Engine of Liberation


The automobile’s impact on the American economy also had a vast influence on the ebb and flow of geopolitics in this century. During the Second World War the American automobile industry, by orders of magnitude the largest in the world, produced a grand total of 139 cars. Instead, that huge industrial capacity had been transformed into the “arsenal of democracy,” turning out, in breathtaking volumes, the matériel that allowed the Allies to win the war. The Ford Motor Company alone had more military production than the entire Italian economy in the war years.

BUT IT IS SOCIALLY, PERHAPS , that the automobile has had its greatest impact on American civilization. For much of its history America was a lonely place. Europe was rich in people, poor in land. European farmers usually lived in villages. They walked out to the surrounding fields (usually owned by someone else) to work and back to the close proximity of their friends and neighbors at night.

But this country abounded in land, and its people were spread thinly upon it. The isolated farmhouse, set upon the family’s own land, quickly became the norm here, rather than the village. Many a pioneer family came to grief when one or more of its members could not cope with the lack of society. Until the automobile, there was no solution. The railroad had made rapid long-distance movement relatively easy, but local movement remained at the speed of the horse.

So if the nearest town was a mere five miles away, a visit to it would require virtually an entire day to accomplish, an expenditure of time that few farm families could afford very often. Even a visit to a nearby farm could be a considerable undertaking. The horses had to be hitched to a wagon or buggy, a matter that took several minutes even if the horse was in a cooperative mood, which was by no means guaranteed. Then, when the family returned, the horses had to be unhitched, cooled down, and cared for. Then, as now, horses were delicate and expensive means of transportation and required very high maintenance. Unless the family was affluent enough to hire people to handle these chores for them, they often had no real choice but to stay home.

THE “DATE,” once available in large measure only to city dwellers, spread rapidly through the small towns and farms of rural America.

The automobile, of course, changed that. Now a trip to town might take no more than an hour, a trip to a neighbor’s place for a cup of coffee only a few minutes. The stifling isolation of American farm life began to lift. So did the isolation of the individual towns and the cozy local monopolies of bank and general store. Now families could easily get to the next town if they didn’t like the service or the prices available in their own.

ANOTHER ASPECT OF SOCIAL life that the automobile changed was courting. Before the automobile, courting had to be largely accomplished in front of families and the watchful eyes of chaperons and was largely confined to one’s closest neighbors. Now real privacy and a far wider selection was possible. The “date,” once available in large measure only to city dwellers (a minority of the population in the nineteenth century), spread rapidly through the small towns and farms of rural America.

The automobile also gave women much more mobility and freedom. The skills needed to handle horses with confidence are difficult to acquire, but driving a car is easy. Once the electric starter removed the need for physical strength (and the device was commonplace by 1916), women began to move. It was the automobile as much as the Second World War that liberated women. American society, long the most fluid and thus the most dynamic in the world, has seen a quantum leap in that fluidity in the twentieth century, thanks to the automobile. And this evolving change has by no means played itself out.

Needless to say, much of this change did not come easily. The shift in agriculture caused by the automobile resulted in the squeezing out of marginal farmers and contributed in no small way to the onset of the Great Depression. The Joad family in Steinbeck’s The Crapes of Wrath were forced to migrate to California (in, of course, an automobile) when their drought-suffering farm could no longer sustain them.

IN 1972, cars killed 54,898 Americans, about the number who lost their lives in the Vietnam War then raging.

Americans had to learn, all too often at first hand, the power of half a ton or more of metal, glass, and rubber moving at forty miles an hour. Because the number of cars in the early days was small compared with later, the number of deaths was relatively low. But the slaughter on a vehicle-mile basis was awesome; in 1921 the rate was 24 per hundred million miles of travel. It began to decline as people became better drivers (most states did not require driver’s licenses until the 1930s), roads improved, and cars became more ruggedly constructed. The year 1972 proved the worst in terms of highway deaths when 54,589 people died on the nation’s highways, not much lower than the number who lost their lives in the entire Vietnam War then raging.