Vehicles for Myth: The Shifting Image of the Modern Car

From: Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon, eds (Boston: Bedford Books, 1994) pp. 78-94.

[Copy-edited, spell-checked, tagged in html by Scott Atkins, October 1995.]

He doesn't design cars he designs missiles.

--ENZO FERRARI, referring to Ferdinand Porsche

Cars as Signs

The production of cars as symbols is a special case of the way in which, since the industrial revolution of the late eighteenth century, all mass commodities have come to intersect with the world of meaning. Of course, human artifacts, down to the most mundane, have always had symbolic as well as functional significance. But the inception--with pottery, furniture, clothes, and guns--of commercial mass production marked a watershed by introducing and making systematic the producer's need, prior to consumption, to be strictly instrumental and market- oriented in shaping the meaning products are designed to have.

Attention to image was necessary because of the need to promote --an activity that became important both because of the general need to increase the market's absorptive capacity, and because of the competitive need to give such otherwise hard-to-distinguish items as soap, cigarettes, and beer their own brand identity. The result was the rise of advertising (made increasingly prominent through the media growth it stimulated); and an ever more sophisticated concern with how products, via packaging, decoration, and design, are made to appear.l That these developments have long been linked is illustrated by the case of Wedgwood pottery.2 The celebrated neoclassical and pseudo-Ming designs which for centuries have been its hallmark, were originally supplied, with a keen eye for late Georgian3 middle-class taste, by Josiah Wedgwood's partner, Thomas Bentley, whose role in the company was to handle promotion and sales.4

Whether in ads or design the promotional point has been the same: to deck products out as signs endowed with maximum cultural appeal. And, for this, not just any codings would do. Values invoked had to be positive, identifiable, consensual; and it was also necessary to take account of the product's existing insertion into the culture, together with the value associations this would automatically bring. When for example Proctor launched Ivory (the name itself evoking the virtues of the white empire), soap was already linked, through a germ-based medical model and the propertied classes' fear of urban/industrial disorder, to the Protestant obsession with hygiene. But, as Listerine's later invention of "halitosis" suggests, the values stamped onto products can also have an independent effect, here by heightening hygiene anxiety and giving it a new physiological site.

As a mass-promoted product, the peculiarity of cars, in all this regard, has been twofold: First, besides their function as transport, for users themselves cars have always had a promotional role. Parked at home, like furniture, like the domicile itself, they project a sense of their owner's relative social standing. Out on the road they carry that same sense of class/cultural identification into the wider cultural domain. Cars, in this respect, are similar to clothes, constituting indeed a kind of third skin for ambient industrial man. Like clothes, too, as markers of identity with an anonymously circulating public they readily become subject to the fashion dynamics of competitive display, which manufacturers themselves have naturally encouraged to accelerate obsolescence and sales.

Despite there being fewer and fewer corporate players, the proliferation and turnover of styles has thus kept far ahead of strictly engineering innovation. Ford, the first American auto giant, was at first slow to change lines. But declining sales for its Model T brought home the lesson of fashion. Thus the Model A of 1927 was followed by the V8 in 1932--after which came a complete change of look with the introduction of streamlining, pioneered by the Chrysler "Airflow" in 1934. After the Second World War, with the establishment of GM's Styling Division 5 the fashion mode became institutionalized, complete with traveling Motoramas and the still surviving ritual of"this year's new model." The overall effect has been that car design (especially at the level of feel and look) has become a predominant element of car promotion. Overwhelmingly, from billboards to showrooms, cars have been advertised by being shown, giving pseudoautomatic texture to that endless parade of vehicles on the actual highway, which itself has served as one vast ad.

Secondly, unlike pottery, furniture, and clothes, the automobile was a new product, one that never existed outside the framework of industrialized mass production. The history of its received meaning has always been bound up, then, with that of its manufactured meaning as a promotionally designed product; so tightly, indeed, that for consumers as well as producers cars have been taken, from the start, as veritable emblems of the technical and organizational transformation which made them possible. By the mid-1920s, cars meant mass affluence 6 and Ford(ism) had become an international byword for the whole assembly line system pioneered in its Michigan plant.7 In that same period, for Futurist 8 poets like Maria de Leone and Aero Dolby and visual artists like Francis Picabia, the combustion engine itself became a stock image for industrialism, a machine that linked the precise interlocking of parts with the reverie of male sexual power.

More than this, however, like other unprecedented products--e.g., refrigerators, typewriters, phonographs, cameras, radios, etc.--cars became construed and constructed as embodiments of that entire new world--a world of the new--that industry and science were sensed as ushering in. They became, in short, a sign of modernity itself And quintessentially: for the spread of cars began at once to transform the whole ecology of life, both at the individual level (affecting private and occupational mobility, indeed our whole sense of time and space) and socially (creating massive dependent industries, road systems and transformed cities). Promoting cars as symbols of Modernity, Technology, and Progress, then, has never been entirely arbitrary. For cars really became, for better or worse, a powerful element in that civilizational change to which these mythicized terms ultimately refer.

The Evolving Code

Up to this point I have focused on cars-in-general, but their constructed symbolism has been complicated by divisions within their market. Since the earliest Fords and Oldsmobiles, there have, in fact, been three cultural reference points for car imagery, each broadly corresponding to a different market segment for which different kinds of cars have been designed.

First, and closest to the technology complex itself, is the imagistic set associated with the roadsters, sports cars, and Porsches, Trans-Ams, etc., that are now their "muscle-car" equivalent. Inspiring them all, for over eighty years, has been the spectator sport of car racing, a powerful ritual of male competitive prowess that has conveniently enabled companies to promote themselves while testing research and development. From which, not surprisingly, the racing car (and the road models derived from it) has emerged as an almost perfect symbol for the masculinist technology values racing itself celebrates: a male-identified machine shaped like a bullet, and experienced from within as an exhilarating rush towards orgasm, death, and the future.9

In complete contrast has been the styling characteristic of the luxury car: a vehicle which has continued to trail associations of the genteel upper-class carriage that immediately came before. Such archaism, marked even today by the use of wood and the relative "boxiness" of limousines, has functioned not just as a salve against future shock, but as a sign of that abstract Tradition that industrialism itself has converted into a token of status. Hence, too, the wider diffusion of this complex, whether in the persistence of''tonneau''10 types until the mid-1920s, or in the use of coachwork language ("Bodies by Fisher") in mainstream ads since then.

Finally, and occupying a kind of symbolic midpoint, we have the family sedan. Designed for mixed use by the whole family (at first: one car per household), its imagery has likewise been mixed. As a commuter/ leisure vehicle for the chief breadwinner, it has invited sportiness; as an index of social status, indications that the household is up-to-date, tasteful, or rich. But an element of symbolism has also attached to it as a vehicle for the family as such.

Generally, as a kind of moving home, it has been built to appear respectable, functional, and safe. More specifically, it has been given design features which materially represent "the family" as a particular (yet seemingly universal) type of group. Thus, transposing from the Victorian landau,11 the two-row sedan--throughout this century the family car's instantly recognizable form--not only assumes that the family is nuclear. It also sets up a seating grid within which, by custom, the father/husband drives, the wife sits at his side, and the children form a row at the back. More latterly, as this hierarchical, role-divided model has softened and car ownership by youth and women has increased, the mass car has continued to reflect the prevailing family form, though in a way that is correspondingly more unisex, age-neutral, and varied in size.

This, then, is the matrix within which the history of car imagery has had to unfold. Evidently, like the matrix itself, that history has been multileveled and does not reduce to any single thread. Its main features, though, can readily be discerned.

To be noted, first, is a dynamic constant: that, while no type has been symbolically pure, the family car (still the industry's backbone) has peculiarly come to serve as a condensation point for all the image clusters cars can attract. As a mass vehicle it was, and is, designed to appeal to all but the wealthiest households, as well as to all in them. For that reason, too, since artisanal traditionalism, techno-futurism, and the values surrounding "the family" (not to mention their class/ethnic variants) do not exactly cohere, its imagery has tended toward ambiguity and compromise. Hence, whatever the idiom of the day, its characteristically "average" look, in which potentially clashing elements are softened at the edges or even made to cancel one another out. Within the mix, it should immediately be added, modernist/masculinist technology values have always been prominently expressed. But by the same token their influence has also been checked; and by considerations no less related to the logic of market appeal.

With respect to the coding of status, secondly, there has been a steady tendency, despite its anachronistic persistence, for Quality Street references to horse-and-carriage to recede gradually from view. A major change came when modernized styling (introduced in the early 1930s in such models as the 1933 Ford V8) began to connect engine to cab in one steady line.12 Therewith, pre-car imagery migrated from the car's actual body to the once-removed rhetoric contained in its ads. In the 1940s and 1950s, through such devices as depicting cars as paintings, the Victorian "craft" cluster was still further attenuated: blurring into an image of timeless preindustrialism ("Buick: a classic") wherein, having separated from the car's material form, it lost contact with that form's history as well.

Besides the present-oriented push of fashion, the boom and bust of capitalism have, as a counter trend, increasingly made "modernity" itself an essential aspect of the car's capacity to convey esteem. For post-1945 working- and middle-class householders, new-looking cars were a visible way to put the Depression and poverty behind. More generally, in the anxious and dispersed culture of twentieth-century consumerism, being up to date and "modern" became a crucial badge of social membership. The import of this for the imaged car's incorporation of technology values has again been ambiguous. With midmarket cars, as with fashion if it became important to be contemporary it also became risky to seem too far in front.

Thirdly, and against the background of these dynamics, the technological element of car imagery has itself significantly changed. Most importantly, the car as a symbol of driven speed, and thence of "progress," became outmoded by faster forms of transport, especially ones moving through air. In pace with this, the mass-produced car was successively redesigned-- from the "airflows" of the 1930s and the fins-and-tails of postwar Detroit to the "aero" models of today--with each new style mimicking the transport form currently closest to the speed/progress ideal.

On one level, of course, the airplane-influenced trend toward streamlining has been a practical move, reducing not only wind resistance but the attendant costs of fuel. But it has also had a purely symbolic aspect.l3 In such baroque, rocketlike machines as the 1955 Cadillac "Eldorado" aerodynamic efficiency was actually sacrificed in the interest of an aerodynamic look. If the symbolic result was that cars became planes, missiles, and spaceships, driving, in fantasy, became flight: a potent metaphor which, as postwar "depth" promoters well understood, alluded at once to a technicist (and space age) notion of progress and to the promptings of sexual desire.

In its guise as a machine, the car has also been made to seem alive. This has by no means been merely a matter of consumer transference, though the ease with which popular speech has absorbed the metaphor ("she handles really well") shows how culturally resonant it is. Through promotion and design, rather, such animism has been given tangible shape. In a first step, the engine radiator, mounted at the front, was given a grille (mouth). Then two separated headlights (eyes) were added, and a pointed hood (nose)--compensating, presumably, for the vanished face of the horse. The high point came with the customizing craze of the 1940s and 50s, together with the (almost equally) flamboyant monster types it inspired in the industry.14 Figuration in so blatant a form, however, declined after the Ford Edsel--a car whose spectacular marketing failure (in 1958) was perhaps best explained by customer comments that its grille looked like a vagina (replete, we may add, with teeth). Since then, the beast theme has been domesticated and made the stuff of advertising copy and brand names (Mustangs, Colts, Foxes, Rabbits, etc.); while cars, physically, have been contoured more as cyborglike extensions of their own drivers. On the darker side, this robotic trend has triggered horror film images of riderless vehicles (Stephen King's Christine, Stephen Spielberg's Duel), out to destroy their human creators for giving them no soul.

The car's imaging as alive has also implied its presentation as sexed. In the first instance, and from the side of the male driver, it has been projected as Woman: whether a flashy possession, boy-toy (as in E. E. Cumming's car-as-virgin poem, ''XIX''),15 or wife. But in this (variously nuanced) scene of the male-led couple the car has also figured as rocket, bullet, or gun, i.e., as a sexual extension of the male; while for both sexes, as an enclosed place in which to escape, it has at the same time played the part of a womb. This is, in fact, one of the car's most striking symbolic features: its gender ambiguity. If promotion and use have tied it, like Adam's rib, to the cosmos of phallic technology, they have also given it the character of an androgyne.

Until recently, in the car's symbolization of technology, these intertwined tendencies (toward flight and animation) have constituted the main line of development. But over the past decade the story has been complicated by the rise of two additional symbolic clusters: First, advances in transport (with missiles and space the new frontier) have increasingly come to rely on improvements not so much in propulsion as in guidance systems and their finger-tip control. In turn, with the rise of computers and informatics, this has made communications, rather than transport, the exemplar of technological progress as such. While there are parallels between the accelerated movement of things/persons and of information/thought, they are not the same. A shift in attention from one to the other has implied as well, then, a shift in the register of "technology" as a cultural idea. Marshall McLuhan,16 who was beguiled by this, saw an "explosive"/atomistic world of mechanization giving way to an "implosive"/holistic one of electronics.17 For imaged cars, more narrowly, it has been reflected in the way that looking "modern" has come to mean not just looking fast and airborne, but being linked to computers and all that they connote.

Secondly, and cutting across symbolism of any kind, car design and promotion have been nagged at by a functionalist conscience. Until the late 1960s, the Bauhaus 18 maxim of "form follows function" was, to be sure, more prevalent among European than American manufacturers, both as a creed and as an aesthetic stick with which to beat their transatlantic rivals. But in the wake of the 1960s cultural upheaval and in the shape of energy-crisis "econoboxes," such antidecorative purism began to exert a strong pull on this continent too. Like streamlining, to which it has been related, the functionalist revanche19 has had a partly economic motive--reflecting, during the post-Vietnam downturn, the renewed importance of efficiency and price. But the preeminence of function is also a value; and as such (despite itself) it is always liable to become a coded element in the rhetoric and styling of the artifacts made over in its name. For progressive designers in the 1920s, 20 functionalist principles provided a utopian definition of modernity itself In the North American car market, more prosaically, they have come to provide a saleable counterimage to set against the self-congratulatory Frontierism which, at least in the United States, has been that idea's predominant form.

With all these various forces and tendencies in mind let us now turn directly to our original question: the meaning of the car's post-1950s imagistic shift.

The Rise and Fall of the Rocket

The 1950s-style American car, today an object of veneration, is an instantly recognizable type. Through all its variants, from the 1948-1949 GM models that initiated it to the fins-and-tails cult classics that came to epitomize the whole Eisenhower period, it was marked by a combination of animism and streamlining taken to almost self-parodying heights of excess. In such a form, serving at once as a commuter vehicle for the suburban family and as a freedom-endowing one for the restless young 2l it became an internationally recognizable symbol of the postwar boom, indeed of free-enterprising America itself. Soaked in Buck Rogers 22 images of space and the future, it signified, above all, that new romance with technology which gave Cold War ideology its heady, expansive edge.23

In popular form, a 1953 ad for Oldsmobile [Figure 1] shows clearly the value complex such a vehicle was designed to evoke. The ad is a two-pager, with the car itself, inclined slightly upward, triumphantly occupying the horizontal plane. Its sleek, forward-thrusting design, emphasized by decorative chrome, repeats the same theme, which is echoed again in the miniature spaceship jetting away in the top left. In case the point is missed we also get a caption: The car's "rocket engine" (what else?) gives you "sm-o-o-o-th" driving. Beyond this, the identified ensemble of car, rocket, and phallus is also framed by a social context, indicated by the respectable young couple ranged alongside. In fact they appear twice. In the main picture he, clean-cut, bejacketed, is smoothly at the wheel while the brunette beside him--decorously apart--looks confidently ahead. At the top left, in the rocket's literal reprise, the machine actually lifts off. And here they straddle it like bikers, with hubby waving from the front and wifey lovingly hanging on. In this moment, we are led to suppose, the car becomes theirs: a dream-come true of upward mobility, growing affluence, and technological progress, all fused together in the happily consummated marriage at the center of the scene.

The arrival of computers aside, there is clearly some discontinuity between this ideological universe and our own. And not surprisingly, for between the two lies a cultural shakeup whose origins (in the story of cars) can be traced back at least as far as the Edsel. The failure of that exaggerated vehicle, as we can now see, signaled not just the end of a design era but the onset of a crisis for the whole nexus of values such styling bespoke.

Most fundamentally, techno-worship itself came under attack. A succession of international cases (Suez, Cuba, Berlin, Vietnam)24 made the nightmare of the nuclear arms race frighteningly alive. And to this problematizing of blind technology ("an riderless vehicle," as Northrop Frye 25 put it) was added dampened economic expectations that set in after the fifteen-year boom plateaued out and, then, in the financial turmoil of 1971-1972, came to an end. The result, aided by the anti-urban side of late 1960s counterculture 26 and carried forward into middle-class life-styles ever since, was a wholesale resuscitation of Nature as the repressed Other of all-conquering Industry. In keeping with such changed sensibilities, car design became less blatantly wasteful; fins and chrome were shed; and cars in ads were depicted in fields, identified with free-ranging animals (especially horses) and tied to leisure-related venues of rural escape.

Reinforcing this, the oil crisis of the mid-1970s, growing traffic congestion, and unease with rampant road construction 27 changed mass attitudes to the car itself. On the one hand, the car's identification with individual freedom was undermined. On the other, this value came into collision with the car's master value as exemplar of techno-industrial advance. With respect to the latter, cars materially became a bad sign of what they had earlier celebrated. Just as cigarette promoters had to exorcise the cancer scare (hence cigarettes as symbols of Life), car promoters found themselves having to deflect the negative associations with which their own product had become endowed. Reversing the sign (making car into Nature) was one common tactic. Occasionally, though (as with a 1979 Datsun ad that cited George Orwell,28 or with a recent Toyota campaign about fighting "road monotony"), the car's dystopic associations have been taken head on. As a further response, the decline of the "gas guzzler" paved the way for more functional (and functional looking) designs. And this was mirrored in the greater stress ads began to place on the product's performative side. (An irony of modern business is that American manufacturers, so attached to their own vision of "technology," were slow to make this turn; leaving a market weakness exploited first by the North Europeans and then by the Japanese with the aid of Italian design.)29

With the rise of the women's movement, the emergence of a gay subculture, and the sex/gender fission of the 1970s, the sexual values exemplified by the "Rocket" also came unstuck. The dominance of males and the cowboy complex were not wholly eliminated, but they were pushed on the defensive by the rise of a more egalitarian code. Increased participation by women in work and public life coincided, too, with a proportionate increase in the number of women on the road. In market as well as ideological terms, then, the straightforward insertion of the car into the masculinity complex identified with heroic techno-industrial progress simply ceased to work. In the imaging of cars, correspondingly, assumptions about family structure, the gender of the driver, and the sexual valency of the car itself became more blurred; combined with which, the Nature/Technology categories to which the car was also tied became loosened, as well, from their patriarchal frame.30

The Imagery of "High Tech"

All these developments created real difficulties for the imaging of cars. Just as the North American market was becoming tougher, the symbolic resources available to manufacturer/promoters became unstable and difficult to use. To some degree the European-inspired return to functionality has plugged this anomic gap. But in the heartlands of consumerism the appeal of such semantic restraint (which made its appearance with the VW, system-designed European cars, and Detroit compacts) has been safe rather than charged-- raising the specter, indeed, of entropy and meaning's final collapse. Additional ways have had to be found, then, for infusing the duller-looking vehicles the functionalist reaction has led to with new symbolic life.

It is in just that context, from the early 1980s on, that the car's symbolism as "technology" has begun to be revised. In effect, after a long hiatus, the car's linkage to the romance of rockets has been replaced by a newly generated enthusiasm for the "communications revolution" centered on the microchip. But what, we may wonder, is the broader value import of this new sign? Does it connote anything more than just a differently dressed version of the same old myth?

Again, let us take our cues from ads. Two from Time in the winter of 1982, published during the initial burst of mass computer excitement, will at least show the kind of values brought into play. The first, for Volkswagen Rabbit [Figure 2], is constructed around the caption "High tech. Who gives a heck?" each phrase heading a differently designed page. Both are text heavy with various performance-related claims; but the graphics and layout of the "high tech" panel on the left recall a computer screen, while the writing on the right is in hard print. The immediate implication is that with the aid of computers this car is ultraintelligently designed. But the caption in the lower right (by a picture of the car itself) shows that the computer's supposed qualities of benign intelligence are also (and with disarmingly pet-oriented cuteness) transferred on to the car: "If you thought about Rabbit as much as Rabbit thinks about you you'd think about Rabbit."

The second, for Toyota [Figure 3], plays with a similar theme. Again there are two panels, topped by a visually bifurcated phrase: "The Toyota/Edge." Foregrounded in each is a front-on picture of the car: on the left, as it actually appears; on the right, to the same scale, as a skeletal (X-ray-like) engineering drawing, drafted on a screen. Again, one notes the computer's deployment as a sign of embodied intelligence, with that meaning similarly relayed on to the car. In both cases, likewise, the wonders of the computer mediated by its god/man operator as medic and bioengineer, give us magical access to the car's hidden essence. And in both cases, finally, this focus on the car's inside emphasizes the car's fantasy role as a womb, a role that is immediately qualified by its doubling as the center of designer (and driver) control. In the Toyota case, this whole interiorizing movement is given a further twist by the campaign slogan (from the dance movie Flashdance) which appears at the foot of the computer-oriented panel on the right: "Oh what a feeling!''31

In other respects, too, the car's entry into the world of high tech has been accompanied by a movement of interiorization. On the material side, we have seen growing design attention to seating and driver ergonomics, to dashboard setups (now digitalized, and with voice controls), and to car sound systems (quadraphonic speakers, tape decks, CDs, etc.). In promotion more generally (whether computer-referenced or not) the car has been projected as a king of wraparound experience, or even as a mystical inner trip. A current TV ad for Honda shows a woman stealing from her husband/lover's bed at dawn. She descends to the garage and the car, followed by a dreamy drive along a deserted coastal road. Have you ever wondered, goes the voice-over, where your wife is . . .? Here, then, is a real difference: In moving from the technology complex that came to a head in the 1950s to the one more recently linked to computers there has been a change in emphasis from outer to inner space.

It is tempting to treat the linkage between computer images and interiorization as intrinsic, reflecting, for example, a real technological bias. 32 We might further speculate that this bias, reinforced by pressures towards cultural feminization, has also led to a change in Technology's imputed sex. But in a crucial sense the linkage permitting such recoding is also historically contingent. A renewed emphasis on subjectivity, experience, and the personal world extends beyond advertising and has independent roots in the whole sociocultural crisis of the past twenty years. In ads, as in movies and popular songs, it registers an exhaustion with the growth complex of industrial society and anxieties about its future: a mood which has combined with the ongoing effects of consumerized privatism to deflect attention away from the whole public realm. And here, we may note, the contemporary imaged car is caught in a deep contradiction: It is part of the problem it cannot (for market reasons) name and from which it is posited as an escape.

For that reason, too, paradoxically, the 1950s car and its related insignia (diners, milkbars, ducktails, golden-age rock and roll) has made something of a comeback. In films, music, and the general symbology of contemporary youth it has been recycled; so that what first made its appearance as futurist euphoria has returned, in the context of newer fears, as a symbol of a better past. With respect to cars themselves, the impact of such revivalism has been more evident in ads (through Grease and American Graffiti 33-type references) than in actual design. Still, in the play of fashion, and throughout our culture, a stylized past is the obverse of novelty as a source for new trends. So we may conjecture that here, too--perhaps building on the recently revived craze for rodding and customizing--nostalgic references to earlier models will make their way into the manufactured appearance of current ones.

Cars, Today

Overall, then, it would be one-sided to suppose that car imagery, in its adoption of computer references, has simply moved to install an updated version of progress-based technological myth. This is certainly one trend, but it has been interwoven with others, including the resurgence of functionalism, the unsettling of patriarchy, a personalist withdrawal from the adventures of industrialism, and indications that cars are beginning to be caught up in what Fredric Jameson calls the "nostalgia mode."34 All of which, taken together, would suggest that if techno-myth has been partially revamped and restored, it has also, in broader compass, ceased to be symbolically central or even coherent. Indeed, an alternative hypothesis can be advanced: that car imagery, like other sign-bearing material in the cultural vortex of advanced capitalism, is evolving towards a decorative eclecticism whose signifying gestures refer us only to the universe of symbols from which they are drawn.

In fact, with the public circulation of signs severed from life by commerce, media, and reactive privatism there are grounds for arguing that it is not our technology but our culture that is imploding, parallel with a further disintegration of society in the old organic sense.35 In its costly, computer-linked, postmodern guise, the contemporary car certainly bears all the marks of such a process. But its witness is blind since, as a promotional construct, its imagery can scarcely acknowledge what has happened, let alone its own--doubly--mystifying role. What the decorative play on the car's functionalized surface ultimately hides, that is, is not just the negativity of the product but the relation between that negativity and the kind of gloss it is given. Simply put: that the car's own disruptive dominance as a transport form is part of the disaffected reality from which our culture, as written into the car's very body, has recoiled.

1. For a critical account of this historical process see, for example, Stuart Ewen, Captains of Consciousness (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976); and Dallas Smythe, Dependency Road (Norwood, NJ.: Ablex, 1980).

2. Wedgwood pottery English pottery with delicately designed neoclassical figures that appear in white relief on a colored background.--EDS.

3. Georgian Period of English history from 1714 to 1830, characterized by aristocratic tastes.--EDS.

4. Q.v. Adrian Forty, Objects of Desire: Design and Society from Wedgwood to IBM (New York: Pantheon, 1986), pp. 22-24.

5. Under the direction of Harley Earl, it was first called "Art and Color,' then renamed in 1955. For a vivid description of Earl and his pivotal place in the history of postwar car design see Stephen Bayley's Sex, Drink and Fast Cars: The Creation and Consumption of Images (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), pp. 9-20 and ff.

6. In President Hoover's memorable 1924 election phrase: "a chicken in every pot; two cars in every garage."

7. The American painter Charles Sheeler, who developed a whole purist aesthetic on the basis of such industrial landscapes, transformed the Ford plant at Dearborn into a quintessential icon of the new era. Patronized by Ford himself, several of his paintings, including Criss-Crossed Conveyors (the name says it all) hung in the Henry Ford Museum. See Gerald Silk, "The Automobile in Art." Gerald Silk, Angelo Anselmi, Henry Robert, Jr., and Strother MacMinn, Automobile and Culture (New York: Abrams, 1984).

8. Futurists Artists and writers in the early twentieth century who believed that artistic design should be inspired by modern industry.--ED.

9. This sense of the car has perhaps never been more passionately expressed than in Marinade's 1905 encomium (also called "To Pegasus") "To the Automobile":

I finally unleash your metallic bridle . . . You launch yourself,/intoxicatingly into the liberating Infinite! . . . Hurrah! No longer contact with the impure earth! . . ./Finally, I am unleashed and I supplely fly/on the intoxicating plenitude/of the streaming stars in the great bed of the sky!

Cited in Silk et al., Automobile and Culture, p. 67.

10. tonneau The enclosed rear passenger compartment in early automobiles.--EDS.

11. landau A type of covered carriage.--EDS.

12. Q.v. John Heskett, Industrial Design (New York and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 72-74.

13. The streamlining idea, replete with futurist enthusiasm, was popularized by the publication of Norman Bel Geddes's Horizons in 1932.

14. A wonderful extension of such imagery is to be seen in the classic Australian underground film, The Cars That Ate Paris.

15. The poem begins

she being Brand
-new; and you
know consequently a
little stiff i was
careful of her and (having
thoroughly oiled the universal
joint tested my gas felt of her radiator made sure her springs were O.
K ...

16. Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) Cultural historian who invented modern media studies.--ED.

17. Q.v. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (New York: Signet, 1963).

18. Bauhaus Architectural school developed in 1920s Germany that considered buildings an expression of the machine age.--ED.

19. revanche Revenge, retaliation.--ED.

20. And also architects, of whom the most influential in this regard was Le Corbusier, both through his actual buildings and through his own manifesto, Vers Une A rchitecture.

21. It was no accident that several of Chuck Berry's rock and roll songs were about or set in cars, and that Jack Kerouac's beat classic was called On the Road.

22. Buck Rogers Fictional star of space-hero films.--ED.

23. This did not pass critical commentators by, and there were masterful dissections of the car's stylistic embodiment of the technology complex on both sides of the Atlantic. See, for example, Marshall McLuhan's The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industnal Man (Boston: Beacon, 1951), pp. 82-84; and Roland Barthes's essay in Mythologies on the 1955 Citroen DS.

24. Suez, Cuba, Berlin, Vietnam International political crises during the Cold War marked by confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States and its allies.--ED.

25. Northrop Frye (1912-1992) Canadian literary theorist who pioneered study of archetypes in literature.--ED.

26. A good account of this is provided in Theodor Rosak's The Making of a Counterculture (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969).

27. For the relation between expressway construction and the modernity crisis see Marshall Berman's account of Robert Moses and the South Bronx expressway in All That Is Solid Melts into Air (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), pp. 290-312.

28. George Orwell (1903-1950) British writer whose works include 1984 and Animal Farm.--ED.

29. See Bayley, Sex, Drink and Fast Cars, pp. 63-67, 101-110.

30. I have explored this point with respect to the overall development of recent advertising in "From voyeur to narcissist: the changing imagery of men, 1950-80," in Michael Kaufmann, ed., Beyond Patriarchy: Essays by Men on Pleasure and Power (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987).

31. On another level, Toyota's reference to Flashdance was a tactic for Americanizing its product in the face of protectionist (and, to a degree, xenophobic) resistance to "foreign competition." In the present phase of its assimilationist campaign Toyota has reached back to Gershwin: "Who could ask for anything more?"

32. See McLuhan, Understanding Media, pp. 346-369.

33. Grease and American Graffiti 1970s movies about American teenagers living in the 1950s and 1960s.--ED.

34. See Fredric Jameson's essay "Post-modernism: The Cultural Logic of Capitalism," New Left Review, No. 146 (July-August 1984).

35. For this now familiar neo-Marxist inversion of McLuhan see Jean Baudrillard's In the Shadow of the Silent Majority (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983).