In 1995, comedian Denis Leary recorded a track called “Asshole,” a song about an all-American guy who likes “football and porno and books about war.” It concludes with a monologue:
I’m gonna get myself a 1967 Cadillac Eldorado convertible
Hot pink, with whale skin hubcaps
And all leather cow interior
And big brown baby seal eyes for head lights
And I’m gonna drive in that baby at 115 miles per hour
Gettin’ one mile per gallon
Sucking down Quarter Pounder cheese burgers from McDonald’s
In the old-fashioned, non-biodegradable styrofoam containers
And when I’m done sucking down those greaseball burgers
I’m gonna wipe my mouth with the American flag
And then I’m gonna toss the styrofoam containers right out the side
And there ain’t a goddamn thing anybody can do about it …
Today, Leary’s rant takes on a special significance because we all know what Eldorados do to the planet.
A 2010 NASA study identified motor vehicles as the US’s greatest contributor to warming, since they emit greenhouse gases without the counter-acting sulphates and other cooling aerosols generated by the industrial sector. Not only do they consume great quantities of fossil fuels, they do so with particular inefficiency, wasting a considerable portion of the energy they burn.
Yet, if you search for the phrase “America’s love affair with,” Google autocompletes with “cars”—with “guns” a distant second.
On best estimates, there are some 270 million cars currently in the US, with 90 percent of households owning at least one. Most own several. The low fuel prices produced by the fracking boom encouraged the use of SUVs and trucks, which now account for more than 60 percent of vehicle sales.
Obviously, Americans aren’t the only people who drive cars. Throughout the developing world—particularly South and East Asia—car ownership continues to grow. Chinese customers, for example, bought some 28 million cars last year, a huge figure that actually represents a slight decline on recent trends.
Nevertheless, the US remains the spiritual home of car culture, the locus of a particular relationship with the automobile that was subsequently exported elsewhere.
For many progressives, that culture exemplifies the political dynamic of ecological destruction, a catastrophe they attribute to popular greed. They classify blue-collar SUV owners as assholes, actively hostile to environmentalism. The populist right agrees, but celebrates them as a core constituency.
At a MAGA rally in early 2019, for instance, Donald Trump sneered at his opponents for their hostility to the vehicular choices of blue-blooded Americans.
“No more airplanes, no more cows, one car per family. You know, I don’t think one car per family in Michigan plays too well, do you?” he said. “And it is got to be, of course, an electric car, even if it only goes . . . 160 miles? What do you do with 160 miles . . . Darling, where do I get a charge?”
The conventional narrative presents the modern automobile and its internal combustion engine as inevitable.
Earlier, Trump’s Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao had published, along with Andrew Wheeler, now Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, a statement in the Wall Street Journal in which they pledged to roll back Obama-era vehicle emissions. Their title: “Make Cars Great Again.”
Yet, before we accept car culture as evidence of innate working-class conservatism, we might note that Americans only named their “love affair” with the automobile in 1961. In that year, DuPont—owner of 23 percent of General Motors—sponsored a TV documentary on the early history of American motoring titled Merrily We Roll Along. It is the film’s narrator, Groucho Marx, who first references the public’s “love affair” with cars. After the screening, the phrase entered public discourse, and never left. In historian Peter Norton’s words, the term “was introduced by the show and seen by millions of people, who eventually forget it was invented.”
Furthermore, it was coined precisely because DuPont knew full well that Americans hadn’t immediately fallen in love with cars. On the contrary, the car culture we now take for granted, both in the US and around the world, came into being only after a huge struggle by the auto industry, not just against other less destructive transport options but also against the environmental consciousness of ordinary people.
As you would expect, the car’s first enthusiasts were the wealthy, specifically powerful men able to afford an expensive and initially impractical machine. In 1902, one US motoring journal explained that, “in Europe, it is openly recognized that the main excuse for the speed mania is the desire to feel new sensations and juggle away the emptiness of a purposeless life.”
The early vehicles were mechanically unreliable and limited as to where they could drive. The problem wasn’t simply an absence of sealed surfaces. At the beginning of the 20th century, the car couldn’t dominate city streets in the way it does now. Roads were public places; they belonged to everyone, and everyone used them.
“Busy streets were . . . much like crowded city parks today,” says Norton, “places welcoming diverse uses, provided users did not obstruct or menace others.”
The onus was on the traveler not to hit others. Elderly pedestrians walked where they chose; children used the street as a playground.
The first cars threatened this common understanding, and did so with great violence. In 1925 alone, cars killed 21,000 Americans, most of whom were pedestrians. By our standards, that number might not seem huge. In the Atlantic, Edward Humes points out that, “If [today’s] US roads were a war zone, they would be the most dangerous battlefield the American military has ever encountered . . . [since] annual highway fatalities outnumber the yearly war dead during each of Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, the War of 1812, and the American Revolution.”
But in the 1920s, when a child died on the road—and many of the dead were children—passers-by didn’t blame adults for lack of supervision, as they might do today. They thought kids had a right to play. Instead, they blamed the (usually wealthy) drivers and their cars for selfishly monopolizing a space that had previously belonged to everyone. Dan Albert describes the battle that ensued:
The upper classes used automotive violence to drive the working classes and urban poor from the streets—relatively wide open spaces in dense urban neighborhoods. Vigilantes responded with attacks on the millionaire motorists who raced through working-class neighborhoods. Drivers were stoned and, in at least one case in Germany, beheaded by piano wire strung across the street.
Across America, people demanded action. In Cincinnati, in 1923, 42,000 people signed a petition demanding that cars be prevented from traveling more than 25 miles per hour. Many experts and the media agreed: in 1920, the newspaper Illustrated World declared that “every car should be equipped with a device that would hold the speed down to whatever number of miles stipulated for the city in which its owner lived.”
Such proposals—and the early anti-car agitation as a whole—might sound foolish today. Certainly, the conventional narrative presents the modern automobile and its internal combustion engine as inevitable, an invention embraced by the populace because of its innate usefulness. But that is a retrospective projection.
During the last years of the 19th century, a variety of new machines had presented themselves, with the “hydrocarbon explosion” engine (as some writers styled it) often contrasted unfavorably against other innovations. As Albert points out, of the 4,200 vehicles produced in the US by 1900, fewer than 1,000 relied on internal combustion. The majority used either steam or electricity.
In many ways, the electric vehicle seemed the most promising technology. The early models could travel, on average, about 40 miles on a charge, a distance entirely adequate for early motorists constrained by crowded streets. They were relatively slow, but they were silent, accelerated quickly and braked more effectively than gasoline vehicles. In a demonstration race in Philadelphia in 1908, a Studebaker electric showed it could outmatch a comparable internal combustion vehicle in everyday conditions, partly because it didn’t need to be cranked after every stop.
Furthermore, as inventor Pedro Salom explained in 1896, electric cars didn’t emit fumes while “all the gasoline motors we have seen belch forth from their exhaust pipe a continuous stream of partially unconsumed hydrocarbon in the form of a thin smoke with a highly noxious odor.”
Alongside Henry Morris, Salom founded a business that became the Electric Vehicle Company (EVC). The EVC produced a machine called the Electrobat, featuring a comfortable cabin modeled on a London Hansom cab and an electric engine with a range of 25 miles. More importantly, while the EVC did sell cars, it also offered an integrated transportation system, in which customers could hire an Electrobat by the day, the month or the mile. The machines could be recharged at stations using an ingenious method in which batteries could be swapped within 75 seconds. In between trips, they were stored in a central location.
By 1902, some five billion people traveled on streetcars in the US across some 35,000 kilometers of tracks.
By January 1899, 55 cabs were in operation. The company expanded to New York, a move seen as preparatory to a nationwide and even global operation. As one contemporary paper noted, Morris and Salom’s intention was clear: “a worldwide network of branch EVCs.” According to historian David A. Kirsch, the EVC, at its height, was “both the largest vehicle manufacturer and the largest owner and operator of motor vehicles in the United States.”
But, like Uber and other ride-share services today, the EVC business model depended on rapid expansion, since the service could only become part of everyday life if the company possessed a sufficient mass of vehicles. In the era of Teddy Roosevelt’s “trust busting” rhetoric, the EVC’s plans for a transport monopoly created powerful opposition both from corporate rivals and the general public. Then, in 1899, a newspaper showed that the company had underpinned its growth with a fraudulent loan, a revelation that sent stock plummeting until the business collapsed.
Yet the disintegration of the EVC—a collapse so total as to wipe the Electrobat from historical memory—didn’t reflect a technical inadequacy in electric vehicles. By all accounts, the Electrobat performed quite well. “[T]he business failed the machine,” writes Albert, “rather than the other way around.” Even by the 1920s, the internal combustion engine wasn’t the only game in town. To traffic campaigners, the private car seemed contingent rather than inevitable. Why, they thought, should wealthy drivers be allowed to run down pedestrians at high speed when so many other options were available?
At that time, streetcars operated in most American cites, with the old horse-drawn trolleys now powered by electric motors. By 1902, some five billion people traveled on streetcars in the US across some 35,000 kilometers of tracks. The system was safe, efficient and pollution-free. Many people saw the expansion of streetcars as the most obvious way of moving the public around a modern city, especially since, as one contemporary newspaper put it, “the new problem created by the automobile . . . [is] will my child come home from school today alive and whole?”
Indeed, the campaign against the carnage wrought by cars coincided with a significant sales slump in 1923, despite the economy recovering from recession. “Auto industry insiders warned of coming saturation of demand for automobiles,” explains Norton. “Americans would soon have all the cars they wanted; many—especially people in cities—would never want them.”
In the face of such dire prognostications, motoring interests rallied. Embracing the emerging techniques of public relations, they launched a prolonged crusade to reshape public views, in ways still felt today.
To overcome the public outrage about pedestrian deaths, the industry created the idea of the “jaywalker.”
In the Midwest slang of the time, a “jay” was a bumpkin or a hick, a hayseed unaware of city etiquette. The word had previously been applied to “jay drivers,” people who didn’t understand that, in the metropolis, they couldn’t drive their carriages as they did in the boondocks. In the 1920s, dealers and auto clubs began using “jaywalker” for pedestrians who still believed in the old right to share the road. Local car firms paid boy scouts to distribute cards explaining the concept of jaywalking to people on the street, while the American Automobile Association promoted “safety patrols” to warn children off the street.
In many places, the industry staged elaborate pageants to ridicule “jaywalkers.”
In a safety demonstration in New York in 1924, a clown was employed to caper in front of a slow moving Model T as it repeatedly rammed him, while the Packard Motor Car Company created and displayed gravestones with the name “Mr J. Walker.” In a performance in Buffalo, an actor was arrested, cuffed and made to wear a sandwich board labelled “I am a jaywalker” before being carted off in a police vehicle covered in anti-pedestrian slogans.
Meanwhile, the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce sought to influence media coverage of traffic accidents, which up until that point had been uniformly hostile to drivers. It established itself as a clearing house, curating accounts of fatalities in ways that blamed pedestrians and then offering them up to newspaper editors. The shift in tone was widely noted. “It is now the fashion to ascribe from 70 to 90 percent of all accidents to jaywalking,” commented a magistrate in New York City’s traffic court.
Today, with cars far more sophisticated than in the past, motor vehicles remain the single leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of four and thirty-four. Convincing the public to accept that toll required a Herculean effort. It wouldn’t have been possible without the collapse of other transport options.
Like the EVC of the 1890s, the streetcar companies were monopolies—and often notoriously corrupt. In many cases, their owners actually cared little for transport itself, making their profits by purchasing real estate on the city fringes and running trolley networks to boost land prices. That meant they were often content to sign contracts pledging to maintain the roads near their rails and never to raise fares.
The emerging auto industry could thus attack the old transport barons as monopolists unfairly excluding competitors. A streetcar system belonged to a trust, they said, but every American could own a car. In the face of competition, the streetcars, contractually committed to low prices, struggled, especially since they were paying for the roads on which their new rivals drove. Even a small number of automobiles prevented streetcars from keeping to their schedules, and their increasing unreliability encouraged more automobiles.
American drivers today rely upon more than four million miles of roads, almost all of them funded by the taxpayer.
In Chicago, streetcars retained right of way and so managed to survive. In cities that prioritized cars, the streetcars disappeared. Most famously, in Los Angeles, a consortium of General Motors, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, Standard Oil and Phillips Petroleum eventually bought out—and then closed down—that city’s streetcar network.
The 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? portrayed that process as an auto conspiracy. But in many ways that missed the bigger point: simply, streetcars, trains and other transport systems required state support to be viable, and that support increasingly went to automobiles.
Think of Trump’s quip about the Michigan family struggling to recharge the electrical vehicle foisted upon them by effete liberals. In 1915, the New York Times noted an auto show displaying a product called the “electrant,” which, it explained, “is designed to supply electricity as a hydrant supplies water,” with a quarter inserted in the slot sufficient to power a car for 25 miles of travel.
“It is expected,” the journalist confidently opined, “that these automatic devices will be installed in suburban villages and places on the main lines of travel.”
Had that infrastructure been funded, electric vehicles might well have been entirely normalized, especially as the investment fostered technical improvements. But it wasn’t, and so they weren’t. As a result, Trump can make his gag, confident that the running of an electric car seems quixotic and comical. Yet the private petrol-driven car once faced similar problems.
“A car culture,” Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez argue, “is a society built around private modes of transportation, but with massive public investment in the infrastructure that allows those private uses.”
American drivers today rely upon more than four million miles of roads, almost all of them funded by the taxpayer. The early success of the car thus rested on a huge public subsidy, without which it wouldn’t have flourished.
As early as 1924, more than a billion dollars had been spent by all levels of the US government to make the roads more suitable for automobiles. By 1939, another 1.4 billion had been allocated. Then, after the Second World War, the industry united with the military-industrial complex to lobby for the 1956 Interstate Highway Act, an allocation of massive federal funding for the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. It was only on the back of this large-scale state support that cars and trucks could become, for the first time, the primary mode of long-haul transport, taking over from the trains that had remained dominant until well into the post-war era.
The final triumph of the car facilitated the expansion of the suburbs, and the suburbs in turn fostered a new consumer culture. “Suburbanization,” Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz argue, “encouraged the purchase of consumer durables: refrigerators, cookers, washing machines and televisions, particularly since these items were often integrated into the house itself. In 1965, car production in the United States reached a historic peak of 11.1 million per year. One job in six was bound up with automobile construction.”
Such was the basis of post-war prosperity. Not coincidentally, environmentalists describe the period after the Second World War as “the Great Acceleration,” the era in which all the measures of humanity’s impact on nature—from carbon emissions to ocean acidification to deforestation—climbed exponentially. If the car played a central role in that acceleration, it also exacerbated social inequality.
As Lutz and Fernandez explain:
[T]he automobile has largely cemented and accentuated class and race divisions in America . . . . In a car system, people begin to build and live in sprawling style and feel free to live far from their families and jobs: they believe the car allows them a quick return whenever they like. But in so doing, the car actually creates the physical distances (and the subsequent social distances) that only it is then able to shrink. And, given income inequality, the car shrinks those distances for some much more readily than others, particularly the carless.
Paradoxically, that accounts for the centrality of the car as a signifier of freedom in America. Obviously, the freedom trope was heavily pushed by the industry, particularly in opposition to state-backed or centralized modes of transport. “Americans are a race of independent people,” declared the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce’s Roy Chapin. “Their ancestors came to this country for the sake of freedom and adventure. The automobile satisfies these instincts.”
The rhetoric resonated since, as Lutz and Fernandez argue, the private car has always offered a genuine freedom—but a freedom from the conditions that it helped to create. Suburbanization broke down older urban communities, fostering the distinctive ennui against which Jack Kerouac and the beat generation rebelled by taking to the highways. The neoliberal turn of the 1980s and 1990s intensified that atomization and isolation, making cars more and more essential.
In the 1960s, only 20 percent of American households ran a second car. Today, that figure tops 65 per cent. Increasingly, Americans are driving alone, with the average occupancy rate slowly sinking. That is because most working-class Americans live significant distances from the suburban rings where jobs are to be found. It is very difficult to work without driving. Indeed, employers often insist that job applicants have a car, partly because they know anyone without their own vehicle will struggle to arrive on time.
The necessity for a car extends to almost every aspect of life. Buying food—particularly at the big-box stores that offer discounted groceries—means driving, as does visiting a doctor or going on holiday. The relationship between cars and freedom becomes particularly clear when we think about those who can’t drive. For young people, a car enables an independent social life. If they are old enough to get a licence, they can visit friends, go to gigs and have sex. If they are not, they can’t.
The same might be said for the elderly. So long as they can drive, staying in their own home remains possible. As soon as they become too frail to take to the road, they sink into dependence. Under such circumstances, stigma will inevitably form around public transport. Catching a train feels like a second-class option, a choice only the desperate will make. “Only one reason buses have such big, wide windows,” says the character played by Ludacris in the 2004 film Crash—”to humiliate the poor brothers reduced to riding in them.”
The early history of the American automobile matters because it shows that ordinary people don’t have to be understood as a problem to be solved or an obstacle that needs overcoming.
The genuine attachment that so many people feel for their cars comes from the same place. “Once the car has become the dominant mode of transport,” argues the economist Michael Best, “then housing, family, work, shopping and recreation patterns are designed around it.” From the 1920s onwards, as the auto industry reshaped the country, Americans cherished the vehicles that allowed them to do the things that were increasingly impossible without cars.”
Fairly obviously, berating working-class people for celebrating the cars upon which they rely doesn’t make for a successful political strategy. Insofar as he appeals to blue-collar voters, Trump plays upon their instinctive and justifiable hostility to those leftists who sneer at them for not embracing the performative environmental gestures adopted by the wealthy.
If you are rich, it is a lot easier to buy an expensive, experimental hybrid vehicle. If you live in a fashionable part of town, you might not need a car at all. But lots of people—most people—don’t have those options.
A genuine strategy against climate change must include the provision of modern and comfortable public transport, not as an add-on but as a core component. Car culture will only be defeated by destroying its foundations. Once it is cheaper and more convenient to catch the train, the car will no longer represent freedom but will instead signify expense, waste and frustration.
The early history of the American automobile matters because it shows that ordinary people don’t have to be understood as a problem to be solved or an obstacle that needs overcoming. On the contrary, they can, under certain circumstances, be the solution. The working-class parents campaigning against the devastation wreaked by the car in the 1920s weren’t climate change activists. Nevertheless, theirs was a struggle over the urban environment, a resistance to the public harms inflicted for private interests. They refused to accept that children should die and that the commons should be privatized simply to facilitate the designs of the automotive industry.
But they were defeated, and that loss changed public attitudes to the car. Still, their defeat wasn’t foreordained. Indeed, it is worth imagining what a victory might have meant. While no-one talked about climate change at the dawn of the 20th century, the pollution associated with the automobile was well known. In his 1896 essay making the case for electric vehicles, Salom decried the fumes associated with the internal combustion engine: “Imagine thousands of such vehicles on the streets, each offering up its column of smell . . . and consider whether such a system has general utility or adaptability.”
Instead of thousands of such vehicles, we now have more than a billion. Had the desire of working Americans for safety been prioritized and their enthusiasm for public space been respected, transport might have designed on the basis of public good rather than private enrichment. If that had happened, the planet would look very different today.
Instead, a relatively small number of entrepreneurs successfully campaigned to reorganize the country—and subsequently the world—so that their particular business model might succeed. Denis Leary knows the word for such people.
This essay is from the spring edition of Australian radical literary magazine Overland–in print quarterly, online daily.