How cars define our lives, and why a 2004 SUV is like a 1904 Stoddard-Dayton roadster.
|American Iron: The Cars That Defined American Mobility
By Dan Cooper
In the U.S.A. the automobile has become much more than a luxury or a convenience. It has become a necessity. But even more than a necessity, it is also an icon for the mobility that has defined the country. A nation spanning 2,500 miles must rely on effective transportation, and the automobile is the acknowledged focal point of personal transportation.
With the two exceptions of the printing press and the telephone, there has probably been no other invention with more impact on such a high percentage of the population than the automobile. The computer is gaining influence, but the automobile is still way ahead. Our lives are defined by our cars in a way that is unlike any other factor in our society today. The well-known Disney animation, in which Goofy’s personality undergoes a complete transition when he gets behind the wheel, is not merely an entertaining piece of fiction. We recall it because it has the ring of truth. We are changed by our cars.
Much of the world has adopted the automobile as a necessity. With such an emphasis on our mobility it is no surprise that Americans, as well as mobile citizens the world over, have fallen in love with cars. The best and most memorable cars have produced the most vivid and lasting effects, and in America there is a rich tradition of fine vehicles that have defined the American way.
Little grey sedans and bubble-like transportation devices serve a functional purpose, but neither that purpose nor those vehicles address our affinity with the automobile. That predilection is nurtured by two features sorely lacking in the grey box and the bubble transport. Those cars lack performance and style.
In recent years the automotive industry has shifted its emphasis toward sport utility vehicles due in large part to less stringent governmental emission restrictions on these vehicles. Many vehicles manufactured today are so limited in performance due to emission standards that they are substantially less attractive. The less-restricted SUVs are thus more popular despite their utilitarian appearance. Their popularity is in part a result of our fascination with vehicles that offer exceptional performance.
Cars with performance and cars with style are, and always have been, our favorites. And cars that happen to have both performance and style are the ones we cherish above all others. We watch them and drive them. We talk about them. We remember them. And ultimately we think of collecting them as beautiful examples of a rich tradition.
In America the great memories include the muscle cars that impressed us with acceleration and power. We loved the Pony cars that Ford started with the Mustang. And we identified even with standard family sedans by virtue of their successes in modified form, in NASCAR racing. The sports cars that have moved us with their performance include the Corvette and more recently the Viper. The original Thunderbird in the 50’s was a bold sporty departure that was long on style and long overdue.
The heritage of “Detroit-made” excellence in performance goes back to the earliest days of motoring. Before there were muscle cars in the 60’s and 70’s, there were the strong and sporty big sedans in the 50’s, including the Oldsmobiles and Chryslers, and the small sporty Thunderbird started a trend that would develop into what Detroit would variously term the “sport coupe,” and the “personal car.”
Earlier there were the Cord and the Auburn and the most extravagant and unmistakable example of both elegance and performance, the Duesenberg. The incredible Model J was the car of the stars—almost no one else could afford it. Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century Barney Oldfield made Peerless a household word that lasted for decades, as did many of his racing records in Peerless automobiles. In a different way the great luxury sedans of America have impressed us with their opulent elegance of style rather than their performance. They have deservedly become collectibles, and include the long chiseled-looking Lincoln of the 60’s and early 70’s, the finned Cadillac of the 50’s, Packard in the 40’s and earlier, Chrysler Imperial among others in the 30’s, and Pierce-Arrow as early as the 20’s. Packard lived on as a shadow of its former greatness into the fifties. Earlier, it was a contemporary of the superlative Duesenbergs, but had a lineage that went back to the pre-classic period. The Packards of the 30’s exhibited a quality in workmanship and finish that was unrivalled and was a proud inheritance from Packards as far back as pre-1920. In those days the standard of quality was defined by America’s Packard in a way that Europe’s Rolls Royce envied and would soon emulate.
Earlier still, America had a memorable example of excellence in the sporty Stutz Bearcat. And even before that, as early as 1904, the standard for quality in sporty roadsters was Stoddard-Dayton.
These cars have moved us, so to speak, because of their flair, their elegance, their pizzazz, their quality. They did something to us, and they continue to do so. In two words, they taught us to appreciate style and performance. And they did it to us in ways we can never forget.
The cars we call American Iron: We appreciate and honor them. And sometimes, when we can, we collect them with a passion.
© Dan Cooper, 2000
Originally published (and currently viewable) at Suite101.com