Roadside America: The Automobile and the American Dream


As the American car rounds the bend on the twentieth century and speeds into the twenty-first, photographer Lucinda Lewis chronicles its century-long journey in Roadside America:  The Automobile and the American Dream.  From hard-tops to convertibles, headlights to tail fins, and hood ornaments to bucket seats, every remarkable feature of the American car is shown in 200 dazzling color photographs.

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As the American car rounds the bend on the twentieth century and speeds into the twenty-first, photographer Lucinda Lewis chronicles its century-long journey in Roadside America:  The Automobile and the American Dream.  From hard-tops to convertibles, headlights to tail fins, and hood ornaments to bucket seats, every remarkable feature of the American car is shown in 200 dazzling color photographs.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Andrea Sachs
These elegant images of classic cars magically transport the reader to the intersection of Nostalgia Road and Dream Drive.
Sara James
A ride through the history of the automobile—for those who lust for the open road.
In Style
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780760789896
  • Publisher: Barnes & Noble
  • Publication date: 9/27/2007
  • Pages: 272

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


AS THE NINETEENTH CENTURY METAMORPHOSED into the twentieth, America was a nation on the move. Americans were striving to be "thoroughly modern" and mobility was the centerpiece of the modern way. Migrating from foot to horse to steam train, Americans delighted in the freedom afforded by these increasingly quick forms of locomotion. The widespread introduction of the bicycle gave the individual a personal autonomy previously experienced only on horseback. With its tires and spokes, the bicycle helped spark a growing fascination with the automobile as it motored its way into our collective consciousness.

    America, widely regarded as a nation of tinkers, turned its inventiveness to the automobile in the late 1890s. Many of our best inventors (soon to become early automotive industrialists) came from the bicycle trade or such industries as gun manufacturing, with exacting technical specifications. Early automotive designs featured varied sources of propulsion: steam, gasoline, and electricity all had their proponents. Although prospective drivers were not required to pass skill tests, most states did issue driving licenses and required an owner to register his or her car. By 1900 there were eight thousand automobiles registered in the United States.

    As a potential buyer at the time, you probably read about the latest automotive developments in the newspaper. In 1901, it would have been hard to miss the publicity surrounding the new 1901 Curved Dash Oldsmobile as it journeyed from Detroit to theNew York Auto Show. The 850-mile trip took seven days: blowouts in the Olds's balloon tires were the biggest obstacle. If you were impressed by this motoring achievement and comfortably well off, you may have been enticed to order a car from your nearest dealer. Unless you lived in a town with a dealership, your car arrived by rail. Most likely you learned to drive by reading the owner's manual for the make and model of the car that you bought.

    Soon after their introduction, automobiles assumed a position they have held ever since—they conferred status. As toys for the rich they segregated those with and without money at a glance. Much of the early status of automobiles resulted from their scarcity: from 1903 to 1904, for example, there were only twenty-two Buicks built! Unless you were a doctor, your motivation for buying an automobile was probably pure pleasure. But one soon discovered it was difficult and scary to drive the ill-smelling beasts. Worst of all, you had to don a new suit of clothes for the task: from the moment you took to the road, you were enveloped in a cloud of dust and/or oil beaten up from the macadam beneath. Hats, goggles, dusters, driving gloves, and lap robes were necessary armor to face the joys and perils of the early highway.

    Road racing became increasingly popular and proved to be a great advertising device for the new automotive inventors. Henry Ford started out as one of the earliest road racers. The nascent automobile industry began staging spectacular racing events to build publicity for its wares. In 1905, Oldsmobile sent two cars to the Lewis & Clark Exposition in Portland, Oregon. And three years later, the international New York-to-Paris race attracted phenomenal interest.

    Henry Ford was eventually lured away from the racetrack and into production with a clear vision of the automobile he would build. "I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be low in price so that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one—and enjoy with his family the blessings of hours of pleasure in God's great open spaces"

    In 1908 the introduction of the Ford Model T realized Henry's dream at the astonishingly low price of $850. Ford introduced efficient assembly-line techniques and paid his workers well with the idea that they would become his best customers. He was right. As production grew, the price of the Model T fell to an astounding $250 by 1922 and Ford employees were major buyers.

    With a reliable and affordable car available at last, the middle classes took to the automobile in droves. But the highways were far from a bed of roses. Many of the early cars boasted top speeds of 60 MPH: speeding became a growing problem as traffic enforcement lagged behind the growth of the automotive culture. Most townships posted speed limits of 12 MPH, but few drivers obeyed this draconian code. Critics claimed that the automobile brought out the devil in people, pointing out that some speed-crazed individuals even took out second mortgages to buy a car.

    Roadside businesses geared to the automobile were practically nonexistent in the beginning. The local general store was your source for gasoline (costing between 6 and 18 cents per gallon in 1902), tire patch kits, and spark plugs. More complex repairs required parts from your nearest dealer, which could be a significant distance. Fortunately, many livery stable operations sensed the future overtaking them and began to act as automotive agents while still caring for the horses that were the car's main competitor until the 1920s.

    As the number of automobiles grew, curbside pumps became increasingly dangerous. Not only did the line of cars waiting by the pump cause the first traffic jams, the flammable gasoline located so close to speeding cars represented accidents just waiting to happen. In the northeast, oil companies gradually began to experiment with filling stations that would allow for a "drive-thru" situation, isolating cars getting a fill up from those passing on the street. Glass-topped pumps advertised automotive wares.

    With the flourishing middle-class increasingly ensconced in a flourishing number of automobiles, it soon became apparent that they had few places to go. Henry Ford's dream of a family enjoying "hours of pleasure in God's great open spaces" couldn't happen without roads—preferably roads that were well marked and adequately paved.

    Transportation activists conceived of the Lincoln Highway in 1912 as a way of making the automotive age a reality. By 1913 the Lincoln Highway Association had mapped the coast-to-coast route and by 1914 the "road" was a reality. The highway bisected the middle of the nation—a hodgepodge of some thirty-three hundred miles encompassing everything from swathes of newly paved macadam (in showplace areas) to eighteenth-century turnpikes and wagon-rutted dirt roads.

    Prior to the Lincoln Highway, roads often did not connect: many just petered out in remote barnyards. Few people had any idea about roads ten or twenty miles beyond where they lived. Small wonder there were fewer than 150 transcontinental trips recorded in 1913. These great adventures were acts of faith and fostered a sense of community on the open road. In spirit, they were not far removed from the courageous treks of settlers in wagon trains fifty or a hundred years before.

"I don't miss the old roads too much, but there was a different sort of camaraderie then, and many would stop to help a stranded motorist or give a lift to a hitchhiker."
—Robert Dekker, Palos Heights, Illinois

"... as we approached each other, we would stop right in the middle of the road and exchange road information, and maybe talk for a few minutes—there wasn't much traffic. If you met someone from your state you would pull over and visit for awhile."
—Herbert Reitker, Sr., La Mirada, California

"The interstates are great but I still prefer the old U.S. highways. That's the way it is with old travelers like me—we like the little towns, small town people, and `The Way it Wuz."
—Adrian J. Gebhart, Detroit, Michigan
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Table of Contents

2. ROADS ACROSS AMERICA 1916-1928 35
The Highway System is Born
Car Culture in the 1930s
4. RETOOLING FOR THE BOOM 1941-1950 90
5. THE ERA OF FLASH AND FINS 1951-1963 106
Motordom and the Middle Class
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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2000

    The Open Road Comes Alive

    Lewis captures the epic wonder, strange beauty, and raucous vitality of the American road. Her eye is attracted to the things we often notice, but seldom observe. The text is excellent, offering actual experiences of those who journeyed along these fabled highways in the past. The color photography is mouth-watering and extremely vivid (the neon practically jumps from the page), but the black and white photos are especially haunting. They explore some of the same terrain immortalized by photographers such as Robert Frank and Dorothea Lange. I noticed recently that Time and People magazines raved about this book, and for good reason. All in all, a splendid volume.

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