Auto Mania

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Tom McCarthy. Auto Mania: Cars, Consumers and the Environment. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007. pp. 347., $32.50, Cloth ISBN 9780300110388

Tom McCarthy in Auto Mania traces the relationship between cars and the environment and explains that American consumers chose mobility and status over the environment and that auto manufacturers capitalized on this fact. Noteworthy is the fact that for the earliest days of Ford, for example, environmentalism, recycling and government regulation were known issues. Using a framework of product life cycle from raw material to manufacture to use and disposal, McCarthy reveals an area business and consumer historians have not explored in great detail. Wealthy Americans bought the first cars as status symbols and they had them driven by chauffeurs, who were often the target of criticism for reckless driving and other offenses. Lobbying against the automobile, many rural towns did not want to build or maintain roads, however, as cars became more and more popular, they were forced to endure the new ‘horseless carriage’. As early as 1899, gasoline had been refined and discovered and concern began to mount about what we call emissions and what was then called ‘foul exhaust’. (p. 23) Despite the exhaust issue and the cost of the new gasoline, many Americans resented the automobile because it was a loud and visible reminder of class status, only the wealthy drove automobiles.

It was the white middle class and the rural farmer who made the Model T the success it became, and it was the Model T that was responsible for the auto boom in the early twentieth century. Interestingly, sales, marketing and financing of cars paralleled piano sales, according to McCarthy. (p. 42) By 1920, after a 2500 percent rise in auto registrations, the use of lead in gasoline was the first environmental crisis for the auto industry. In the end, lead won out over alcohol additives and Ford manufactured over one million cars per year.

The Rouge as it was know is arguably the most studied industrial plant in America and its story is well known, however, McCarthy points out that Ford designed much of the plant with the goal of zero waste. From raw materials to finished product, many materials were re-used or reclaimed. While his motive may have been profit, Ford did claim that his recycling was a benefit to society and to the company. This was true of his efforts to but back cars for recycling as well, although it became a losing proposition. In fact, used and and abandoned cars posed an early and long lived environmental issues, especially in the cities.

Looking at consumption, Auto Mania turns to Cadillacs as being especially emblematic of American prosperity, looking at product differentiation among the Big Three auto makers. Nowhere in the United States were there more cars than in Southern California and there ‘smog’ became a major environmental hazard. The Automobile Manufacturers Association, scientists, Los Angeles County and others all studied the problem. Eugene Houdry invented the catalytic converter in 1950, however, leaded gasoline made it use inefficient so that use would have to wait for unleaded gasoline.

By the mid 1950’s, Americans were reacting against Detroit and hard economic times, so much so that the industry coined the term “Buyers Strike” to describe the downturn. Vance Packard, John Keats and others criticized the industry and this allowed for imports, like the VW Beetle to begin to show sales gains. The auto industry began to market second car sales to suburban housewives and this in turn created more scarp metal and waste. Companies like Proler Steel had massive operations to recycle and crush cars for scrap metal. By the 1960’s, environmental awareness was n the rise, cities like Detroit were toxic, rivers caught fire and the auto industry was at the center of the inferno. The 1972 Clean Air Act was crucial in mandating that auto makers solve a variety of environmental issues. California brought back the catalytic converter and the EPA began to issue tougher regulations. The gas crisis and other factors helped ensure cars with better mileage and imports began to gain ground in sales as well. The Arab Oil Embargo reminded Americans that ‘small was beautiful’ and Detroit began to make smaller cars. The Japanese also lead the industry in small cars with high MPG and Detroit and the EPA began to issue standards for fuel economy.

Despite the easily recalled events of the 1970’s, by the ‘go-go’ 80’s Americans had discovered the SUV and light trucks were leading sales with macho names and large engines. Again, Americans chose comfort, form over function and environmentalism in the majority of sales. There were smaller and compact cars, however, they never sold as well as the SUV’s or mini vans. Despite the introduction of hybrid technologies, both the domestic and foreign auto manufacturers continued to see Americans as a place where the automobile was such an embedded part of our culture that the environmental impact seemed secondary. McCarthy would argue that it was government regulation and a groundswell movement that pushed the auto industry to embrace new standards. Overall, the automobile industry sough to self correct, however, it chose to follow market demand.

Commentary Alan S. Brody

In Auto Mania McCarthy sets out to show how consumers and the auto industry interacted to create demand, the issue fo agency is yet to be decided. One thing is very clear that the environmental aspects were always under the surface. It was not until the government intervened that things began to change and this is another story that is told throughout this chronological work.

McCarthy writes a popular history and one that seems to vacillate between a history of social uses of the automobile and the environmental movement. The voice of the consumer seems missing particularly in the description of foreign cars or hybrid models, perhaps that is outside the scope, however, it would help explain one constant question, did anyone ask consumers how much they cared about the environment? In this regard, McCarthy runs into a common trap, how much agency to give consumers? In his view, they appear to not care about the environment and want newer models. I believe one can complicate this argument by looking at case studies of places like Southern California, which has a long history of environmental debates.

McCarthy does raise some god questions and social history topics, I do not recall seeing a social history of the junkyard, a topic I might explore. In addition, he points out some obvious questions to consider, for example, what was the relationship between planned obsolescence and discarded vehicles? What happens to the industrial landscape as a result of annual ‘retooling? Lastly, he makes us think about our roles as consumers and automobile buyers and what the impact is on the environment.

In the Spring of 2011, gas prices are almost $4.00 per gallon and the news reports that people are changing driving habits, after al gasoline is a regressive commodity. I also look out at our Toyota mini-van, our Toyota crossover SUV and our business Chevy 15 foot box truck in my driveway. The cars range in age from five years for the van to nine for the SUV and twelve for the truck. It will be interesting to see how long we can continue to sustain the gas we burn each week. Perhaps in the end, we really are a from over function society?

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