A V8 engine. The open road. A 1967 Shelby Mustang. A turbocharger kicking on as you ease the needle over 3,000 rpm, or a supercharger whining up to speed like jet engine, barely contained underneath the hood. A pickup truck, a chevrolet el camino, a Ford, a Chrysler, an Oldsmobile. Americans love their cars.
In all truth the car wasn’t invented here, not really, but they credit Henry Ford with bringing the assembly line model across from gun manufacturers, and making the car something that more people could own. The first cars were a bit shit, if we’re honest. They ran on lamp oil, they could go a few miles. It was a carriage with a mechanical horse in it. Interesting that we still measure things in horsepower. I always get a chuckle when I think of a Dodge charger being dragged along by 300 horses.
Whether it’s a restored coupe from the 50’s, or a chop top rat rod, a Nissan Skyline, or a monster truck, I understand the interest in cars. I very much enjoy machinery. I used to watch a lot of those custom motorcycle, and car building shows that were on the Discovery channel on the Irish version of cable. They call it Sky, and it’s a satellite service in case you were interested. I stopped watching that business when it became more about the horseshit manufactured in fighting between the stars. I recall the last one I watched. I had a free hour, so many years after I stopped watching the reality tv with the moustache men in it (And that is what these shows have become. Shouty moustaches) I flicked on the tv and there was Jesse James. I was pleased – I had liked his specials years before that, and now he had a new show where he had just set up a shop in Texas to get away from some toxic environment that existed at the previous shop. I shall offer you as near I can my exact experience.
So the show opens, and the voice over guy teases that there’s a celebrity guest on the way during this episode. There will be a reveal later, stay and watch, they’ll be here later. I couldn’t give a shit about a celebrity guest, I’m here for motorcycles. So there’s a guy grinding on a bike frame for a few seconds, and then we’re outside. Some deliveries come in, there’s a minor argument, and then we go to advertisements. I’m 15 minutes into this program, and I have yet to see a motorcycle. After the break we are treated to 10 minutes of Jesse James talking about this truck that he’s selling. It’s the last thing tying him to the old shop, because it has the old shop logos on it. So he sells it. More commercials. 20 minutes in, haven’t seen a motorcycle. We come back, and a fight happens. I don’t even recall the reason, but the next ten minutes are spent on this fight between Jesse and some manager that’s done something wrong, but his wife is having a baby tomorrow, so they make up. After commercial, and another reminder about the celebrity, they have another, different fight. 40 minutes in – no motorcycle building. People have always seem to get interrupted with bullshit right as they’re about to make progress on the actual building on motorcycles. The next 20 minutes are threats of firing, threats of quitting, and then as the fucking celebrity is about to walk in, the show ends, and I am told that in the next episode I will know who it was.
Never did find out, because I’d just been subjected to a motorcycle building program that contained 20 minutes of commercials, and 40 minutes of not building any fucking motorcycles. Had to resort to watching Fred Dibnah talk about steam engines to get my mechanisms fix. British television is a lot better about instructing viewers about machinery and it’s impact on society, if you like learning about the impacts of steam power. And I do.
But American culture is strongly focused on everything that came after the model T ford. America did exist before this time – I checked – but it seems that the period 1776-1900 is often skipped over pretty quickly. Independence, then westward expansion, then the civil war, then some more westward expansion, then the turn of the century. I feel that I should look into this time period some more. It seems very formative, and I’m probably missing out on some interesting information.
But the car, the car, the car. No longer did it take 40 years to get from one coast to another. No more pony express, no sir. Now there was loading the whole family into the buick and heading to Florida for the summer. Now there was getting out onto the nice, fairly new, interstate highway system to drive on. Post war America is when the country radically realigns, and it is now stood firmly behind the car. The hells angels were formed during this period, and there’s a bunch of people that are firmly aligned behind the idea of love for the open road.
The open road concept feels very American to me. This idea that the country is huge, and there’s still something to be explored. All you need is a car. A camaro, a ford ranger, a VW van, a pinto, a pontiac. The conveyance isn’t important. What matters is that you can go, you can live, you can be free, because you have a car and all that’s stopping you from going is a quick trip to the gas station. And the country is big from all reports, and it will take some days to cross it if your goal is just coast to coast driving. Historic route 66, that takes you all the way from Chicago (Originally it seems, not sure about now) to Santa Monica California. I can only image what it would be like to make that run now, or at any point in the past. Scraping the ice off your car during a Chicago winter, and deciding that you’ve had enough, and hopping on the 66. America’s highway. A few days later, you’re on the sunny beaches of Santa Monica, a world away. It’s a suitably impressive image that I one day might want to recreate. To see the plains roll away behind you as you approach the Rocky Mountains, and then seeing the coast rise to meet you. Sounds suitably majestic.
The problem with the car culture is another product of postwar America – the suburbs. I’ve bitched about the suburbs before in this text, but I feel that the point needs iterating in a different fashion. Sure, it’s hard to get around without a car, that much is obvious. But… it’s hard to be an American without a car. This country is built not only by Detroit muscle, but it’s built for Detroit muscle. The distance between the houses is often dictated by the amount of space the driveways need. Two car garages are common on most suburban homes, and isn’t that a nice bit of aspirational thinking. You need two cars to fill that garage, so get two. More cars, bigger cars, faster cars. Because the car is the thing that can harness the nebulous freedom that you’re endowed with as an American. Your levis and your coke don’t necessarily mean freedom, despite what the enterprising pricks might tell you. The car does mean freedom.
But as with every positive, there’s the darker sides. One of the biggest killers of people in the US, and Ireland, and most countries with high car ownership rates is the cars themselves. People fear flying, but it’s the safest method of travel when you consider miles covered per passenger. Cars get into wrecks far more often. Obviously medical conditions account for most of the top ten causes of death, but car deaths are right up there. Car accidents are the biggest killer of teens aged 13-19, even if parents are terrified of kidnappers, and smoking, and drinking, and volleyball or whatever else the media told you is coming for your kids this year. Then there’s the pollution, the reliance on gasoline, which causes it’s own problems. But there are other drawbacks.
Do you think that we’re dismissing other technologies and systems, like robust public transport, high speed rail, better city design, and a dozen other really exciting things, because we’re so focused on cars? I know for a fact we are, because I ride a bicycle. Drivers will get mad at you, aggressively mad, because you dare to even ride a bicycle in the roadway. I’ll set you a scene. Kimberlee and I have to get to a bus stop, because we need to go into Phoenix to the social security office to get my number. We need to ride a few blocks before we get to the stop, and part of the journey doesn’t have a sidewalk. So we’re left with two options – either ride as close to the kerb as we can manage and risk getting clipped as somebody drives too close, or we ‘take the lane.’ This involves riding two by two, so that if someone wants to pass, they must change lanes. If we had been a single slow car we would not have provoked such ire.
The kind of rage usually reserved for somebody taking a shit in your breakfast cereal. The rage you’d find spewing from some drunken hooting dickhole at a hockey riot. Riding a mere foot or two behind the bicycles, laying on the horn like it was going out of style. I don’t know if you’ve had two tons of steel and asshole breathing down your neck, but it’s remarkably fucking threatening. Three drivers engaged in this behaviour. Because we tried NAY; DARED to waste precious seconds of your life by making you change lanes. Fuck pirates, the lot of them. I was very agitated, and yelling some unpleasantries at these drivers, because you fucking would be. Drivers act like cyclists shouldn’t be on the road at all. The road’s for cars, don’t you know, so I’ll be an asshole all day because you get around using your legs.
Speaking of assholes, there’s a thing here called ‘Rolling coal.’ There’s a certain crowd here, and it’s the same people that like to put bodykits on their cars back home, and put loud tailpipes on there, and to get their car ‘chipped’ and all sort of other nonsense. The types that like to speed on the backroads in the middle of the night, for the thrill of the race. Well, the thrill right until you wrap your car around a tree or two. There are speed focused gear heads here too, but the coal rollers are of a different ilk. Much as I dare to ride a bicycle, there are some that dare to drive a hybrid. They do it for the gas mileage, they do it to drive a toyota, they do it for the tax breaks, they do it because they care about the planet – whatever, not my business. The coal rollers believe this to be an affront to everything good and proper. So they install some aftermarket systems into their cars which dumps unburned diesel or gas into their tailpipes, and this produces voluminous clouds of choking black smoke. They’ll fire this up in front of a prius, behind a prius, between priuses, outside a prius convention, or anywhere else that’s apparently appropriate. Way to sound like level headed citizens. Public discourse through public pollution. Shite jockeys and fuck knockers, the whole lot of them.
I’m no eco-warrior. I ride a bike because I don’t have a car, nor do I know how to pilot one. I know the basics of making a car move, but I don’t have a drivers licence, nor have I received enough training, formal or informal, to reliably wrangle a single horse power, let alone a few hundred of them. But getting a car has been on my mind since I arrived. Let alone the distance limitations of a bicycle, let alone always making sure you have a ride somewhere and back from somewhere, let alone the hassle you get as a cyclist – you need a car to be a productive and included American. I’ve made some great friends, that are usually happy to go out of their way to pick me and the wife up, but without that lifeline we’d have been some very lonely people.
Imagine the economic impacts of not having a car in a country where the public transport is less than amazing. Can’t drive to job interviews, can’t drive to career open days, can’t drive to get your groceries so you’re limited to what you can carry, can’t drive to parties, can’t drive to vote, can’t drive to much of anything without a fucking car.
Where there are cars, there is car culture. But when America got its hands on the car, it decided to built everything around it. It’s difficult to think outside of this metal box.