The 1950s and 1960s were a golden age for the automobile. Drive-ins, fast food drive-thrus and shade tree mechanics abounded from sea to shining sea.
"Cars were more than just machines; they were primary objects of desire," said John Heitmann, professor and auto historian. "That era marked the zenith of America’s love affair with the automobile."
But the story of the automobile in America is a tale of how technology can change the course of history — and our lives — for better and for worse.
Heitmann recently released the second edition of his book, The Automobile and American Life, which focuses on the history of the automobile and its development as one of the most influential technologies of the 20th century. The latest installment includes a new chapter that delves into the technological and economic changes within the automotive industry during the 1970s, along with a discussion on the impact of the Great Recession.
"The ’70s really marks a terrific transition in the automobile industry both in the United States and globally," said Heitmann. "I really needed to bring that material out with this second edition."
The Great Recession also had a significant impact on the automotive industry. New car sales plummeted 21 percent in 2008 and 2009, according to Ward’s World Motor Vehicle Data.
"The Great Recession is part of a really complex period of time,” Heitmann said. “I think it’s fair to say that government intervention saved the American auto industry. Now it’s thriving again, but product mixes are changing, among other things."
In addition, the automobile is no longer the object of desire it once was, Heitmann explained. For many it’s now simply an appliance to get from place to place. "There will always be a number of car enthusiasts," said Heitmann. "But in American culture, and especially with young people, it has really diminished over the last 30 years."
With Rebecca Morales, Heitmann is also co-author of Stealing Cars: Technology and Society from the Model T to the Gran Torino. In it, the duo examine the history of motor vehicle theft.