David L. Lewis

Sex and the Automobile: From Rumble Seats to Rockin' Vans

Every form of transportation has played a part in American courtship and romance. Pedestrian locomotion, horses, boats, trains, bicycles, streetcars, automobiles, buses, and airplanes have brought lovers together, or sped them to the Elysian fields for idyllic pleasures. Before the auto age, the horse and buggy provided the most effective vehicle for romance—and even offered one advantage over the motorcar: horsepower that knew the way home. If on a familiar road, a rural Romeo could tie the reins lightly about the whip socket, and expect Dobbin to maintain a steady clippity-clop down the middle of the road. And two hands then, as now, were better than one. Moreover, some of the buggies, especially those equipped with canvas tops, side curtains, cushions, and comforters, could be cozy; and none was encumbered with bucket seats, gear shifts, consoles, and other Berlin Wall-type features that keep couples apart in modern cars. But the horse drawn conveyances had disadvantages. The buggy admitted mosquitoes in the summer and the cold in the winter, and the horse sometimes made noises incompatible with romance. Efforts were made to have horse push, rather than pull, buggies. None proved successful.

Cars fulfilled a romantic function from the dawn of the auto age. They permitted couples to get much farther away from front porch swings, parlor sofas, hovering mothers, and pesky siblings than ever before. In motor vehicles, couples could range far afield for picnics and swims in the summertime and to dances and other forms of entertainment year-around. Courtship itself was extended from the five-mile radius of the horse and buggy to ten, twenty, and fifty miles and more. Sociologists duly noted that increased mobility provided by the motorcar would lead to more cross-breeding and eventually improve the American species.

Autos were more than a mode of transportation. They were a desti- nation as well, for they provided a setting for sexual relations including intercourse. The earliest cars offered little improvement over buggies insofar as courtship was concerned. Most models were open, and couples, seated on "high-rise" seats, were highly visible to onlookers and exposed to the elements except when tops were put up and curtains fastened around. Heaters were nonexistent, or as primitive as heated bricks. But by the early 1920s most cars were enclosed; and passengers were less illuminated and rode lower, half-hidden by doors and side panels. Efficient heaters provided wintertime comfort. Seats, front and back, became progressively longer, wider, and more comfortable. Most seats also were detachable, and thus could be removed for ground action. In addition, many cars were equipped with long, wide running boards, and, starting in the mid-1920s, increasingly long, sloping fenders, some of which gained reputations as automotive chaise lounges. When covered with pillows or blankets, running boards and fenders provided an emergency or novelty setting for sexual encounters. Running boards were phased out in the mid- and late-1930s, and fender love tapered off in 1941-42 as fenders were extended into front doors.

Early in the century many couples made love in cars because—in an era in which many young men and women lived with their parents—they had no better place to copulate. But others made love in cars because they found it exciting, sometimes dangerously so. and a change from familiar surroundings. Lovers' lanes abounded in parks and off lesser streets and roadways in and around most communities. Ideally, police officers did not harass lovers, vet provided a sufficient presence to discourage bushwhackers, Peeping Toms, and worse. Most communities officially ignored sex in cars, but some passed laws which prohibited intercourse, even kissing, in vehicles To this day, Chicago, by legislating against any "indecent act in public" and defining sexual intercourse as "indecent" and a car as a "public place," forbids lovemaking in cars. Deerfield, Illinois, prohibits kissing within part of the drop-off zone at its commuter station, while sanctioning kissing within the other part. Signs which picture a kissing couple, one with a stripe drawn through, indicate which zone is which. In any event, laws against sex in cars are so rarely enforced, that any attention paid to them makes national news. Police officers on the contrary, are more likely to be amused by romantic interludes they discover in cars.

The link between cars and courtship was immediately evident to everyone not wearing blinders. Songwriters, Valentine and post-card sellers, cartoonists, advertisers, and others rhapsodized endlessly on the connection. Tin Pan Alley, always attuned to the times, mixed passion with gasoline in scores of such songs as Take Me Out for a Joy Ride Take a Little Ride with Me Baby, In Our Little Love Mobile, Riding in Love's Limousine, On the Back Seat of the Henry Ford, I'm Going to Park Myself in Your Arms, Fifteen Kisses on a Gallon of Gas, When He Wanted to Love Her He'd Put up the Cover, and Tumble in a Rumble Seat. Most of the lyrics, simple and syrupy, spoke of the joys of having (or being) a queen for one's machine, or motoring off for a lark to spark in the park. Many songs had couples embarking on auto honeymoons, and several automakers commissioned tunesmiths to make sure that the honeymooners used their models. A few songs were provocative, and likely would have been banned on radio had the medium existed at the time. In a 1915 tune, a "ladykiller," foxy Johnny Miller, at the slightest hint of rain and over the feeble protests of his queen, would put up the cover and fasten the side curtains around. The song, when played in parlors and at dances, invariably produced guffaws. Other songs, such as I'd Rather Co Walking with the Man I Love Than Ride in Your Automobile (You Cad), consoled motorless males, or warned girls to Keep Away from the Fellow Who Owns an Automobile. Cars themselves occasionally were described as sex partners. Mr. Packard and Miss Flivvrerette have a fling, then, after getting married, conceive a Buick In another song, a Tin Lizzie Mama bedazzles a Rolls Royce Papa.

Most of the love tunes were eminently forgettable, and only one, My Merry Oldsmobile, the best known song ever written about the automobile, endures. Almost every reader should be able to plug the melody into these Lyrics:

Come away with me Lucille, In my merry Oldsmobile, Over the road of life we'll fly, Autobubbling you and I, To the church we'll swiftly steal, And our wedding bells will peal, You can go as far as you like with me, In our merry Oldsmobile.

Every auto-related Valentine, many in the shape of cars, inspired illusions of romance. Most were no more complicated than the line, "You auto be my Valentine," but some waxed poetically on moon, spoon, and love-in-bloom. Picture post cards, highly popular through the 1930s, ranged widely in theme. Many were as innocent as a picture of a couple on a joy ride, the lady waving her handkerchief to onlookers. But many others were provocative, even risqué. Out-of-gas cards, many tied to romance, always sold well, as did cards which linked romance to auto parts, especially the starter, crank, and spark plugs. A female motorist-in-distress hopes the mechanic will "start something," and not necessarily the engine; a lady asks her escort to "crank up"; a pretty girl, standing next to a car, "gets the brakes." Car repairs also lent themselves to blue humor. A mechanic, looking up from beneath the rear of a lady's car, assures his nearby client that "your rear end is in great shape." A best selling post card of the 1930s shows a female hitchhiker, babe in arms, asking a motorist pulling up beside her if he "wasn't the fellow who gave me a ride about a year ago?" Other post cards, reflecting a popular theme, show a picture of a lithesome hitchhiker standing beside a jackass she had been riding, and flagging down a motorist with the words, "Can I have a ride? My ass is tired." Still other post cards center around holding one's girl, or steering the car, depending on one's point of view. A girl wants her beau to "use both hands." He'd gladly oblige. if "only the car would steer itself." Other cards focused on cars and couples in romantic settings. A pair picnics beneath the legend: "The best place for lovers/Where nobody hovers." The gentleman pictured in the card plies the object of his affection with an alcoholic beverage. but his car's detachable seat remains in place. "But for how long`" chortles a sender of the card, "given the effects of that bottle of Demon rum?" Another post card simply shows a car parked in the countryside sans picnickers, its legend admonishing readers that evil comes to those who think evil thoughts.

The auto inspired more newspaper and magazine cartoons than any other artifact during the first three decades of the century, and many had sexual connotations. Parking/sparking and out-of-gas themes were perennially popular. Many jokes also centered around detachable seats. The most famous of them, appearing in the New Yorker in 1931, shows a bedraggled couple carrying a rear seat cushion, and informing a police officer of a stolen car. Other cartoons were highly diverse—a highway sign reading "soft shoulders"; a flapper, accompanied by two escorts, explaining that she always carries a "spare'': a boy telling a girl, as they neck on a sofa, that he's using only one arm because he's practicing for the day he'll own a car.

Sex, especially as related to masculine virility, has been emphasized in auto ads since early in the century. Pierce-Arrow's 1910 ads make no mention of price or anything else about the car; just show a sketch of a brutish machine and a couple of strong, handsome dogs whom every father's daughter had to hope were accessories that came with the car. Oldsmobile's most famous advertisement pictures a dashing figure hunched over the steering wheel of a huge 1911 Oldsmobile Limited, in the foreground, racing alongside an onrushing train. Ads featuring masculine virility eventually gave way to campaigns showing pert girls at the wheel or seductive women draped over the hood.

Automakers, according to some psychologists, not only advertised their cars as sex objects; they also consciously or subconsciously designed dreams of sex into their vehicles. As cars became longer and longer, they were pointed to as male phallic symbols; and their long, sleek radiator/hood ornaments the more so. Buxom headlamps and bumper guards and radiator grilles (notably the Edsel's) were perceived as female sexual symbols. On the other hand, Henry Ford, according to widespread rumor, sought to discourage sex through car design. The auto king allegedly limited his Model T's seat length to 38 inches so as to inhibit lovemaking in Tin Lizzies. If that was Ford's intent, he failed, for a thirty-eight-inch seat was simple for determined couples, the more so when the seat was removed from the car. Besides, said wags, given the Model T's seven-foot height, short couples could have intercourse standing up.

If car makers sought to design and sell their vehicles as sex symbols, they have succeeded in doing so in the minds of psychologists Dr. Joyce Brothers and Dr. Herbert Hoffinan. Dr. Brothers maintains that cars, to many men, have been "an extension of themselves and a powerful symbol of masculinity and virility. The more immature the male, the more his sexuality is apt to be linked to . . . cars. In their minds," she adds, "there is a link between horsepower and sexual prowess. They may also equate driving with sexual function which leads to the assumption that the bigger the car the better." Dr. Hoffinan, director of a New York guidance center, maintains that a mall's hidden sexual fantasies may be determined by the kind of car he wishes to own. Thus those who want jazzy sports cars have fantasies involving sexually aggressive females; those wishing to own luxury cars dream of romantic affairs in exotic surroundings; would-be owners of four-wheel drive vehicles are admirers of healthy women ~with well-developed hoclies and physical endurance, and dream of making love in scenic spots; and one-of-a-kind custom car fanciers have sexual fantasies in which they lead the life of a playboy, having more affairs than any other man on earth. Whether or not automakers have tried to design dreams of sex into their products, they have incorporated features which have lent themselves to sex. Long before the van era, manufacturers designed beds into their vehicles by folding front seatbacks into rearseat cushions. The 1925 Jewett, typically, slept two persons in comfort, as long as neither stretched out more than six feet, one and one-half inches in length. Nearly all automakers advertised their "sleeper cars" as a means of saving on hotel bills; none alluded to beds as a sexual convenience/comfort option. Nonetheless, knowing people winked at owners of "rolling dormitories," and inquired how fast the seatback could be folded back, whether the springs squeaked, etc. Nash president George Mason, usually a dour man, invariably chuckled as he described his firm's post-World War II Statesman, equipped with a many-splendored bed, as the "young man's car." Today no American-built auto is equipped with a seat bed, although some have tilt seats. A number of foreign-made cars have seat beds, giving them, in the minds of some, yet another competitive advantage. Albeit short on beds, American car makers offer many accessories which are a boon to courtship and romance. Air conditioners, along with heaters, have made sexual relations a more pleasant year-round diversion. Tilt-steering wheels provide for additional frontseat maneuverability. Lighted vanity mirrors facilitate freshing up in the event of battle fatigue. Radios, supplemented by stereo units, help set the mood for romance. Citizen Band radios enable couples to arrange get-togethers. But the use of CB radio could backfire. "Brown Eyes" was shot to death by her husband in Adamstovvn, Pennsylvania, last year after her husband heard her call for "Flying Angel," her lover. CB also helps prostitutes attract customers. In 1980, hookers with such handles as "Tons of Fun," "Chocolate Kisses," "Hot Lips," "Pussy Cat Sally," and "Joy to the World" lured scores of truckers to motels in Port Jervis, Washington, and Lexington, North Carolina. Autos have done more than enable couples to meet and make love and to inspire songwriters, Valentine and card designers, cartoonists. and adsmiths. They also have influenced American culture by abetting prostitution, creating the "hot pillow" trade in tourist courts and motels, providing an impetus for drive-in restaurants and movies, and inducing many motorists to wear their hearts on license plates and bumpers. Prostitutes and their pimps began using cars to solicit customers and as a setting for sexual intercourse in the 1920s—as soon as closed vehicles came into vogue. Pimps, especially, advertised their profession, and their status within it, by the kind of cars they drove. Desiring distinctive vehicles, they created them. They were, in fact, the first post-World War II motorists to customize their cars with opera windows. This design feature was almost exclusively associated with pimps until the mid-1970s, when Detroit began offering the feature on its tonier models. Car buff's disparagingly referred to the vehicles as "pimpmobiles." It was common knowledge for years that tourist courts and motels trafficked heavily in the "hot pillow" trade. But the scope of that trade was not revealed until the Federal Bureau of Investigation's J. Edgar Hoover publicly assailed "camouflaged brothels" in 1940. Hoover cited a Southern Methodist University study which found that many big-city motels refused accommodations to anyone from outside their home counties because they could make more money with the faster turnover of the "couple trade." Some Texas cabins, said Hoover, had been rented as many as sixteen times in one night, while cabins in other cities were rented by the hour, "and there was a knock on the door when the hour was up." Many of these establishments, added Hoover, were closed to the traveling public on weekends and provided prostitutes in the guise of entertainers, hostesses, and waitresses. The first drive-in restaurant, Royce Hailey's Pig Stand, was opened in Dallas in 1921, and thousands of its brethren sprouted around the country during the 1920s and 1930s. Most of the drive-ins were located at the edge of town, served inexpensive sandwiches and soft drinks, and were patronized by all manner of people. But drive-ins had special appeal for youthful, impecunious motorists, who were attracted by the prices, carhops, and other customers like themselves. Few youths stayed long at any one drive-in; they cruised endlessly and mindlessly from one to another in search of action. The number of drive-in restaurants peaked in the 1960s, and has declined steadily since. Teen-age patrons helped kill them, their rowdiness turning away older customers and reducing the volume of business. Many property owners, moreover, found they could make more money by leasing or selling their lots to fast-food franchises. Only a few hundred drive-in restaurants remain. One of the survivors, Delores Drive-In, which opened in Beverly Hills in 1946, was proposed for historic landmark status, in 1980 a sure sign that the species is endangered. The drive-in theater almost seemed to have been created for sex in cars. The first of them was opened on June 6, 1933, in Camden, New Jersey. It accommodated 400 cars arranged in seven inclined rows from which motorists viewed films 011 a 40 x 50-foot screen. Successive drive-ins grew to such size that some of them featured as many as nine screens offering 18 films per evening. Many establishments were equipped with individual heaters and air conditioners. Drive-ins quickly gained a reputation as "passion pits," and patrons generally agreed that there often was a better show in the cars than on the screen. Humorists complained that the soundtrack sometimes was drowned out by the unzipping of zippers, and observed that many a male patron had come of age while unhooking a bra clasp with one hand. The more amorous the couples, the more likely that they would gravitate to the theater's hack rows. Some patrons had to be informed by the management that the film had he en concluded, the lights had been turned on, and almost everyone else had gone home. Although some drive-in owners instructed their personnel to prevent couples from "making a scene," others had the attitude, "you pay your money, you get what you came for." Management occasionally helped matters along, hiring "ushers" who served as "auto pimps" and providing prostitutes to make "car calls." The number of drive-in theaters reached an all-time high of 4,063 then began to decline slowly, starting in the 1960s and more rapidly in the late 1970s. Drive-ins' problems are manifold: competition from television and shopping center theaters; universal adoption of daylight savings time; a waning number of family films; and much higher fuel bills for establishments offering winter fare. Today there are fewer than 3,500 drive-ins, most of them in the Sunbelt states and California. The falloff rate in northern cities has been precipitous. In metropolitan Detroit, for example, only eleven drive-ins are now operating, as against twenty-seven in 1977. Among these eleven. only three are open in wintertime, as against eighteen in 1977. Many motorists express their romantic feelings on their license plates and bumpers. LUV 1 and LUV 2 and LUVU and LUVU2 share Michigan driveways. Two Texans advertise themselves as SEX) and having NO WIFE; Pennsylvanians sport X-RATED, KISS ME. and WICKED; Ohioans LOVE, LOVING, and AGAPAO (Greek for love); and a Michiganian pleads Y-NOT? Californians have formed a waiting line for plates bearing the letters GAY. But more than 100 of the 1,000 Iowans issued GAY plates in 1978 paid a $4.00 exchange fee to get rid of them. Many bumper stickers are "cutely"—"Ford Drivers Make Better Lovers"—while others are obscene to the point that they cannot be printed here. Two car models have especially appealed to romantics—those with rumble seats and convertibles. Rumble seats made their appearance during the 1920s, and were quickly identified with agile young lovers. Most rumble seats were lacking in roominess. But they made up in coziness what they lacked in comfort, and could offer privacy as well, if equipped with a canvas top and sides. Rumble seats were a passing fancy; all were phased out before World War II. All of the earliest cars were convertibles, and even as late as 1919 more than 80 percent were open models. By the end of the 1920s, however, closed cars made up more than 90 percent of the car population. Meanwhile, the sleek convertible sedan with a lowerable top—the true convertible—appeared. It also appealed primarily to youth, and to those who wished to appear young. During the long convertible era, "hardly anything," according to columnist Sidney J. Harris, "seemed more romantic or glamorous than gliding through the night with the top down. One's dates," adds Harris, "pretended to adore them—until they were married—even though their hairdos, makeup, and clothes were ruffled out of recognition by high winds, dust, and the trailing exhaust of other cars." Convertibles' popularity peaked in 1973, when the model comprised 6.Yi percent of all sales. Their popularity waned with the increased popularity of air conditioners and hardtop coupes with vinyl roof styling, and high-speed expressway travel. The last domestic convertible was produced by Cadillac in 1976. But several thousand sedans are customized into convertibles each year. "People who drive convertibles don't care about the energy or any other crisis," declared a customizer. "To them, the convertible is sex, romance, wind in your hair—hey, man, it's the American dream." During the 1970s, the van came to the fore in mobile lovemaking. Vans, described by auto analyst Arvid Jouppi as a "love affair within Americans' love affair with cars," provided young people with the best of two worlds: a way to break away from home, yet remain tied to a home. Vans undoubtedly are the most sexually-oriented vehicles ever built. Even the exteriors of many vans leave no doubt as to their owners' motives. Many feature surrealistic murals, ranging in taste from Early or French Bordello scenes of nude women to portraits of club-bearing "cave men" holding females by their hair. Many vans bear naughty bumper stickers along the lines of "Sin Bin," "Do 'It In a Van!," "If It's Arockin', Don't Come Aknockin'," and "Don't Laugh, Your Daughter May Be in Here." Most van owners are single men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five. They and other owners equip their vehicles with such amenities as one-way windows, shag carpeting, soft lights, mirrored walls and ceilings, revolving flashing globes, wine racks, stereo units, color TV, bathrooms, bars, refrigerators, fireplaces—and almost inevitably—beds. "Why do I like vans?," said a vanner in response to a question. "You can puzzle people with vans. You can suck beer or smoke dope and just raise pure hell in vans. And you can score in vans." Vans also are a prostitute's motorized dream. In them, they can cruise in search of clients. After taking in a John, they entertain without fear of police interruption. Officers cannot get inside without a search warrant. If vans represent the ultimate in mobile sex, they also have an Achilles' heel: they are gas hogs. Their popularity has waned as motorists have become more miles-per-gallon conscious. But they remain the best way to go for the dedicated lover on wheels. Just as the golden age of the auto is receding, so the salad days of sex and cars are on the wane. Cars, because of the high cost and potential shortage of fuel, are getting smaller and smaller, Although couples can make out even in the tiniest of cars, a point of diminishing returns sets in about the time they begin to cuddle, much less copulate, in subcompacts—except for those with reclining seats (the light at the end of the tunnel). As for the electric pygmies looming on the horizon, heaven forbid that normal-size people ever have to find the way in them. Even the most determined, ingenious and acrobatic of lovers will find them an all-but-impossible challenge. Downsizing isn't the only problem confronting car Casanovas. The number of safe trysting spots has been drying up at an alarming rate in recent years. Big-city parks often are off-bounds to lovers after sundown, and urban sprawl, farmers' no trespassing signs, and chains strung across lovers' lanes have conspired to reduce the number of car-accommodating lovenests to a small fraction of those once available. But perhaps problems associated with lovemaking by car are beside the point. Most people no longer want or need cars for sexual relations anyway. Older people (those over thirty years of age) have beds at home, and lack the spirit of adventurousness and/or agility required of car loving today. High schoolers, who in times past counted on cars for sexual relations, now can make out at their or their partners' homes while mother and dad are at work. Collegians can have at each other in the rooms of their unsupervised dormitories. Who needs cars when beds are so readily available? Still, lovemaking in cars is unlikely to disappear completely from the American cultural scene. It still represents pleasurable excitement and a change of pace. As a Chicago woman wrote Ann Landers in 1978, "My fiancé and I wish to add an extra dimension to our lovemaking by extending our sexual environment to God's beautiful out-of-doors—including the car." Her sentiment is one that can be shared, at least appreciated, by all of those who have made love in a car—including perhaps not a few readers of this essay.