Oh, for the open road

June 17, 1996|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON -- It has changed how the landscape is experienced and how cities are shaped. In it uncounted millions dTC of marriages have been proposed and relationships consummated. From courtship to crime to consumption, from the American economy to the American spirit, almost nothing would be as it is were it not for the handiest thing that ever happened for the hot pursuit of happiness. So let us now praise the automobile, born, sort of, 100 years ago.

The auto industry's centennial is being celebrated because in 1896 the Duryea brothers of Springfield, Massachusetts, sold 13 cars. Critics, called ''carmudgeons,'' who are legion and mostly liberals, ask, ''What's to celebrate?''

Yes, cars emit exhaust, and 1899 produced America's first recorded traffic fatality, the first of -- so far -- 2.8 million deaths from traffic-related injuries. But horses were lethal, and stifle your nostalgia for those suffocating summers when windows were sealed, but noses were not, against billowing dust of finely ground manure produced by horses such as those that deposited 60,000 gallons of urine on New York's streets every day.

The mass production of automobiles on moving assembly lines, emulating the disassembly of cattle by meat-packing companies, increased productivity and wages, enabling workers to buy what they made. Before cars became consumer goods, people rarely went into debt intentionally. To facilitate purchases, automobile companies developed ''installment buying,'' and credit unions flourished facilitating it. This destigmatized indebtedness, which government embraced with gusto, and increased Americans' reluctance to defer gratifications.

Automobile and oil companies pioneered franchising for dealers of their products. Credit cards were developed by oil companies to make credit portable for mobile Americans.

The democratized possession of machines capable of inflicting personal injuries and property damage enormously stimulated the insurance industry. Supermarkets prospered because automobile owners could shop once a week. The automobile created vast wealth by increasing the value of land now accessible to people who worked in, but preferred not to live in, cities.

Today, when most commutes are not from suburb to city but from one suburb to another, automobiles are blamed for suburbs, which are blamed for urban decline and desecration of the countryside.

The first suburbs

Granted, suburbs sometimes are named, as novelist Peter De Vries said, for what their developers destroyed (''Forest View,'' ''Rolling Acres''), but the American hankering for suburbs predates the automobile. By 1848, 118 commuter trains poured into Boston; in 1888, Richmond acquired the first of another maker of suburbs, the electric trolley.

The ''getaway car'' made criminals mobile, and gave us movie car chases. But liberals blame the automobile for myriad crimes, including Wal-Marts, ''the mallification of America'' and the breakdown of ''community.'' Actually, automobiles were conquerors of rural loneliness, especially that of women, when farm families lived an average of five miles from market, six miles from school, 14 miles from a hospital.

Automobiles were indispensable for the establishment in the 1950s of the teen-age nation-within-the-nation. Before James Dean totaled his Porsche and himself at age 24, he was the archetypal teen-ager, a rebel without a cause but not without a car.

From millions of dashboards poured a generation's anthems -- rock 'n' roll. Automobiles solved what Frederick Lewis Allen called ''the difficulty of finding a suitable locale for misconduct.'' Hitherto young swains had been confined to front-porch swings, with the girls' parents and siblings underfoot. Now they could drive away and, more to the point, park.

GM's ''ladder of consumption'' -- Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, Cadillac -- gave America an ersatz class structure, but one easy to climb. Sure, Fifties cars -- from their protuberant, not to say nubile, front bumpers to their tail fins -- looked, as a wit said, ''like chorus girls coming and fighter planes going.'' And perhaps the ''planned obsolescence'' of annual model changes was not entirely, as Detroit insisted, "healthy dissatisfaction.'' Perhaps the television program ''My Mother the Car'' indicated that the tendency to anthropomorphize cars had gone a tad far.

Who cares. Forget the vulgarities, celebrate the virtues of automobility.

Around 1970, Mississippi's appalling Sen. James Eastland, musing about America's mistakes, regretted ''giving niggers driver's licenses and letting 'em go north.'' He knew: An open road produces an open society. The automobile has been an emancipating device, celebrated in our literature, from ''The Great Gatsby'' to ''On the Road.'' Were Huck to light out for the territories today, he would go in a Ford Explorer.

''Mason City. To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new.'' So begins ''All the King's Men.'' In the land of the automobile, every man's a king.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/17/96

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