Episode 50: America’s Love Affair With Cars

Doug Gordon: It’s October 31, 2016, and Jay Leno is a guest on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, the NBC late night program he used to host. He’s there to promote a new season of his show, Jay Leno’s Garage.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jimmy Fallon: Let’s talk about the show Jay Leno’s Garage. It’s coming back November 9.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jay Leno: Right, right.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jimmy Fallon: CNBC. Fantastic show, and if you haven’t seen it, you’re gonna love it. It’s well done.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jay Leno: Yeah, if you have a LaserDisc player, you might not enjoy it as much. But it’s sort of car-oriented. And we do have some celebrities, but we don’t talk about their cocaine bust or their bad movie. It’s just their cars or their motorcycles, whatever.]

Doug: Like a lot of talk show guests, Jay has a clip. And this one is from an episode featuring Vice President Joe Biden.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jimmy Fallon: We just had Joe Biden on, which I loved, because it’s a very interesting—the ending is a—well, we’ll just set it up. But he has this—is it a Corvette?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jay Leno: No, what it was was—yeah, he got a Corvette for a wedding gift. And he’s had it since 1967. The show is about people’s love affair with a car, a car they had their whole life. You know, they married in it …]

Doug: The show is about people’s love affair with a car. That’s what Jay says. And that expression? Odds are you’ve heard it a lot, most likely on cable news.

[NEWS CLIP: Well, since the first set of wheels was invented, America has had a love affair with cars.]

[NEWS CLIP: America’s love affair with SUV, trucks and crossover utility vehicles shows no sign of slowing down.]

[NEWS CLIP: The American love affair with cars, meanwhile, alive and well. The dealers have the pricing power, and that’s pushing people into longer and longer car loans.]

[NEWS CLIP: America’s love affair with trucks and SUVs will stay red hot in 2017.]

[NEWS CLIP: Americans have a love affair with cars.]

[NEWS CLIP: The love affair with cars has been with you for a while?]

[NEWS CLIP: Mm-hmm. Since as long back as I can remember, you know.]

Doug: Okay, that last one? That’s not a cable news segment. That is Charlie Rose interviewing singer-songwriter Neil Young. But still, why is it that whenever people talk about Americans and driving, they all seem to use the same expression about “a love affair” with cars? Where did that expression come from? And do Americans really have a love affair with automobiles? The answers to those questions are coming up on this episode of The War on Cars.

Sarah Goodyear: Hi, this is Sarah. This episode of The War on Cars is sponsored by Cleverhood. I’m looking out my window right now and it’s raining. The kind of steady rain that used to make me think I could never ride a bike in this weather. Then I got a Cleverhood rain cape. It’s a stylish piece of gear designed by people who love to bike and walk, and who aren’t gonna let a little rain get in their way. Put on a Cleverhood cape, get on your bike, and you’re covered, thanks to some nifty design details like thumb loops that keep the cape in place when you’re gripping the handlebars, plus reflective threading to make sure you’re visible on the road. And one of the things I like best about my new Rover Cape is that, unlike a lot of rain gear, it’s soft and cozy. Starting today and for a limited time, War on Cars listeners will get a 20 percent discount on every product in the Cleverhood store. Just go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars. When you check out, enter coupon code “waroncars”—one word. Again, for 20 percent off on some really sweet rain gear, go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars, enter coupon code “waroncars” when you check out. Keep riding in all kinds of weather with Cleverhood, and enjoy the episode.

Doug: Hey, everybody. I’m Doug Gordon. Welcome to The War on Cars. To find out where the expression “America’s love affair with cars” originated, I talked with someone I was sure would know.

Peter Norton: I’m Peter Norton. I’m an associate professor of history in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia.

Doug: Peter Norton is the author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. It’s a fascinating look at the rise of cars between 1915 and 1930, and the physical and social changes pushed by the forces of what Peter calls “Motordom” to transform streets from places for people into the sole domain of drivers.

Peter Norton: This expression, “America’s love affair with the automobile,” like a lot of people, I kept encountering that over and over again, and I wanted to know where this expression came from. I always heard it as if it was like folk wisdom, something that grew from the soil, so to speak.

Doug: Peter found that the phrase basically doesn’t appear in any periodical or book for the first two-thirds of the 20th century, but then in 1961, it takes off.

Peter Norton: So I just started to look around in newspapers from that era, and pretty soon it was clear that this expression was in advertisements for a TV show, And every single one, without exception, said this was going to be the story of America’s love affair with the automobile.

Doug: That show, Merrily We Roll Along, aired on NBC on Sunday, October 21, 1961. It was sponsored by DuPont, which owned a 23 percent stake in General Motors. And the program is what NBC called a “telementary,” a portmanteau of television documentary, or what we might know today as an infomercial. But it wasn’t trying to sell a specific car model. It was just trying to sell driving and to do it, the show was hosted by one of the most famous names in comedy, Groucho Marx.

Peter Norton: He begins, as I recall, standing in a stable or in front of a stable with a horse behind him. And there’s a sort of implicit notion here that we’re going to see the story of the passing of an obsolete way of getting around—the horse—and the introduction of the modern way, the automobile.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Groucho Marx: This is my new invention for getting through traffic jams. I’m calling it a horse. There’s still a few bugs in it, and there’s also a few bugs on it.]

Peter Norton: The imagery at least suggests to me that this is going to be a story about how we left behind the old fashioned, low-tech world for the fast-paced, modern technology world represented by the automobile age and by the automobile itself.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Groucho Marx: You know, if there hadn’t been a horse, the automobile would have had nothing to replace, and that great American romance between a man and his car might never have gotten started.]

Doug: Groucho says—and then quickly repeats—the love affair line almost as if he’s drilling it into viewers’ heads.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Groucho Marx: Our love affair with the automobile started so far back that if you can remember it, it’s way past your bedtime. It was a real love affair, one that changed our whole way of life. And it’s still doing it. I was a kind of a Stutz Bearcat man myself. That romance has left indelible scars on my arm, my elbow and my kneecap. Those were just a few of the spots where the crank hit me.]

Doug: And if there’s anyone who knows a thing or two about memorable lines, it’s Groucho Marx.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Groucho Marx: One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.]

Doug: Everyone knows Groucho: the iconic greasepaint mustache and eyebrows, the cigar. He and his famous brothers starred in some of the greatest movie comedies of all time, including Horse Feathers, Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera. Groucho was also a prodigious pitchman, and used his famous face and wisecracking persona to endorse Skippy peanut butter, GE light bulbs and DeSoto automobiles.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Groucho Marx: Friends, go in and see a DeSoto Plymouth dealer tomorrow. And when you do, tell them Groucho sent you.]

Doug: DeSoto, a division of Chrysler, was a sponsor of the game show Groucho hosted, You Bet Your Life.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, TV announcer: Here he is, Groucho Marx, in You Bet Your Life. Presented by DeSoto and the DeSoto Plymouth Dealers of America.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, advertising jingle: The time has come, it’s very clear, the car you wanted is really here. It’s delightful, it’s de-lovely, it’s DeSoto.]

Doug: It began as a radio program in 1947, switched to TV in 1950, and remained on NBC for 11 years. The final episode of You Bet Your Life aired on September 21, 1961, just one month before the broadcast of Merrily We Roll Along. And by that time, Groucho was one of the most familiar and trusted people in America. Just the man you’d want to present an hour-long special about cars, warts and all.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Groucho Marx: Frankly, the first automobile didn’t find a ready place in our hearts. In fact, it inspired downright hostility. “These noisy, smoking stink wagons,” said an angry farm journal, “Are designed to frighten to death anything they can’t flatten out. The very sight of one is enough to dry up a whole dairy herd. If we cannot barricade our streets against these snorting, hissing demons, then we had better enlarge our hospitals for their victims. And our penitentiaries for their drivers.”]

Doug: So it might seem a little weird that an infomercial would address the problems people have with cars, but a sizable portion of the TV audience in 1961 would have been old enough to remember their towns before automobiles. Groucho himself was born in New York City on October 2, 1891, nearly 17 years to the day before the first Model T rolled off the assembly line. But Peter Norton believes there’s more going on here than just a history lesson.

Peter Norton: If it is a commercial for car dependency, then it would seem counterintuitive that the early history of the car is depicted in this mixed light. But I think that what we’re seeing in that early part of the program, when we see, for example, cars crashing and people criticizing cars and so on, is we’re seeing a comparison of the controversy and the anger, really, at cars in their early years with the anger against cars that was very common at the time that this program was aired.

Doug: In the years following World War II, there was a big push to modernize and standardize America’s disjointed roadway system, which culminated in the Federal Highway Act of 1956. Otherwise known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act and signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, it called for the construction of 41,000 miles of highway over 13 years, with most of the tab—nearly $25-billion picked up by the federal government.

Peter Norton: There was a scramble for the money. Who wouldn’t want a highway that’s 90 percent paid for by the federal government? And the destructive effect on cities was obvious and extreme dislocation of residents. The parking alone for cars was eating up real estate. Building owners were finding that they could save themselves a lot of property taxes by demolishing their buildings and replacing them with surface parking. And you could sort of watch cities being erased by highways and parking in the ’50s. And sometimes I hear that today this was all accepted as if this is the 1950’s notion of progress. Not at all. There was intense controversy. People objected. They marched, they carried signs, they blocked streets. They demanded that their cities be protected. They stopped projects. Typically, it was in the white neighborhoods where people could stop projects because of the political connections and the resources available.

Doug: There was a lot of anti-car sentiment around the country. And while there were many demonstrations, one of the more notable was a protest held in 1958 to ban automobiles from Manhattan’s Washington Square Park. It featured a community activist named Jane Jacobs.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jane Jacobs: And as of today, the Board of Estimate has passed a resolution to authorize the temporary closing of the park to all traffic!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: Hey, what’s going on?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman #2: Shh. Jane’s speaking.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: Jane who?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman #2: Jane Jacobs.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: Yes. Who’s Jane Jacobs?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP woman #2: You’ve never heard of Jane Jacobs?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: No.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman #2: Where have you been?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: The Upper West Side.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jane Jacobs: This battle is our battle. The people of Greenwich Village, the ones who understand that cities are made up of more than building and roads. People make up a city.]

Doug: That scene from the Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel plays a little loose with the history. Jane Jacobs wasn’t exactly a household name in 1958, but it wouldn’t take long for her to make her mark.

Peter Norton: And Jane Jacobs, yes, she was part of that movement. And she talks about that in her famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. And that’s a book that came out two weeks before Merrily We Roll Along was first aired on national television. So it’s almost like you could say, like, two boxers in a ring. You’ve got Jane Jacobs in one corner coming out with Death and Life of Great American Cities, and just two weeks later, you’ve got the Dupont Show of the Week coming out in the other corner with Groucho Marx. And the program, Merrily We Roll Along nicely compares the controversy of the late ’50s, early ’60s, implicitly with the controversy when the car was new. And that’s a very deft move because they also characterized this early controversy as 19th century throwbacks who can’t keep up with the times—Luddites, really—people who are old fashioned in their outlook and unwilling to recognize that change sometimes requires adjustment.

Doug: One of the ways it does this is by listing a set of ridiculous laws—some real, others exaggerated—that were proposed in the early 1900s by people who were fearful of cars.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Groucho Marx: Anti-automobile societies lobbied for laws designed to make motoring downright impossible. One said, “Any self-propelled vehicle must come to a complete halt upon approaching a crossroad. The engineer must thoroughly examine the roadway ahead and sound his horn vigorously. Then ‘hello’ loudly or ring a gun, after which he must fire a gun of sufficiently audible caliber to be heard at great distance. Thereupon he will dismount and discharge a Roman candle, Vesuvius bomb or some other explosive device as final warning of his approach.]

Doug: There’s another way in which the program takes aim at people like Jane Jacobs. If you say something is a love affair, who can argue with that?

Peter Norton: The beauty of the “love affair” metaphor is that it sidesteps the critics. The critics are saying this is irrational, this is wasteful, this is dangerous, this is unfair. The list goes on. All of those criticisms, you can kind of evade them if you just say, “Well, you know what? This is a free country, and in a free country we have to bow to the preferences of the majority. And the majority have voted. It’s a love affair.” Love is not something that, you know, we judge on terms of its rationality or its efficiency. I mean, we even celebrate love if it’s a little bit dangerous. That’s kind of romantic, right? So the love affair argument nicely sidesteps it. And it also has the brilliant effect, I think, of caricaturing the critics. So the critics—Jane Jacobs included—and a great many others as well, could be associated with an urban northeast elite: writers, university academics, columnists, people like this who are judging the excesses of the automobile in the same way that the early automobile, at least in the documentary, is presented as being judged as well.

Doug: Merrily We Roll Along frequently returns to the love affair metaphor, and at one point it compares the first automobiles to the new girl in town.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Groucho Marx: The motor car was being treated like the new girl in town. After the initial curiosity, hostility set in. Clergymen pointed out that their use was not sanctioned by either the Old or the New Testament.]

Peter Norton: And the new girl in town, I mean, that expression has so much going on. I mean, for one thing, it’s female. For another thing, it’s girl, not woman. It’s also the “new girl.” And I think this may be hard to pick up in 2020, but in the early 20th century, the new girl in town was considered dangerous, you know, to the morals of the young men, but also the chance to escape from the confines of an old-fashioned, confining, rural, small town existence. So the car is—I mean, he’s recognizing that the car’s perceived as a threat, but it’s a threat that ultimately is very attractive, and it’s a threat that is sort of the necessary threshold into a modern age and an escape from this 19th-century Victorian world.

Doug: From then on out, America’s love affair follows a very traditional, romantic arc.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Groucho Marx: The internal combustion engine generated not only the power of at least 16 horses, but also the warmth of eternal affection. But while we had flirted with the others, it was Lizzie, Lizzie the Gas Buggy we finally fell for. We sang blithely about automobubbling through life together, and started out on the long honeymoon with our new sweetheart. If she had any flaw, it was a slight crankiness. These were the days when cars seemed to have personalities of their own. They were almost like living things. Children grew to love them, gave them pet names: Lizzie, Lena, Bouncing Betty. They crept from the garage into the affections of the home. They were members of the family.]

Doug: There’s a good long stretch toward the end of the show where the audience sees nothing but car crashes and chases and other Keystone Cops-style mayhem. But even those scenes extend the metaphor. They represent a man’s passionate courtship of a woman before they both finally settle down.

Peter Norton: To me, the really striking transitional point is when he says that it becomes a marriage, which he dates actually to 1929, by which point, you know, automobile sales were in the millions a year right before the Depression.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Groucho Marx: How did that chase end up? It didn’t. It’s like our romance with the automobile, it’s still going on. A honeymoon, along with a few other things in 1929. We’re still very much married to Lizzie.]

Peter Norton: And this marriage metaphor, I think, is a really interesting twist as well, because, you know, according to the cliches particularly of that time, a marriage is not all bliss. It’s also, though, a necessity. And, you know, it’s an institution that we respect, even if it’s sometimes a bit of a hassle. I love the part where, right at the very end, he’s in a Chevy on a freeway in, I think, Los Angeles. And he says …

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Groucho Marx: We don’t always know how to get along with her, but we say we can’t get along without her. And if that isn’t marriage, I don’t know what is.]

Peter Norton: Kind of a strange way to be selling car dependency because it’s not making it very attractive, but I think it’s the smart way to do it, because to pretend that car dependency is trouble free would be incredible. So instead, at the conclusion, he’s admitting that car dependency is a problem. We can’t get along without her, we can’t get along with her.

Doug: This is perhaps another reason why Groucho was the perfect pitchman for car dependency, because in 1961 he was on his third marriage, and even that one would end in divorce.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Groucho Marx: We’ve been through two wars together and a depression. She’s carried us through the air age and into the atomic age and wherever we’re headed now, it’ll be in something like this. It may be nuclear-powered, radar-controlled, gyro-steered and vitamin-enriched, but it’ll have license plates front and back, headlights and a horn. And once in a while, we’ll still have to get out and give it a shove. So merrily we roll along.]

Doug: Merrily We Roll Along came and went, but the expression “America’s love affair with cars,” or “America’s love affair with automobiles?” That stuck around.

Peter Norton: Unsurprisingly, with that much publicity, that much promotion, this started to get into circulation. But the program was certainly not part of classic television memories for people. And I think that actually kind of helped, because it meant that people lost sight of where this expression began, and began to assume that it was just an expression like other expressions that are just out there in circulation.

Doug: According to Peter Norton, by the late 1960s and 1970s, the expression became so common that even the most ardent critics of cars found themselves using it.

Peter Norton: And that’s a win for the car promoters, because the critics are walking right into the role that was cast for them by the car promoters—namely the role of being elitists who are judging the majority. So if you were condemning car dependency and you’re condemning it by saying, “Well, our problem is Americans have a love affair with the car,” you’re probably unwittingly walking into a position that says, “I’m against the majority. And unfortunately, the majority just aren’t bright enough to see it.”

Doug: Today, you’re likely to hear the expression used in a completely different way.

[NEWS CLIP: It’s time for your early reads. Is America’s love affair with the automobile officially over? The Washington Post reporting Americans are not only driving less actually, but fewer are buying cars at all. A quarter of adults in Washington, DC, don’t even have a car. And while high gas prices and unemployment are partially to blame, listen to this: new social technology has created a world people can connect with friends and family without leaving the house.]

Doug: But even that, Peter argues, is a win for motordom.

Peter Norton: The fact that you’re seeing this expression “love affair” repeatedly applied to motor vehicles, cars and trucks relentlessly, puts the journalists in the position of confirming a very questionable assumption, namely the assumption that if people buy cars and if they drive a lot, then this means that they are expressing a preference. And this is such a fundamental error, because you cannot know what people prefer when they don’t have good choices.

Doug: In all but a handful of places in the United States, it’s basically impossible to get around without a car. So it’s probably not right to say that Americans have a love affair with the automobile. It’s more like an arranged marriage.

Peter Norton: A marriage arranged for us, we’re stuck like Groucho admitted that we’re stuck. But we didn’t get stuck in this because of an essential preference or because of a mad passion. We got stuck because our choices were systemically or systematically deprived from us. And we have what’s left. I’m not denying, by the way, that driving can be very satisfying, fun, pleasurable, but satisfying, fun, pleasurable driving is not what people are normally engaged in when they’re driving a car. Typically, when they’re driving a car, it’s a chore. And I don’t think we’re being fair even to drivers when we interpret their driving as an expression of their choice. We have to give them good choices before we can tell.

Doug: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Thanks to Peter Norton at the University of Virginia for walking me through this fascinating history. You can buy Peter’s book, Fighting Traffic, by visiting the official War on Cars page on Bookshop.org. Go to Bookshop.org/shop/thewaroncars. If you have a love affair with The War on Cars, please support us on Patreon. Head over to thewaroncars.org, click on “Become a Patreon supporter,” and for just $2 a month we will send you stickers and give you access to bonus episodes. Speaking of which, thanks to our top Patreon supporters, Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York, Drew Raines and Virginia Baker.

Doug: Don’t forget, War on Cars listeners can get 20 percent off everything in the Cleverhood store by visiting Cleverhood.com/waroncars, enter promo code “waroncars”—that’s all one word—at checkout and you will get your discount. I’ve been wearing the new Rover rain cape, and it has become my go to gear for biking and walking around Brooklyn in bad weather. It’s awesome. Go check it out.

Doug: This episode was produced and edited by me. Special thanks to Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio for recording my narration. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D. Designs. I’m Doug Gordon, and on behalf of my co-hosts Aaron Naparstek and Sarah Goodyear, this is The War on Cars.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, DeSoto advertisement: [singing] Groucho sent me to see the new DeSoto. Groucho sent me and I love to drive this car. It’s long and low and roomier, so handsome you can see. It’s powerful, and I’m so glad that Groucho sent me. Listen to him when you hear Groucho say …]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Groucho Marx: So drive the new DeSoto at DeSoto-Plymouth dealers today!]