Americans and Automobiles: Still an Open Road

Saturday, January 9, 2010: 2:50 PM
Santa Rosa Room (Marriott)
Tom M. McCarthy , U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD
Historians would be wrong to think that all has been said about Americans and automobiles.  Surprisingly large gaps in the literature and some very attractive opportunities remain.  The existing literature tilts toward producers, focusing on cars, companies, and captains of industry.  Less work has been done on consumers as active shapers of American automobile culture and on the broader social and environmental issues.  We still need a definitive consumer history of the Ford Model T, arguably the most consequential consumer good of all time.  There is no book that explains the American taste for German and Japanese cars or one on the relationship between the pickup truck and American masculinity.  Opportunities remain on the producer side of the market exchange, too.  We have no corporate history of General Motors to match Allan Nevins’ history of Ford.  We lack biographies of key figures like Ed Cole, George Romney, and Ralph Nader.  Certainly, it’s time to explain the half-century demise of the U.S. industry.
An equally important opportunity exists at the intersection of three aspects of methodology.  Automobile consumers may well be the best documented people in twentieth century America.  From the beginning an army of journalists interviewed them and recorded their behavior for popular and trade publications.  Later, these consumers drew the attention of social science and marketing researchers as well.  The available evidence is large and rich.  Second, this evidence is increasingly accessible in digital form and key-word searchable.  For example, the ProQuest Historical Newspapers Database makes it possible to trace automobile developments in detail in multiple major metropolitan areas.  Finally, research in cognitive psychology suggests that we should give close observer evidence equal or greater weight than self-report evidence from consumers, even on the question of motivation.  This conjunction of methodological opportunities invites reappraisal of earlier work as well.