Jon de Vos: A scowl for lost freedom
Winter Park, CO Colorado
Get your motor runnin’
Head out on the highway
Lookin’ for adventure
And whatever comes our way
– Steppenwolf 1968
While fighting in Europe during the Second World War, it was hard not to admire the mobility and access provided by the German system of hi-speed roads.
The autobahn certainly made a deep impression on Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe. A decade later, as president, Eisenhower undertook the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, commonly just called, “the interstate.” Today at nearly 47,000 miles long, it is the largest system of highways on earth, as well as the largest construction project in the history of the world.
America took to those highways in its new-found freedom after WW II, buying cars in unprecedented numbers. In 1950, leaded gas sold for 27 cents per gallon and all across the land, Saturday night found you with an arm around a sweet thing in your Oldsmobile.
Inside the car was a whole new world, yours to control. Feel like turning left at the next town? Nobody was around to tell you otherwise. Cars were freedom. They gave kids quiet time away from prying eyes. They gave parents blissful peace away from the kids. Cars gave criminals permission to get worse, the ability to make a clean getaway with all the bank’s loot while the dumb flatfoots went straight at the last intersection.
You want to experience car drama of that period? Crank up Netflix to catch Robert Mitchum as Lucas Doolin, a moonshine hustler running spirits across Tennessee back roads in the 1958 Thunder Road. Another great film that catches the essence of the car-as-freedom is the 1950 classic, Hot Rod (I’ve seen it 37 times).
Cars and the American road system were the envy of the world. It was a thumb at the nose to totalitarian societies in China and Eastern Europe. Low-level Russian bureaucrats waited 10 years to buy a car. The proletariat couldn’t get them at all.
Well, the world has certainly changed and the image of the car now represents just another chore to be done, a grocery run, a trip to the hardware store, off to work, etc. Gone is that freedom to turn left because now each car jaunt is a challenge. Gridlocked, stuck, stopped in our cars, cheek-to-cheek with the scowling old biddy you cut off two miles back, we can’t help but ponder, “Gee if I lived in my car, I’d be home by now.”
New cars are all tending towards a menacing, muscular look. Headlights are resembling a squinting, dangerous ninja warrior. It’s gotten a little scary out there. Gone is the camaraderie of the side-street drag racing; it’s every man for themselves.
You may have to look it up on the internet but check out how friendly a 1956 Volkswagen van looked. It practically begged strangers to climb aboard. And a decade later, boy did they ever. More and more our cars are resembling our attitudes toward driving.
I hate when I look around an intersection only to find a Chevy giving me a threatening scowl. I can get that at home.
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