The Magazine

Detroit, Mon Amour

Remember the liberal war on the automobile?

Feb 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 23 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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Seems like this is the season for showing the American automobile some love. Also, the town that the automobile built—Detroit, aka the Motor City, where packs of feral dogs now roam the streets and den up in vacant lots between the abandoned buildings. Detroit, these days, seems far more deserving of pity than celebration.

Auto show, 1968: so wrong on so many levels

Auto show, 1968: so wrong on so many levels

Newscom

Still, Vice President Joe Biden showed up for the annual Detroit auto show in January and delivered the usual talking points. American manufacturing is back. “We bet on American ingenuity, we bet on you, and we won.”

“We,” of course, being the Obama administration. Biden has some credibility with what remains of the car culture. His father worked for a GM dealership, and Biden owns a Corvette. That makes him the red-headed stepchild of his extended political family, which has long considered what Detroit built as the -devil’s ride and the city itself as Satan’s workshop.

The correct sentiment (call it “liberal” for lack of a better term) in certain lofty circles has for decades been to hate the automobile and all it stood for. The American car was, in the view of John Kenneth Galbraith, the ne plus ultra of conspicuous consumption with its useless tail fins and its obscene bulk, power, and luxury. The car was an indulgence that favored the individual over the community. It was also a deadly killer and designed to be so, according to Ralph Nader, who lectured like a Puritan divine that it was “unsafe at any speed.” And it was, as any number of commentators told us, a vehicle that would ride us to economic perdition, guzzling gas and polluting the atmosphere all the way. So with Jimmy Carter in the White House, Detroit was told to make its cars go further on a gallon of gas.

This was the original and self-evident sin of the American car. It burned gasoline refined from petroleum that comes from the Mideast or, worse, from Texas, where it makes people like J. R. Ewing and the Koch brothers rich. Oil is the most hated of all substances in this worldview. Oil supplies energy and so does coal. But while people like the late Pete Seeger sang mournful ballads about coalminers, nobody had a song for those who worked in the oil patch, making it possible to drive those awful cars that create sprawl, spew pollution, and “disincentivize” the masses from riding the train, thus making America less like Europe than it should be.

After Washington started telling Detroit what kind of car it should (and could) build, the American consumer either bought a car made in Japan or an SUV or pickup, exempt from the mileage requirements. Then, the government started telling people that if they really must drive, they would not be permitted to do so at speeds above 55 miles per hour. This, of course, was for their own good. It was safer. Studies proved that this was not so, but .  .  . well, never mind, just slow down, leadfoot.

The decline of the American car was celebrated by those who believed salvation lay in mass transit; in getting people to move from the suburbs, back into the central cities, so they could walk to work. Or ride a bicycle. Anything but drive a filthy car.

There were still parts of America where you could openly declare your love for the American automobile. The South, of course, where people by the tens of thousands would drive hundreds of miles to spend a weekend watching tough men race big, American cars. Half the men in the South wanted to be Richard Petty. The other half wanted to be Dale Earnhardt. And drive whatever they were driving.

There were other parts of the country where it was still permissible to love your wheels. To love cars in general and in the abstract. For a long time, it was still okay even in California. The Beach Boys were into cars almost as much as surfing. Motion was the mantra in the West. Freedom was the road. And, then, the off-road. All the way down Baja.

But the people who lived, physically or psychically, in that other, liberal America couldn’t imagine loving a car. You might like a Volvo or some other version of the anticar. Nobody would even think of painting a Volvo in gaudy colors, sticking a bunch of STP logos on it, and driving it around in circles, banging the hell out of other cars on the way to the finish. A Volvo was engineered to be safe. Not fun. It was blasphemous to equate cars with fun. The attitude of, say, the Joan Claybrooks of the world to cars resembled that of the Puritans to sex: to be indulged in only when necessary. Claybrook was the chief proselytizer and enforcer of the 55 mph speed limit, the defeat of which was a rare victory for the pro-car forces.

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