Review of ‘Machines of Youth: America’s Car Obsession’

As a scholar, albeit of the independent variety, I am sometimes asked to contribute to research in various ways. A little over a year ago The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth asked if I would write a book review on a car-and-youth related publication for an upcoming issue. As I am always open to a new opportunity, I gladly accepted, particularly since I had already purchased the book and was planning on reading it anyway. The review was recently published in the JHCY Winter 2020 issue. Machines of Youth: America’s Car Obsession by historian Gary Cross is an interesting and in-depth look at the various American youth car cultures of the 20th century. For those who may be curious about the book, I have included my review here.

Machines of Youth: America’s Car Obsession
By Gary S. Cross
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. 227 pp. Paper $32.50, cloth $97.50.

Machines of Youth is a colorful chronology of American youth car cultures from the early automotive age to the present day. Relying on an eclectic assemblage of sources – interviews, print media, automotive publications, popular culture, and personal anecdotes – historian Gary Cross has constructed a compelling examination of a rarely researched subject and subculture. Although the book stands on its own as an in-depth exploration of young men’s involvement and fascination with cars over the past century, it also serves as a rarely examined but timely analysis of white working-class youth culture in twentieth-century America. In Machines of Youth, Cross takes us beyond the scope of traditional automotive histories to investigate the teenage cultures that evolved along its margins. To young working-class men, Cross argues, car culture was not only a community in which automotive craftsmanship and knowledge could be developed and shared, but also served as an important source of masculinity, autonomy, individualism, self-expression, and rebellion.

Cross skillfully intertwines automobile history with the teenage cultures it generated. Each chapter introduces cars of a particular generation and the young men who became engaged, if not obsessed, with the growing automotive phenomenon. Some of the stops along the way include the early auto age and young men’s growing preoccupation with the gasoline-powered automobile, the 1930s customizing and “souping up” craze, the 1940s hot rod wars, the 1950s and 60s cruising and parking culture, and the Fast and Furious era of Japanese “rice burners”. Cross also makes an intriguing detour into the familial and community Latino car culture of “low and slow”. At each juncture Cross delves into how a particular culture came to be, considers how and why boys became involved, investigates the influence of club life and the media, considers how the subcultures were regarded by the public, and discusses the efforts made to suppress, disregard, or encourage young men’s automotive activities. Cross concludes the book by considering the state of car culture today, the role of nostalgia in its maintenance, as well as whether there remains enough automotive interest for its continuance into the future.

Although car cultures attracted teens from all walks of life – e.g. baby boomer muscle car enthusiasts and middle-class hippies who tinkered with aging VW Beetles – Cross is particularly interested in the role the automobile played in the lives of white working-class youth. In the chapter devoted to “greasers and their rods,” Cross examines how cars gave these “marginal” high school boys an opportunity to define themselves apart from the mainstream white middle-class population. As the author notes, while middle-class teens on the “college prep” track were likely to drive cars owned or purchased by their parents, working-class youth in the vocational curriculum took pride in working on their own jalopies. Thus, as Cross writes, “the customized car offered a token of dignity to a group that had always been subordinate, but which in the mid-twentieth century was steadily losing ground” (99). Cross’s examination of white working-class youth is particularly timely given the current political climate, which has witnessed a growing sentiment of discontent and disaffection among rural white working-class men.

Machines of Youth is a welcome and important addition to existing automotive scholarship. Although much has been written on the history of the automobile, only a handful of scholars (e.g. Karen Lumsden, Amy Best, Brenda Bright, Sarah Redshaw) have investigated specific car cultures. And while Cross presents an engaging examination of the history of young men’s involvement with cars, the volume’s strength comes from its unique focus on class (in addition to gender and race) as an influential and crucial component of American youth car cultures. What the book lacks, however, is diversity in research location. Although the west coast was certainly an important breeding ground for youth car cultures, there is a little too much emphasis on the California car scene. While other locations are mentioned, the tone of the book suggests the majority of youth automotive activity occurred in the Golden State. Cross also fails to lay out his methodology in the introductory section. Consequently, it is up to the reader to piece the research sources together chapter by chapter.

Machines of Youth is certain to be embraced by aging men of a particular generation who grew up with a passion for cars and see themselves in its pages. For auto historians, Cross’s astute analysis of young men’s engagement with the automobile provides a social context to the ebb and flow of automotive popularity over the past century. However, scholars of youth cultures will find Cross’s work fascinating whether or not they have an interest in cars. The focus on white working-class teens is not only engrossing and enlightening in its own right, but has particular relevance during this disquieting time in our nation’s political history.

Old Car Songs and the New Woman Driver

A topic that often finds its way into car journals, blogs, and online automotive publications is the “car song.” Auto journalists and enthusiasts of a certain age frequently call upon the classic car song as a way to reminisce about the past. As popular music is often referred to as the song track of one’s life, car tunes – whether in reference to music emanating from the car or about the car itself –  bring back particular memories of an automobile and the life experiences surrounding it.

I recently came across such an article by car blogger Jim Van Orden on the popular automotive website hemmings.com. In “Car Tunes of My Youth,” Van Orden intertwines stories of the songs that accompanied family road trips, car advertising tunes on the radio and television, popular car songs of the day, and the memories each of these car tunes evoked. The article is followed by a substantive comment section in which others passionately and often humorously contribute their own car tune memories.

What is notable about the proliferation of online articles devoted to the car song is that they are all written by – and addressed to – drivers of the male persuasion. Although young women during the 50s and 60s may not have owned their own vehicles, they certainly spent a good amount of time in automobiles with car songs and advertisements playing on the radio. So why are women less inclined to call upon the car song as a link to the past? Is it because they were not all that interested in cars? Or was it because, as written from a male perspective, the songs did not reflect women’s unique automotive experiences?

I addressed the second part of this question a few years ago in a journal article focusing on the woman’s car song. In “Born to Take the Highway: Women, the Automobile, and Rock ‘n Roll,” I argue that once women became more accepted as singer/songwriters in the music industry, they began writing a very different kind of car song. While the car songs of the 50s and 60s were almost exclusively focused on the automobile as an important contributor to the male teenager’s rite of passage – promoting good times, adventure, liberation from restrictive home environments, and sex – the women’s car song of the 70s and beyond called upon the automobile as a vehicle of freedom, escape, recollection, rebellion, and empowerment. While the singular male focus of the classic car song may be responsible for women’s indifference to it, the rise of the women’s car song suggests not only that the automobile serves as musical inspiration for women as well as men, but that cars have an importance to women’s lives that is different from, but no less legitimate than, that of the male driver.

Which leads back to the first question regarding whether women, in fact, have an interest in cars. As I have discovered in my own research, a good many women – more than is commonly believed – have an interest, if not a passion, for the automobile. The ability to write and sing about it provides an opportunity for women’s car songs – and women’s voices – to be heard.

Lezotte, Chris. “Born to Take the Highway: Women, the Automobile, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The Journal of American Culture 36.3 (2013): 161-176.

Making a Home on Wheels

Nash press photo

Since the automobile’s inception, auto manufacturers and suppliers have offered optional and aftermarket products to convert the automobile into mobile sleeping quarters. To address the needs and desires of a traveling public, Daniel Strohl notes, “carmakers have expressly made their vehicles suitable for camping”(hemmings.com). Such alterations and add-ons include folding front seats that provide a flat sleeping area, accessory tents for hatch back models, sleeper units for passenger vans, and a “magic camper package” for the ubiquitous minivan. These accessories allow folks to expand the automobile’s primary function as a mode of transportation into a more flexible vehicle that meets individual and family travel needs.

By offering these products and accessories, manufacturers have – over the years – reacted to the car-owning public’s desire to use the automobile in ways not originally intended. As noted by Kathleen Franz in Tinkering, “consumers became tinkerers and occasionally inventors as they outfitted their cars for travel […]” (second cover). Taking matters into one’s own hands, however, was not limited to men. During the early years of automobility, female owners and drivers actively reconfigured the automobile for their own use. As Franz writes, “women, who were portrayed by manufacturers and their husbands as passive consumers, remade themselves into competent mechanics and active users” (110.) Women who travelled alone often found it necessary to modify and outfit their cars to meet middle-class standards of domestic comfort and economy; in doing so they also challenged the common perception of women’s technological ability and ingenuity. Franz remarks, “women drivers tinkered with the car and, by extension, with their gender roles’” (42). Although advertising for automotive accessories during this time was directed toward the male consumer, women were, in fact, active participants in the tinkering phenomenon.

In a recent project, I interviewed women in their 80s and 90s about their early automotive experiences. Many of them recalled how when travelling with husbands or young children, they altered the automobile to meet family needs. Before chain hotels were commonplace, decent lodgings in out-of-the ways places were few and far between. One of the women described how she converted the family station wagon into cozy sleeping quarters with the addition of curtains and other amenities for a long distance trip. Others mentioned how – as primarily responsible for the children on family road trips – they devised ways to keep young passengers quiet, safe, and occupied. Whether laying down the car’s back seat to accommodate a baby’s playpen, converting the back seat of a VW Beetle into a bed for an infant, repurposing the back seats of a station wagon into a child’s play area, or using a husband’s leather belt to strap a young traveler onto the front seat “hump,” these women called upon imagination, innovation, and resourcefulness to make family road trips enjoyable for everyone. 

Advertisements, marketing brochures, and news articles produced during the early to mid-twentieth century uniformly suggest that women’s role in auto travel was solely a domestic one. However, as noted in Franz’s work as well as my own, whether traveling on their own or with children in tow, women were also instrumental in reconfiguring and accessorizing the automobile into a comfy home on wheels for all of its passengers.

Franz, Kathleen. Tinkering: Consumers Reinvent the Early Automobile. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

Lezotte, Chris. “Born to Drive: Elderly Women’s Recollections of Early Automotive Experiences” The Journal of Transport History 40.3 (2019): 395-417.

Stohl, David. “Well Before Hashtag Vanlife, Carmakers Encouraged You to Sleep in Their Cars” Hemmings.com 10 Dec 2019.

Do you have memories of family road trips? How was your car reconfigured to accommodate a sleeping family? Feel free to tell your travel stories.