry and the power and wealth of the auto business had become immense.
Letters Not So Lovely
Despite automotive attractions and amorous write-ups, dissatisfaction with cars crept into the early romance, hinting of conflicts to come. Sometimes short-term solutions reduced these problems, but from the perspective of decades later, it's clear that few of them went away for good.
Early road rage: "Never in my life have I been cursed at so frequently as on my automobile trip in the year 1902," wrote Otto Bierbaum of his journey between Berlin and Italy. "Every German dialect from Berlin through Dresden, Vienna, and Munich to Bolzano was represented, as well as all the idioms of the Italian language ... not to mention all the wordless curses: shaking fists, stuck-out tongues, bared behinds, and others besides." Early driving habits often gave reason for anger. Some road rudeness occurred between drivers such as leaving another motorist in one's dust (and in those days the dust was considerable) but most took place between drivers and non-drivers. A French pedestrian wrote this open letter to the Parisian Chief of Police in 1896:
Yesterday evening at six o'clock on the rue de Courcelles, I, my wife, and my children were nearly run over by a gentleman in an automobile who came racing by at the speed of a train ... I must count myself among those who believe there is no safety anymore on the streets of Paris ... From this day on I shall carry a revolver in my pocket whenever I go out, and I will shoot at the next crazy idiot who tries to flee after he was on the verge of running over my family and me.
After this ran in Parisian papers, the French car magazine La Locomotion Automobile fired back. If pedestrians armed themselves with revolvers, it wrote, drivers would carry machine guns.
M.M. Musselman, writing of a 1904 trip in his father's horseless carriage, recounts: "We overtook prancing horses that sometimes veered off in terror; we passed the Del Prado Hotel ... where an old gentleman shouted imprecations and shook his cane at us as we chugged too close to his coattails; and finally we passed a bicycle cop who gave us a severe warning to slow down to ten miles per hour." Of another ride, he recalls:
We encountered a skittish horse attached to a rather elegant-looking surrey. The horse reared up on its hind legs and backed the surrey sidewise across the road. In a twinkling father swung the Marmon off the road and through a barbed-wire fence. Then instead of slowing down, he plowed through a cornfield for a hundred feet, then finally swung back through the fence and regained the road.
Little wonder that Overland Monthly wrote in 1909 that "it is no secret that the average farmer has more or less antipathy for the motorist." A speaker at 1905's National Grange meeting gave reasons for this aversion: "Accidents of the most shocking nature have been of common occurrence. In some sections of the country travel upon the country roads [with horses] has been reduced to the driving absolutely necessary, cutting out all [horse and buggy] pleasure driving." Touring cars that began cruising country roads in the summer of 1904 further outraged farmers by frightening livestock and raising dust, which damaged crops and dirtied clean laundry on the line. Auto tourists also trespassed and plucked farmers' fruits for picnics. Some country residents responded with hostility. In parts of the U.S. and Canada, they tossed broken glass and nails onto roads to ruin cars' tires. Farmers near Rochester, Minnesota, plowed their roads so a car couldn't travel them but a horse and buggy could. Ohio farmers threatened to boycott businesses whose owners purchased automobiles. New Jersey farmers passed a resolution withholding support from any car-owning political candidate.
The antipathy was intense, but ultimately farmers began defecting from these car wars. As low-cost cars became available, they got their own Model Ts and began using them for trips to town and market. Reports of automotive animosity, for the time being, faded.
Rich vs. poor: Early on, the car served mainly as a dalliance for the upper class. Well-to-do sportsmen, engineers, and businessmen became the first car buyers in most countries. Doctors, too, were among early auto-buyers, as cars provided fast transport to medical emergencies. Coming after railroads, cars acquired what Wolfgang Sachs calls "a restorative significance" for the rich. The train, he writes, had threatened the wealthy's sense of place and power: "What the common people welcomed as a democratic advance, individuals of more privileged position greeted with a snort." Indeed, the Duke of Wellington expressed disapproval of railroads in 1855, saying "they only encourage common people to move around needlessly." The automobile, though, was welcomed by the rich, who "used its speed and power to display their social superiority," Sachs adds. The automobile "served better than any other object as a status symbol, because by its very nature it commanded public attention: one drove on the streets in clear view of everyone."
Not only were the less fortunate reminded publicly of their poverty when wealthy motorists drove by, but cars also began taking some of what little they did have: public street space. In places, lower-class resentment of autos and their owners inspired stone-throwing sprees. In some New York neighborhoods in 1904, stone-throwing at motorists became so rampant that the city called out special police to stop it. In 1906, Princeton University president Woodrow Wilson expressed concern that automobiles allowed their owners to display wealth so ostentatiously, the poor would be driven past envy to socialism.
This split between rich and poor was mitigated as low-cost cars emerged. There continued to be those who couldn't afford cars, but as auto ownership grew, their voices faded.
Dominating the streetscape, changing the landscape: As people noticed cars taking over public streets, some objected. In 1903 British Parliament minister Cathcart Watson harangued motorists for presuming "the right to drive the public off the roads. Harmless men, women and children, dogs and cattle, had all got to fly for their lives at the bidding of one of these slaughtering, stinking engines of iniquity." In 1912, Austrian Dr. Michael Freiherr von Pidoll wrote:
Where does the motorist get the right "to master" as he boasts the street? It in no way belongs to him, but to the population as a whole ... Automobile traffic in its present-day form involves, as we have seen, the constant endangerment of passersby or other vehicles, as well as a severe infringement on those community relations that correspond to an advanced culture.
Parked cars, too, created problems. By 1916, Automobile magazine lamented that "the parking problem" in cities was every day growing "more acute ... We are facing something which was never foreseen in the planning of our towns, a thing which has come upon us so swiftly that there has been no time to grasp the immensity of the problem till we are almost overcome by it." By the 1920s, parked cars filled 30 percent of Washington, D.C.'s downtown street space.
Those fed up with car-induced urban problems could, of course, use cars to get out of cities and, at first, many apparently agreed with demographer Adna Ferrin Weber's 1898 remark that "the `rise of the suburbs' is by far the most cheering movement of modern times." But by the 1920s, drivers began to shun auto problems even as the populace became more auto-dependent. House buyers sought and paid more for homes on quiet, narrow streets to avoid wider car-filled boulevards. And commentators like conservationist Benton MacKaye began to complain: "The motor slum in the open country is today as massive a piece of defilement as the worst of the old-fashioned urban industrial slums."
Rattletraps and repairs: Early cars required repairs so often it became the topic of songs: "He'd Have to Get Under, Get Out and Get Under (To Fix Up His Automobile)," crooned one popular early-20th-century ballad. The wealthy handled frequent repairs with chauffeurs who served as mechanics. Until a repair industry developed, other motorists corrected mechanical maladies themselves or hoped to find a progressive blacksmith or bicycle engineer. Flats and punctures were so common that turn-of-the-century motorists went through an average 37.5 tires each year. Other problems arose, too, as recorded in this motor-diary entry about a 1903 drive through North Wales:
Left Menai 9 a.m. Called at Bangor for a new tyre, could not get one: ran over a sheep: at Bethesda changed gears so rapidly that I broke the connecting rod of the steering gear: being at the top of a long hill there was nothing for it but to go down the hill backwards in the hope of getting to the bottom alive, and finding a blacksmith: this was done ... after wait of 21/2 hours blacksmith finished his job, but the product of his labour was 1/16th of an inch too small: waited another 21/2 hours ...
Early cars were also uncomfortable, "intended evidently for people with rubber back bones," wrote Booth Tarkington in 1903. Drivers and passengers wore layers of protective clothes to ward off discomfort. Tarkington also recorded the typical exhaustion of travelers after auto journeys; once arriving at hotels, they "retired instantly to bed and did not rise again until noon of the next day."
Why not give it up after all this trouble? For one thing, some clever entrepreneurs turned car problems into opportunities: not long into the 20th century, support industries evolved to compensate for driving's discomforts. Yet while new technologies eased driving somewhat, car maintenance and repairs continued to be time-consuming. But perhaps many motorists felt like Rudyard Kipling when in 1904 he wrote, "I like motoring because I have suffered for its sake."
Speed and carnage: Early auto magazines admitted motorists were obsessed with speed. Speed limits were frequently broken, and authorities soon established speed traps. Early speedsters often disregarded traffic cops' summons to stop; in Chicago, the situation became so bad that policemen began shooting at drivers who ignored speed traps. Beyond such cat-and-mouse games, speed had serious consequences. Road races horrified many with their carnage. The 1903 Paris-Madrid-Paris race killed five drivers and several spectators; labeled the "Race of Death," it was canceled before completion. Every-day driving took its toll, too. As car use grew, newspapers carried reports of serious crashes nearly every day. In 1908, Horseless Age rationalized: "When the speed craze dies out ... accidents will become so rare as to stamp the automobile the very safest of road vehicles." The very next year, though, the magazine admitted "the `automobile hazard' is not likely to decline."
Non-motorists, fearing for their safety, began deserting the streets. No wonder: by 1924, cars killed over 20,000 people a year in the U.S., almost half of them children. Another 700,000 were injured, and over a billion dollars in property was damaged. Auto death rates went from 1.8 per 100,000 in 1910 to 26.0 per 100,000 in 1929. Cars slaughtered animals, too, in great numbers: a 1924 Iowa investigation found 225 roadkills of 29 wild and domestic species on one 632-mile journey. But over time, habituation to driving's dangers seemed to set in. Ultimately, safety improvements shaved down crash and death rates, but absolute numbers of deaths and injuries have remained high.
Traffic congestion: As some journals championed cars as a cure for road congestion, others noticed they didn't quite work that way. Experience soon showed that cars clogged roads as much as other vehicles. Traffic jams became "the norm" by 1912, probably earlier in some places. By the 1920s, congestion dropped speeds on New York's Fifth Avenue to under four miles per hour; in Atlanta, merchants complained congestion was causing a decline in downtown business.
Bigger roads were quickly proclaimed the answer, but some noticed that didn't work either. As early as 1907, a writer in the Municipal Journal and Engineer observed that, though early road-widening projects had been expected to relieve congestion, "the result has appeared to be exactly the opposite." As pieces of the coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway were built across the U.S. in the teens and twenties, recounts one history, "each improvement stimulated traffic; motorists making up that traffic compared improved with unimproved sections of highway and demanded more improvements, which brought more traffic, and so on, down to the present and seemingly on to an indefinite date in the future." In 1916, Woodrow Wilson commented that burgeoning numbers of U.S. motorists "use [roads] up almost as fast as we make them." Road-building not only failed to keep up with quick growth in car numbers; as paving accelerated, it encouraged more car-buying and driving. As historian John Rae observed, the building of new streets and highways to accommodate cars touched off "a race between road and vehicle that is still in progress, with the vehicle consistently ahead."
Fouling the air: In 1896, electric-car maker Pedro Salom wrote that "all the gasoline motors we have seen belch forth from their exhaust pipe a continuous stream of partially unconsumed hydrocarbons in the form of a thick smoke with a highly noxious odor. Imagine thousands of such vehicles on the streets, each offering up its column of smell!" Even General Motors founder W.C. Durant called gasoline cars "noisy and smelly" at one point. As early as 1912, Country Life in America wrote: "Physicians are now announcing that the opaque smoke exhausted from the rear of some automobiles is not only nauseating, but that large quantities of it are actually dangerous to the health of the community." Adding to farmers' complaints of crop damage, doctors reported that road dust, too, was bad for health in that it increased throat and eye infections. Eye drops were advertised as "a tonic for the `auto eye'."
In 1904 an Austrian anti-pollution cartoon showed a pedestrian wearing an elaborate gas mask to navigate through the dust-and-exhaust clouds left by a motorcar. "Wandering machines, traveling with an incredible rate of speed, scramble and smash and shriek along all the rural ways," bemoaned C.F.G. Masterman in The Condition of England 1909. "You can see evidence of their activity in the dust-laden hedges of the south country roads, a grey mud colour, with no evidence of green." Even drivers admitted to this side effect:
What a dust storm we stirred up leaving Italy! ... Georg raced along, demanding from the car all it had to give ... and behind us there swelled a colossal cone ... We outraged the pedestrians with a gas attack their faces pulled into a single grimace and we left them behind in a world without definition, in which the fields and the trees in the distance had lost all color to a dry layer of powder.
As paved roads became more common, dust problems dropped from view. Though concern over car exhaust continued, it was vastly overshadowed as a pollutant by industrial smokestacks. While some continued to complain of reeking gasoline fumes, no campaign against them mounted until decades later.
Money: When it came to money and cars, love was especially blind. Many publications extolled the money-saving qualities of motor vehicles, even when new cars, priced from $1,000 to $5,000, cost about ten times more than a good horse. "Any man who can afford a horse can better afford an automobile," wrote Horseless Age in 1903. "So far as we can at present see, the displacement of the horse will cheapen living and travel, certainly not increase them," said another writer that year in the Independent. Yet later, after more people had actually used and maintained cars, stories changed. "According to my experience and that of my friends," one driver wrote in 1906, "it is impossible to maintain an automobile as cheaply as horses ..." In 1909, when cars cost about five times what a horse did, the "indefinite" life of cars argued for their economy, said Country Life in America. Actually, cars lasted only around five years on average at that time.
As automobile owners began realizing that cars often cost more than a horse and carriage, they seemed to slip blithely into denial. They ignored comparative costs and focused instead on economies stemming from the car's speed, endurance, and range. Car buyers also overlooked the fact that economies only applied if one drove many miles, but at that time average families did not travel by horse and buggy enough to actually save money by purchasing a car. Even the costs of going into debt to purchase cars were overlooked, as a 1907 committee report from a Pittsburgh women's club complained: "So mad has the race for social supremacy become ... that owners of houses are mortgaging them in order to buy as many and as speedy automobiles as their neighbors. Extravagance is reckless and something must be done before utter ruin follows in the wake of folly." In 1908, another car critic noted that "many who never felt that they were in a position to purchase a horse and carriage ... now indulge in automobiles costing several thousand dollars originally ... A resident of Boston said a year ago that one would be astonished to know the number of second mortgages that had been placed upon houses in the vicinity of his city to enable the owners to procure cars." As historian James Flink observes, this was "indeed a strange outcome from the adoption of an innovation whose advocates had praised economy as one of its main advantages."
Through at least 1910, there was little public discussion of potential collective costs of mass conversion to private car ownership, or of the possibility that the total spent on roads, fuel, and cars per person could well exceed what might otherwise need to be spent by society on rail and mass transit. By 1933, however, the President's Research Committee on Social Trends recognized that the "taking to wheels of an entire population had a profound effect on the aggregate burden of taxation." By that time, though, the idea that cars provided cheap transport had become too ingrained to be dislodged by any government report.
The Crash of a Whirlwind Courtship
As love-struck auto buyers continued to disregard discouraging words about the car, the 1920s roared with the sound of millions of new internal combustion vehicles in an auto-induced boom especially intense in the U.S. From 1920 to October 1929, the country's motor vehicle registrations nearly tripled from ten to 26.7 million. But some believe, as James Flink writes, that the automobile boom "sowed the seeds of its own demise." Flink argues:
Mass motorization played a key role in creating the most important necessary conditions underlying the Depression ... The steep decline in aggregate spending evident by the late 1920s ... can be shown to have resulted from the economic dislocations that were an essential ingredient of the automobile boom, and from the inevitable drying up of that boom.
One contributor to these economic dislocations was the shift from savings and cash purchases to buying on credit. Cars more than any other product led to the abandonment of thrift as a value, generating unprecedented growth in credit purchases; before 1920, few items had been bought this way. Installment buying for cars, first offered by French banks in 1906, spread to U.S. banks in 1910. Then, despite a 1916 National Auto Chamber of Commerce proclamation calling installment plans unethical, car companies followed banks into the financing business, making car loans even easier to obtain and expanding the market for cars. General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC) was founded in 1919 and wrote $2 million in car loans within a year. By the mid-twenties, an estimated 75 percent of new cars across the country were bought using loans and installment plans. The National Association of Credit Men, concerned that too much was being spent on cars, passed a resolution condemning the growth of car sales on credit.
Government, too, was spending more on cars. Road construction absorbed increasing amounts of government budgets at all levels, finally becoming the second-largest category of public expenditure for the `20s. In 1929, U.S. government expenditures on roads totaled $2.237 billion but revenues collected from various special motor vehicle taxes came to only $849 million, requiring about 62 percent of road spending to come from other sources. Cars helped drive us further into debt, writes M.M. Musselman, at many levels:
The automobile became the biggest customer of the coal and iron mines, the steel mills, the plate-glass and the rubber factories and many others. When the motor companies borrowed money to expand in order to build more cars, all the companies that supplied them had to do the same. In addition we built roads and filling stations and suburbs at a terrific pace all on the installment plan to take care of the growing auto industry. And the more people there were who had cars, the more there were who needed them, or thought they did. When, finally, almost everybody owed money to a bank or a finance company and almost every business was expanding on borrowed money or floating stock issues to meet the demands of this constantly expanding credit the actual cash money of the land was spread mighty thin. The place where it was spread thinnest of all was in Wall Street.
Adding fuel to the fire, the auto industry vastly expanded advertising within the decade and became one of the heaviest users of ad space in magazines, newspapers, and other media. Just in magazines, auto ad spending went from $3.5 million in 1921 to over $9 million in 1927. "Advertising," writes James Flink, "also undoubtedly helped push automobile sales beyond the bounds of sanity in the 1920s."
As all this car-buying saturated the market, many carmakers acted as if the boom would never end and overproduced heavily in the late 1920s. In autumn 1929 as the stock market plunged, auto sales manager Clarence Eldridge condemned his own industry for its role in the mess. In a speech to the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association, he chastised the auto business for not recognizing and "more intelligently [adjusting] production to the absorptive capacity of the market." He reproached his industry for exploiting "all of the methods, sound or unsound, which might sell new cars." He placed responsibility "with the automobile manufacturers. It is they who by their blind worship at the shrine of the goddess `quantity production,' have created this situation."
The whirlwind early car courtship ended. Luxury car sales, which had peaked at 150,000 in 1927 in the U.S., plummeted to less than 20,000 by 1933. Employment in the auto industry dropped to 40 percent of mid-1920s levels. U.S. new car production dropped 75 percent from 1929 to 1932, and a number of small car producers went out of business. During the Depression, car registrations dropped slightly in the U.S. They dropped more sharply in Canada, where farmers who couldn't afford gasoline hitched their horses to cars which had the engines removed.
But despite the crash, the car had already snared us. The auto boom, however much it contributed to the Great Depression, profoundly affected culture and economics. Of all the world's countries, the U.S. fell hardest for the car: by 1927, there was one car for every 5.3 U.S. residents. Not far behind came New Zealand, with a car for every 10.5 people; Canada, with one for each 10.7 citizens; and Australia, with one for every 16 residents. No other country at this time had more than one car for every 43 people (Argentina) or one for every 44 residents (France and Great Britain).
Automobility helped usher in consumerism, allowing the car and consumer culture to roll hand-in-hand through the rest of the 20th century. And almost without knowing it we had betrothed ourselves to the auto. As the 1933 report of the President's Research Committee on Social Trends stated: "Imperceptibly, car ownership has created an `automobile psychology.' The automobile has become a dominant influence in the life of the individual and he, in a real sense, has become dependent upon it." We were hooked, and about to get even more so.
A Quick (and Sometimes Dirty) Scrapbook of Our Affair with the Car Page Ones
1888 Berta Benz (wife of Karl) and sons make the first long motorcar trip (62 miles) pushing the car up hills and stopping for several repairs among them, Berta clears the fuel line with her hairpin and fixes an electrical short using her garters as insulating tape.
1896 Brothers J. Frank and Charles Duryea birth the U.S. auto industry, offering 13 gasoline cars for sale in Springfield, Massachusetts. Bridget Driscoll becomes the first pedestrian killed by a car in London.
1899 The Automobile Club of Great Britain hosts its first major motor show, featuring a race between a horse and a motorcycle; the horse wins.
New York realtor H.H. Bliss becomes the first U.S. auto casualty when he steps off a trolley and is run over by an electric taxi trying to pass on the right. The taxi driver is not held responsible since he attempted to stop.
1900 The first European auto movie is produced: "How It Feels To Be Run Over."
1901 Discovery of the Spindletop oil gusher in Texas ushers in an era of cheap gasoline for American internal-combustion cars; some who hear the gusher blow believe it signifies the end of the world.
1903 Nelson Jackson makes the first successful car crossing of North America, then becomes the first traffic violator in Burlington, Vermont, for exceeding the six m.p.h. speed limit.
1906 A Stanley Steamer sets a speed record, breaking 124 m.p.h., then blows up. A New York newspaper editorial warns that the car "stirs up primitive emotions."
1907 British prime minister Herbert Asquith recommends a heavy auto tax, calling the car "a luxury which is apt to degenerate into a nuisance."
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