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The Rose-colored Windshield

June 2024
3min read

DURING 1896 TWO ILLINOIS BOYS WHO HAD set up a factory in Springfield, Massachusetts, built and sold thirteen automobiles (two seats and a two-cylinder, six-horsepower engine with 138-cubic-inch displacement: $1,500). Thus Charles and Frank Duryea inaugurated our automotive industry. The fact that Barnum & Bailey bought one of the cars from this first of all model years suggests how enthralled Americans were by the device a century ago; the world around you suggests how enthralled we remain.

Detroit has spent the year celebrating the anniversary of the enterprise with which the city is synonymous, and in this issue American Heritage does too.

When I told our indispensable contributor John Lukacs over lunch the other day that we were doing a special issue on the automobile in America, he said, “I hope you won’t make it too”—a diplomatic pause—“rosy.”

This brought me up short. I hadn’t planned to make it rosy, but a quick mental review of the contents failed to come up with a single article that reflected the atmosphere of disapprobation toward the car that had surrounded me for most of my life. I was eleven years old in 1958 when John Keats savaged the creature in his book The Insolent Chariots , and I went to college in the late sixties when the auto industry was in complicity with every other high element of the American establishment to do evil (as my classmates and I shrewdly perceived) for the simple joy of it. Then the oil embargo came at a convenient time when American cars averaged— averaged —twelve miles per gallon. Then Japan and Germany, which between them couldn’t have built a motor scooter just thirty-five years earlier, made us look like fools. And later, while the country was gearing up for the Gulf War, signs blossomed all over my neighborhood saying: ARE WE GOING TO MURDER OUR SONS TO PROTECT A WAY OF LIFE THAT’S DESTROYING THE WHOLE WORLD ? (My neighborhood is Greenwich Village.)

And yet. Toward the end of his life Henry Ford was holding forth to a young visitor about the virtues of oldfashioned schooling. Finally the boy, frustrated by what he took to be very archaic views indeed, said, “But, sir, these are different times, this is the modern age and—”

Ford broke in. “Young man, I invented the modern age.”

The boast is preposterous—and true. Impelled by mechanical skill, organizational genius, and a bone-deep loathing of farm life, Ford had found a way to give virtually every American who wanted one a machine that not long before had cost as much as a house, and that, promiscuously deployed, did away forever with the country in which he had grown up. Ford got wistful about that country later on, as we all do from time to time: It can look very pretty. But as John Steele Gordon’s essay that opens this issue makes clear, it had its failings.

The past is a wonderful place to visit, and I feel privileged that my work allows me to visit it every day. But I wouldn’t want to live there.

So here is our automotive issue, and if, as I fear, it proves too rosy for John, I hope it at least offers some sense of why and how the motorcar has worked its way so deeply into our spirits. The car was not born in America, but it certainly grew up here, and no country can claim a more intimate connection with its progress. This is a very American story, one that ends—as William Jeanes shows in his piece on the pickup truck—with thousands upon thousands of us still seeking some vibration of that frontier that Frederick Jackson Turner declared closed in 1893.

Which was the year the Duryeas built their very first “Power Wagon.” I’m perfectly happy to accept the brothers’ short production run as the anniversary of the American automobile. But if it had been up to me, the celebrations would have taken place 101 years ago this month.

The day before Thanksgiving, 1895, a foot of snow fell on Chicago, and by the next morning the wind had pushed it into tall drifts. Nevertheless, six horseless carriages managed to claw their way to Jackson Park to vie for the tenthousand-dollar prize the Times-Herald was offering the winner of America’s first car race. Shortly before noon, the cars lurched off along the fifty-four-mile course: three Benzes, two electrics, and the Duryeas’ baby, with Frank at the tiller. One of the Benzes died a few miles from the starting line, the electrics gave up early, and a passenger fainted from the cold. But despite having to stop and seek out a blacksmith to get a part repaired, Duryea took an early lead and held it to the very end, a full eight hours later. It got colder along the way, and night fell, but Duryea kept bouncing and lurching forward through the murk, the little engine racketing away beneath him.

It’s something to think about, America settling down that Thanksgiving night, millions of horses being curried and soothed, the great, doomed steam locomotives plunging toward their myriad destinations—and Frank Duryea, alone in the noisy darkness, carrying the entire nation all unknowing into the twentieth century.

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