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.

Do you have a favorite car book? What makes an automotive book worth reading? Your suggestions are welcome!

On Board the Society of Automotive Historians

I have just been notified of my election to the Society of Automotive Historians board of directors. I hesitated to run for this position as I am not a historian nor do I have a deep knowledge or technical understanding of automobiles. However, because I come to automotive scholarship from a cultural rather than historical perspective, and because my research interest is the relationship between women and cars, it was suggested that I might offer a new point of view to what has long been a male-dominated and technologically-focused discipline. So here I am. As only the fourth woman to be elected to the SAH board I am both excited and nervous. I join a group of well-respected and accomplished individuals that includes academic scholars, automotive journalists and publishers, museum and library professionals, educational and cultural organizations, car collectors and restorers, and auto enthusiasts. I hope that I can contribute to this organization and the research it fosters. I look forward to serving alongside my fellow car chick Carla Lesh. I hope our presence will encourage others – whose gender, age, or sexual orientation has placed them on the margins of automotive history and research – to contribute to and become part of the SAH as it celebrates its 50th anniversary.

What topics should organizations such as the SAH address? What kind of activities should they sponsor? For information on what the Society of Automotive Historians does now, and what needs to be done to grow the future, I encourage you to visit SAH online.

Published in Journal of Transport History

Born to Drive: Elderly Women’s Recollections of Early Automotive Experiences” has been posted on Open Access with a December 2019 publication date. This was a wonderful project to work on, as the women I interviewed were generous, funny, and had amazing car stories to tell. I am honored to have my work published in this prestigious journal, and I thank the reviewers who offered suggestions, critique, and encouragement in the revision process.

Do you have a mother, grandmother, or family friend now in her 80s or 90s? I invite you to ask those women about their early driving experiences before it is too late. You are welcome to share those stories in the comments section.

“A Woman and Her Truck” goes international

One of the awesome truck-driving-women who contributed to this project.

A dissertation chapter that turned into a conference presentation that evolved into a journal article has finally been published in the European Journal of American Culture. “A Woman and Her Truck: Pickups, the Woman Driver, and Cowgirl Feminism” was inspired by a Chevy commercial and a chance visit to the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth. This article provided me with the opportunity to talk with 25 women from all over the US who are passionate about pickups.

Are you a woman with a pickup? What do you use it for and how do you feel when driving it? You are welcome to share your truck stories in the comments section.