Germany's invention the jet engine, adopted by America and so often featured by Hollywood inspired the jet age with all its futuristic references for men such as Raymond Lowie and Harley Earl to lavish their endless talents upon. Fostered by the industrial scale genius of men such as both Henry Ford's and Walter Chrysler Americans flocked to the Studebakers Cadillacs and Chevrolets which represented the ideals of the collectivisms of the jet age and futurism. Just look at a late 50s American car; monsters outrageous as seen through a doubtful 21st century lens; cars brought to market by a confidence foreign to today's onlooker with their gargantuan size, bright colour schemes and endless array of gadgets. But for whatever corruptions abound most people find it impossible to sit at the steering wheel of a late 50s jet age inspired American car and not smile. With their over the top instrument binnacle, bold colours and endless chrome gadgets they represent innocence and fun rather than cultural or environmental guilt. It is often said that you can't buy happiness but I cannot remember ever seeing someone driving one who did not look happy and have a childish mischievousness to them when asked about it. These cars were made for a market which is gone, for people whose values have largely disappeared but today these cars command a premium price, and will be valued and appreciated more as the times they represent become more distant, and more desirable.
1959 Caddilac, so long you arrive as you leave
Thunderbirds are go!
The automobile was entrenched into the lives of Americans more so than any other nationality, due largely to the ways their cities were laid out. Americas public transport system was purchased by General motors in the 1930s and promptly dismantled in order to promote car sales, resulting in cities with an administrative hub which was dead after 6pm surrounded by sprawling suburbs accessible only by private transport. Central locking and electric windows quickly put a pane of glass between the affluent car driver and the undesirable street urchin. A comfortable drive to the suburbs put miles of insulation between them, both geographically and demographically.
Americans loved cars and loved singing and hearing about them, from the Beach Boys "And she'll have fun fun fun till her Daddy takes the T-Bird away" to Brian Wilson's "fuel injected Stingray with a 413 revvin' up the engine and she sounds real mean" to just about every pop music artist in the U.S.A who sang of happiness. Public transport sung about only by intellectuals such as Simon & Garfunkel and Kris Kristofferson in reference to railway stations and Greyhound buses when down on one's luck. Janis Joplin's No1 hit "Me and Bobby Mcgee" tells a road trip story of loss and heartbreak with no cars. Written by Rhodes scholar and former U.S Air force Captain Kris Kristofferson when "Busted flat in Baton Rouge headin' for the trains feelin' near as faded as my jeans Bobby thumbed a diesel down" and so a strangers diesel truck becomes a musical canvas on which to lose a girl, in a way that no car could. In popular music men with cars don't lose girls. The concept of freedom has always been intrinsic to car marketing, advertised cars always shown on empty roads, but Kristofferson lets the cat out of the bag with his one sentence "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose". A tangible expression of emotional intelligence, immediately recognisable as American. The coolest of them all, Dion Dimucci with his 1961 hit The Wanderer "When I find myself falling for some girl I hop right into that car of mine and drive around the world" tells of the autonomy and sexual mobility of four wheels, and boy did he sound sexy singing it. To date, attempts at covering Dimucci recordings have been as futile as copying Jackson Pollock drip paintings.
Dion & the Belmonts "Doo-Wop" album cover
As the sense of the collective gave way to individualism, brought about most likely by TV advertising; what people wanted from a car was an advertisement of personal power, no longer association with a collective such as futurism but a statement of individual gusto. Confidence in self was somewhat less than confidence in collectives hence bright colours were replaced by subdued tones at least until the market found its feet. This new culture of self and cars such as Fords Mustang with sales of over 400 000 in its first year alone gave rise to that uniquely American/Australian working class product, the muscle car. The European automotive industry has mostly been about customers buying cars which define their position within social class hierarchies, a set of values at odds with what muscle cars are. With its finely drafted crisp lines; huge engine and acres of black vinyl nothing else quite said "don't fence me in" as boldly as the muscle car. Bruce Springsteen's meticulously constructed anthem "Born to Run" said what countless movies tried to "Chrome wheels fuel injected and steppin' out over the line". But which line? Whatever the motivations for getting behind the wheel of a high powered muscle car the experience once there is of a drugged like intoxication unmatched in the world of motoring. A primal experience indefensible in any rational debate other than to say "you wouldn't understand".
1973 Pontiac Firebird, a primal experience indefensible in any rational debate other than to say "you wouldn't understand"
The cold war left McCarthy era Americans frightened and doubtful. Kennedy had been shot but wouldn't go away, with a majority of Americans believing that their own government had lied about his assassination.Then Vietnam, a war predicated on the Tonkin lie; ultimately ending in defeat and a humiliating retreat; the loss of over 58 000 American and Australian lives and over 1 million Vietnamese. Almost overnight American cars changed dramatically with the boxy models of the mid sixties bearing little resemblance to those of the late 50s. The cube like creations of the sixties increasingly resembled the coffin looking Lincoln that Kennedy had so tragically died in. This period of conservatism also produced some of the most dignified looking cars ever made in America such as the 1964 to 1966 Cadillacs and Lincolns, with their perfectly calibrated authority; 5.7 metre length;and 7 litre 350 horsepower engines they were devoid of nothing other than pretense and fuel economy.
The coffin looking Lincoln that Kennedy had so tragically died in.