The American Car
For Americans and cars, it was love at first sight. Once horseless carriages hit the road in the early 20th century, Henry Ford could not turn out the Tin Lizzie—his black, boxy Model T—fast enough. It’s estimated that today more than 250 million cars ply American highways. This map also pays homage to cars in films—some are classics, others are high-octane adventures, underlying all is the lure of the open road.
In The Magnificent Ambersons, Orson Welles’s film of Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel about the decline of a wealthy Indianapolis family at the dawn of the 20th century, old Major Amberson (Richard Bennett) questions prosperous automaker Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) about his “devilish machines”: “Do you really think they’re going to change the face of the land?” Morgan tells the major, “They are here, and almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring.” Confirmation came quickly: By 1908, the Model Ts that engineer and entrepreneur Henry Ford mass-produced were rumbling past horse-drawn carriages on American roads. Ford helped establish a nationwide network of gas stations, advocated for the ribbons of concrete that would expand into the interstate highway system and built factories and assembly lines that spurred an American industrial revolution.
The major’s spoiled grandson, George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt), is left in the dust as this new age dawns. “Automobiles are a useless nuisance,” he says. “They had no business to be invented.” He learns the folly of resisting progress when his family loses its fortune and, to add injury to insult, he is hit by an automobile.
German engineer Karl Benz is considered the inventor of the automobile, having introduced his Motorwagen in 1885, but Henry Ford made the self-propelled vehicle viable. Founded in 1903 in Detroit, Ford Motor Company had produced 15 million Model Ts, half the cars in the world, by 1927. The Model T used mass-produced parts so that cars could be made quickly and inexpensively; after 1914 it was offered only in black, a low-cost and fast-drying paint color.
Ford’s workers stood in place on assembly lines and worked on components that moved past them on conveyor belts. They could turn out a car in 1 hour and 33 minutes, compared to the industry standard of 12½ hours. Ford was an innovative employer. In 1914 he doubled the average daily wage of factory workers to $4.94; his employees, who could thus afford to buy the cars they made, became a ready-made market. By the 1930s Ford employed 100,000 workers at its River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan. All stages of the manufacturing process—from refining raw materials to building finished products—took place in the foundries, steel mill, glass factory and assembly lines on the sprawling, 93-building complex with 120 miles of conveyors.
The car was becoming a fixture of American life when Prohibition was enforced in 1920, and it proved the perfect conveyance for Southern moonshiners, who could rush their product along hidden mountain roads. Some enterprising deliverymen souped up their cars, and these speed aficionados began getting together in informal races to show off their handiwork. The contests became increasingly popular, and in 1948 the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) was born.
NASCAR now oversees 1,500 races a year and claims to have 75 million fans, second only to football in the U.S. The sport’s once-rapid growth went into reverse when the 2008 recession hit and fans, mostly aging white males, attended fewer races and spent less when they did attend. It doesn’t help that critics lambaste the emissions spewed by the burning of huge quantities of fossil fuels—as much as 2 million gallons a season. In response, the sport is upgrading its marketing and its presence on social media. But for the foreseeable future, the sight of modified Chevys, Dodges, Fords and other recognizable models zooming around more than 100 tracks at speeds topping 200 mph will continue to epitomize American car culture on overdrive.
The automobile ushered in an age of industry and economic growth that superseded the Gilded Age and the world represented by George Amberson Minafer, selfish scion of the wealthy Midwestern family at the center of The Magnificent Ambersons. When the family fortune disappears, George must seek work in a factory, getting what town gossips call his “comeuppance.” As he walks home through the changing streets of Indianapolis, the film’s narrator (Orson Welles) intones: “The town…was heaving up in the middle, incredibly; it was spreading incredibly. And as it heaved and spread, it befouled itself and darkened its skies.”
Jump ahead 60 years, and from Indianapolis to Modesto, California, and the changes wrought by the car culture don’t seem all that menacing. The teenage characters of American Graffiti gather on a late-summer night in 1962, their radios tuned to the disk jockey Wolfman Jack, blasting “Sixteen Candles” and “The Book of Love.” The 1973 film looks with nostalgia rather than portent at a seemingly innocent time on the cusp of great changes to America’s cultural and political landscapes—the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr., protests against the Vietnam war and all the other turmoil of the 1960s.
It’s a shame drive-in theaters were disappearing from the landscape when American Graffiti came out in 1973. The film is made to be viewed through an automobile windshield on a summer night. The characters practically live in their cars, cruising their California town’s Main Street, laying rubber, flirting and hanging out at a drive-in restaurant. A beautiful, mysterious blond woman floats up to intersections in a white Thunderbird as if it were a cloud. Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Harrison Ford and the movie’s other young actors went on to the cinematic big time, but here they’re upstaged by the automobiles—a 1932 Ford coupe, a ’55 Chevy, a ’58 Impala and a ’56 T-bird provide enough bodywork to keep any car buff’s eyes glued to the screen.
American Graffiti is an homage to American cars as much as to a bygone era. The early 1960s, when the film is set, was the heyday of the American automobile. Gas was cheap, a house in a neat suburb seemed a dream come true, and Detroit was introducing cruisers with wraparound windshields and big fins for the commute to work. “You got a bitchin’ car” (as one character says) was a meaningful compliment.
As American Graffiti ends Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard), after a night spent driving their town’s strip, head into futures unknown; the credits close on a car culture that now seems a benign and even charming phase in our technological progress. Forty years later, on the nighttime streets of L.A., things have gotten more menacing, according to The Fast and the Furious (2001): “When the sun goes down…another world comes to life,” that of rival street-racing gangs and a burglary ring. American Graffiti’s souped-up sedans seem quaint compared to the later film’s Japanese race cars modified with hydraulics and custom engines. Trashing a police cruiser and other antics that tempt the characters of American Graffiti are child’s play compared to the drive-by shootings, fiery crashes and other high-speed exploits in The Fast and the Furious. Occasionally a Dodge Charger or Chevy Chevelle pulls into view, prompting some American Graffiti–type nostalgia, but the best scene in The Fast and the Furious takes viewers back even further: Hijackers chase down a big rig and rope it, cowpoke style, evoking those long-gone days before the internal-combustion engine, when a cowboy on a horse could be a real troublemaker.
With typical machismo, Ernest Hemingway once commented, “Auto racing, bull fighting, and mountain climbing are the only real sports…all others are games.” Since the 1940s, millions have heeded the call of the speedway, as spectators anyway, filling the stands at NASCAR rallies to capacity. For a few hours, crowds of Walter Mittys put aside concerns about gas prices and the rules of the road as they watch daredevil drivers zoom around tracks at speeds of up to 212 mph. Can a film deliver the same thrills? Yes, and more. The Fast and Furious series puts the pedal to the metal in a nonstop whirl of roaring engines and blazing crashes. The action moves from Los Angeles to the Dominican Republic to Tokyo, but the bad-guy-chasing-the-worse-guy formula never varies. “I live my life a quarter mile at a time,” says Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), an ex-con and elite street racer who witnessed his father’s death in a NASCAR crash. “For those 10 seconds or less, I’m free.” Humorist Dave Barry might agree in spirit, having noted, “Auto racing is boring except when a car is going at least 172 miles per hour upside down.”
The teenagers in American Graffiti are sealed in a particular time, 1962, and locked in geographically too, rarely venturing too far from Main Street. Two pals, Curt and Steve, plan to make the break and go off to college, and Curt eventually does, flying off at the end of the film and later, viewers learn, becoming a writer. In On the Road, Sal (Sam Riley), a writer, and his pal Dean (Garrett Hedlund) hit the highway in the late 1940s and early 1950s, romantic antiheroes of the so-called Beat Generation, which was given a voice by the Jack Kerouac novel on which the film is based.
In addition to a shared fondness for cruising down the road, the guys in both films stand as icons of two periods in American culture that were as short-lived as the models of the cars they drive. Steve, Curt and their pals in American Graffiti pass their time driving around their small town, socializing from their cars, engaging in what was known at the time as “petting” with their girlfriends and pulling pranks. Sal and Dean, embracing a more freewheeling, bohemian lifestyle, indulge their wanderlust and display an almost stupefying self-absorption.
The characters of Dominic Toretto in The Fast and the Furious and Sal Paradise in On the Road (based on Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novel) both explain what makes them tick. “I’m a boy who appreciates a good body, regardless of the make,” says Dominic, and he means the double entendre—he is speaking about cars and women in the same breath. Sal’s needs are loftier, and wordier: “The only people that interest me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing…but burn, burn, burn like Roman candles across the night.”
The appeal of the open road inevitably puts the two characters behind the wheel of a car. In On the Road, Sal and his buddies crisscross the country in search of life and adventure, enjoying plenty of sex, drugs and jazz along the way. For Dom—and for the fans of the Fast and Furious franchise—driving is life and adventure: Street races and high-speed chases, preferably with his girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriquez) along for the ride, are as good as it gets.