A historian skeptical of the future of cars reconsiders the story of how we became so attached to them.
For decades, Americans have been in love with the automobile — orsothesayinggoes. This single idea has been a central premise of transportation policy, pop culture and national history for the last half-century. It animates how we think about designing the world around us, and how we talk about dissidents in our midst who dislike cars.
“This ‘love affair’ thesis is like the ultimate story,” says Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia, who warns that we need to revisit how we came to believe this line before we embrace its logical conclusion in a future full of driverless cars. “It’s one of the biggest public relations coups of all time. It’s always treated as folk wisdom, as an organic growth from society. One of the signs of its success is that everyone forgets it was invented as a public relations campaign.”
This “love affair” was coined, in fact, during a 1961 episode of a weekly hour-long television program called the DuPont Show of the Week (sponsored, incidentally, by DuPont, which owned a 23 percent stake in General Motors at the time). The program, titled “Merrily We Roll Along,” was promoted by DuPont as “the story of America’s love affair with the automobile.”
In it, Groucho Marx recounted that history to millions of Americans with a curious metaphor — the driver as the man, the car as the new girl in town (“Lizzie” was her name). Their “burning love affair” led to marriage, an extended honeymoon, and, inevitably, a few challenges.
“We don’t always know how to get along with her, but you certainly can’t get along without her,” Marx concluded. “And if that isn’t marriage, I don’t know what is.”
The show aired at a time when cars were facing steep criticism, as plans for the new interstate system threatened to destroy or disrupt neighborhoods in many U.S. cities. Highways were on their way to remaking Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis. Interstate 95 would ultimately raze entire black neighborhoods in Miami. In Washington, a grassroots group called the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis was protesting “white men’s roads thru black men’s homes.”
In New York, urbanist hero Jane Jacobs had gone to battle against a proposed road through Washington Square in Greenwich Village that would have replaced a public park with a thoroughfare for speeding cars.
The Cincinnati riverfront before and after the construction of Interstates 71 and 75. Aerial images from Shane Hampton, the Institute for Quality Communities at the University of Oklahoma.
The “love affair” story, Norton says, was a response to all this protest, and it successfully helped seed two ideas that have been entrenched ever since: that we’re bound to cars by something stronger than need, and that people who challenge that bond are just turning up their noses at their fellow Americans.
“The most important thing [the show] said is that you can’t criticize love with logic, “ Norton says. “Love is blind, love will find a way, love will do whatever it takes.”