From the perspective of the twenty-first century it is hard to imagine an America without the automobile, let alone a time when it was such a wonder that it received top billing over the fat lady and the albino at the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Likewise, with a highway system that allows motorists to traverse the continent in a cocoon of climate controlled comfort it is difficult to imagine an era when a coast-to-coast drive was worthy of headlines throughout the world.
Initially even astute businessmen saw little future for the horseless carriage. Montgomery Ward is credited with saying the automobile was “something you should take the children to see before the fad passes.” But this view would be short lived—less than a decade later automotive pioneers were setting speed records approaching 150 miles per hour as well as establishing auto manufacturing and related industries at a meteoric rate.
In 1909, United States manufacturers produced 828,000 horse-drawn vehicles compared to fewer than 125,000 automobiles. By 1929 the horse drawn vehicle and its supportive infrastructure had been almost entirely swept from the stage as evidenced by the fact that in that year less than 4,000 horse-drawn vehicles were produced.
No fabric of our national identity was left unscathed. By 1920 more families had an automobile than had indoor plumbing. Farmers were set free from the constraints of rural isolation and prospered from expanded markets. Factory workers enjoying a new phenomenon, the family vacation, embarked on weeklong safaris into the countryside and sparked an explosion in tourism-related industries. Sunday drives became a national obsession. In less than a generation the nation’s entire culture was turned upside down.
The American landscape, in many places largely unchanged for a century, was transformed in the blink of an eye. In 1919 the world’s first tricolor traffic signals appeared on the streets of Detroit. In 1929, at Woodbridge, New Jersey the first cloverleaf interchange opened. By the end of the following year the federal government was averaging 10,000 miles of paved highway construction annually.
Billboards began to crowd the skyline and vacant lots blossomed with filling stations and car lots. From coast to coast and border to border a wonderful cornucopia of diners and roadside attractions vied for the attention of the increasing number of motorists. Some resembled wigwams and pagodas while others were advertisements in themselves built to resemble giant milk bottles or teapots. Even our lexicon was rewritten with words such as motel, Duesey, and road trip.
The words to jingles and slogans (“See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet,” “Ask The Man Who Owns One,” etc.) became better known than the national anthem. The automobile soon became a quintessential symbol of America and reflected the pulse of the nation.
The 1950s were a time of optimism and wild visions of the future that lay just over the horizon. The automobiles produced during this period, with their garish chrome trim and rakish fins, mirrored the mood. The 1960s can be encapsulated within the confines of a few select vehicles: the Volkswagen camper, the Pontiac GTO, the Olds Vista Cruiser wagon, and the Corvair. Likewise, the quirky little Gremlin, the pudgy Pacer, and powerful Trans Am, sum up the 1970’s as does the Plymouth Voyager and the decade of the 1980’s.
The automobile was the driving force behind one of the largest societal changes in history. Within one generation the United States became a nation on wheels, a nation on the move. Within two generations we became a car culture nation and have never looked back.
This book is in essence a scrapbook, a series of time capsules that chronicle the evolution of our national obsession with all things automotive. As such, it is also a trip down memory lane for a few and a peek into the past for those who are too young to remember.
*This is the introduction from the bronze medal award winniner at the 2006 International Automotive Media Awards. It, and other award winning titles, is available in the Guess What Shop at the bottom of this blog or through this link to

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