Last year the Washington Post carried an interesting article, “The Myth of the American Love Affair With Cars.” It quoted Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia, who says this alleged romantic relationship between American males and their tin Lizzies was actually “one of the biggest public relations coups of all time . . . always treated as folk wisdom . . . [but] everyone forgets it was invented as a public relations campaign.”
In their earliest iterations, automobiles were considered by both city-dwellers and rural folks as loud, obnoxious machines that scared horses they depended upon for transportation, endangered pedestrians and didn’t know how to share the road with streetcars, carriages and bicycles. That was bad enough; then it became necessary to upgrade the infrastructure demanded by increasing numbers of autos and multi-car families. By 1960, people became concerned that the planned interstate system was going to destroy neighborhoods (which it did). There were grassroots movements protesting the idea of altering the landscape and quality of life to accommodate all these machines. Joni Mitchell sang, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
Norton says the idea of the so-called “love affair” was coined in response to these protests. After all, how can you argue against love? In 1961 DuPont owned 23 percent of General Motors; they also sponsored a television program called the DuPont Show of the Week. So they aired an episode, narrated by Groucho Marx, titled “Merrily We Roll Along,” which purported to tell “the story of America’s love affair with the automobile.”
The WP article concludes, “In the half century since then, we have largely rebuilt American communities to accommodate this love, retrofitting cities to make space for cars, bulldozing old buildings so that we can park them, constructing new communities where it’s not possible to get around without them.”
Well, whether the human+car love affair is fact or fabrication, certainty or supposition, I know one thing is true . . . the folks in my family sure loved to pose with their wheels.