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Cars Are More than Transportation

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Opinions expressed by Bill Crittenden are not official policies or positions of The Crittenden Automotive Library. You can read more about the Library's goals, mission, policies, and operations on the About Us page.

Cars Are More than Transportation

Bill Crittenden
The Crittenden Automotive Library
June 30, 2011


"Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car."  E.B. White (from One Man's Meat, 1944)

So I get a little overboard about car knowledge sometimes.  I apply an ├╝ber-geek level of depth to a topic that usually doesn't attract the Dungeons & Dragons or computer nerd crowd.  Beyond all that knowledge, there has to be a reason why greasy car parts and old hatchbacks hold my interest better than the usual geek stuff.

If you haven't seen me before, I'm a fairly hefty fellow.  I went through high school avoiding fights and not being good at sports.  Actually, before I had a license, I did a lot of the regular geek stuff.  I still have my Magic: The Gathering cards to prove it.

High school is a lot like medieval ages.  Might makes right, and the strength of one's proverbial swordarm becomes the defining line between the intimidators and the intimidated.  However, in the past gunpowder changed the balance of power in favor of those with accuracy, speed, and a little mechanical knowledge.  So it is today, as a driver's license changes the balance of power.  Go ahead and hit me now, you can't just deny it to a teacher when you've got my door paint on your front bumper and the cops are the ones asking the questions!  Suddenly, driving skill matters more than physical strength and fearlessness.  In 1964 Henry Gregor Felsen wrote in his book To My Son - The Teenage Driver, "Climbing into a hot car is like buckling on a pistol.  It is the great equalizer."

At 16, I was no longer the slowest in the class.  I could do things that others could not.  I didn't have to wait and walk behind or get shoved into the lockers, I had the same right of way at the stop sign as everybody else.  I drove cheap little cars with aspirations of more, little bits of personality on wheels that I got along with as I was someone with low self esteem hoping for something more out of life.  Those cheap little cars also had rough suspensions that didn't absorb much, so I got to feel every little bump and got to know exactly what that car could do, and what it's breaking point was.  Sure, there were some trials and a few errors, as I was sixteen and seventeen at the time, but on the whole I survived to age thirty without an arrest or a totaled car.

It's the second or third biggest investment most of us ever make, aside from housing and education.  We spend so much time in it, there is such a variety of infinitely personalizeable vehicles that they become extensions of our personality.  The stuffy old ladies drive a Buick or a Mercury, and the hippies drive Volkswagens.  "The car has become a secular sanctuary for the individual, his shrine to the self, his mobile Walden Pond," was what Edward McDonagh wrote in 1963.

I asked my first girlfriend out on our first date riding a bike with flat tires.  She lived maybe ten blocks from my house.  I met my wife an hour's drive from where I grew up, and was impressed at how the little leadfoot made me work to keep up on the way to the movie.  Maybe she was trying to get away from me, but then she accepted a second date, so maybe not.  In between I had taken another girl out to the Indiana countryside, got a good scare following a Google-generated map through "the 'hood," explored my little corner of the world finding good pizza with my buddy Rich and even a little trouble with Lewis.  These days may not change the existence of humanity as a whole, but they have changed me.  One car probably cannot change the world on its own, but it can change the world for one person.  Enough cars collectively changing the lives of enough people has changed the world as we know it.

Beyond the actual act of driving, this is why I appreciate the technology and study obscure little Korean sedans like the one that gave me the freedom to move.  That's why my Library is about so much more than "look at that badass Camaro!"  It's about how a combination of technologies put together in recognizable form for the first time in 1886 has shaped everyday living perhaps more than any other invention other than the microprocessor.  Cars represent freedom, equality, personality, multitudes of occupations and lifestyles, more than plastic and metal they are a part of our families to be cherished when present and missed when absent.

It's become such a part of everyone's life that even back in 1938 Lewis Mumford wrote in The Culture of Cities, "Our national flower is the concrete cloverleaf."



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