Century of Cars

October 6, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


CLARENCE PAGE: There it goes. The last old-style, rear-engine, air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle rolled off an assembly line in pueblo, Mexico, this past summer– the end of an era. More than that, it was the end of a century: A century of cars. Coincidentally, it was in 1903 that Henry Ford produced the first Model “A” in Detroit.

There were cars before, but never in such abundance. When the Model “T” came along five years later, so did something new, called the assembly line. As cars became more affordable, they became a new expression of America’s restlessness.

We became a big-car nation. Let us now praise famous cars, historic cars, gas-guzzler cars, polluting cars, old beater cars, fabulously decorated cars — all the same car to us. Cars are us in this big-car nation, and we are our cars. Washington encouraged cars in postwar America. Federal highways and federal housing loan guarantees created the new suburbia, all but killing downtown as we used to know it, but creating the shopping mall, traffic jams, drive-ins and drive-thru’s and a new right of passage: The driver’s license.

We drive our cars and our cars drive our culture. The car transformed a nation of pioneers into a country of commuters. As we spent more and more time behind the wheel, the design of our cars began to speak increasingly to a repressed romance in our road trips. It was 50 years ago, at the midpoint in our car century, that Chevrolet produced its first Corvette. American motor style had come of age. Take that, Porche, Ferrari, Lamborghini.

Sure, Europeans produced sports cars with style, elegance and microscopic precision, but the American sports car had muscle. More than that, the Corvette offered a dream as old as the American dream. In the early 1960s, a baby- boomer TV hit called “Route 66″ got it right. The show costarred two guys and a Corvette cruising Route 66 and looking for some kind of Jack Kerouac “On the Road” enlightenment. Teenagers of my generation loved it. In the new American Zen, destination was becoming less important than how we got there.

On the hierarchy of modern- American needs, the car falls somewhere behind food, clothing and shelter, but not by much. After all, as the old saying goes, “you can’t drive your house.” But people do just about everything in their cars, from drive-thru dining to drive-by shootings.

We invest our dreams in foreign cars, too, even the little people’s car from Adolf Hitler’s nightmare in the 1930s. With adolescent exuberance in the 1960s, Americans redeemed the Volkswagen as the love bug. But along came new emission standards in the 1970s, and America stopped making the Beetle. But not Mexico. They never lost their loved for el vocho. Now President Vicente Vox promises a new era of bigger, cleaner and safer cars for Mexico. Maybe so, but will they be as loveable?

Back here in el Norte, our big- car nation has embraced a bigger Beetle– cuter, quieter and more upscale, the way we Americans like to see ourselves. North America’s flirtation with small cars has morphed into a new era of big trucks and minivans and SUV’s. Cleaner air? Fuel efficiency? Maybe next century. ( The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” playing in background )

COMMERCIAL: Fairlane G.T. 1967 Touch, nimble, macho.

CLARENCE PAGE: For now, let us praise famous muscle cars, sing a song for that little red corvette, that little GTO, that little deuce coup. Giddy-up, giddy-up, 409. Put her in overdrive and head down the endless highway toward yet another horizon in the American dream. I’m Clarence Page.