America’s Love Affair with the Automobile

The CWJ Classic Automobile Museum, Director/Curator, Exhibition 2010

Americans have long enjoyed the thrill of the open road, embracing the freedom and independence afforded them by their most cherished possession—their automobile.

Postwar America was a unique period of prosperity and exuberant optimism that fueled the American Dream of owning a home and one car, or even two.  Families were expanding and moving out of the cities, spurring growth of the suburbs and the burgeoning network of roads and highways facilitated their mobility.

Cars were for everyone.  The family car, promised General Motors, was the means to “go places in a glamourous new way.”  Teenage drivers had spending money, and cars geared to them promised to deliver “the glamour, the glory, the get-up-and GO.”  Convertibles epitomized the spirit of the period with Chevy drivers assured of “top-down fun under the sun.”  Automobile manufacturers heightened demand by offering luxury amenities and introducing practical improvements such as standard transmission and power brakes and steering.  Car design mimicked fashion as the car companies marketed new styles each year that featured chrome and the ever-lengthening fin that made last year’s model obsolete.

The rise of the car culture changed the nature of American society with the car becoming not merely a means of transportation but also a source of entertainment.  With driving for pure pleasure now both possible and acceptable and with the emergence of the drive-in lifestyle, the automobile was propelled into the unusual position of serving as living room, restaurant and sometimes even church.

William Gedney Kentucky 1964Our country’s fascination with the automobile spans the many facets of American life, encompassing men’s (and women’s) love for and pride in their cars, the drive-in phenomenon, the car’s infusion of energy into city life, the role of the family car and the adventure of the driving experience.

When cars took to the road, so did photographers, and what better instrument than the camera, the machine that also revolutionized the way we live and view the world, to capture the character of a nation infatuated with their cars.