Nothing has played as pivotal a role or shaped America like the automobile and the open road.
In Motoring: The Highway Experience in America, author's John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle explore the social and economic development of America during the most influential time in its history: the Auto Age.
Coming at the end of the Industrial Revolution, the Auto Age was the culmination of our industrial development during that time and it created the bedrock that modern America is built on.
While most popular historical contexts place a great deal of importance on wars or social movements, the truth is that it was the automobile and the development of our massive road network — the single greatest public works initiative in the history of humanity — that truly put America on top of the world.
Historically — and rightly so — works like the great pyramids are looked on with awe and wonder, while contemporary efforts like our highways go largely unnoticed, but as noted in Motoring, America's interconnected highways are the largest built structure on the planet.
Nothing else even comes close.
Because of the development of the automobile and the highway system, America's society, culture, education, art, sciences, business opportunities, and economy exploded from 1900-2000 — taking us from a largely uneducated rural country to the greatest interconnected powerhouse the world has ever seen. Dwarfing the power and influence of all the greatest ancient civilizations and leading the world forward from what would be by comparison to any time before it, the dark ages.
Without the individual freedom and flexibility the automobile in its various permutations provides, that development wouldn't have been possible — in Motoring, the authors plainly spell out why the car and the highway system were so important and continue to be in doing so.
Along the way, they interweave our cultural and architectural development, taking us from cowboys, horseless carriages, industrial city life, and WWI, through flapper girls, prohibition, WWII, poodle skirts and Muscle Cars, to the OPEC embargo, convenience stores, modern suburban and city life, and computer-controlled automobiles, giving Motoring a truly fascinating, relatable personal context.
Please follow along as I give a chapter by chapter breakdown of what Motoring: The Highway Experience in America has to offer:
Motoring is an academically rigorous book, meaning that along with the meat of the book that starts in the Prologue and continues all the way through the Chapter 12 conclusion, there is an extensive bibliography of sources cited in it for reference and further research.
I know that for many people, academic rigor and an extensive bibliography might seem out of the ordinary for a book about cars, but personally, I appreciate the ability to corroborate the material.
I'm a big fan of knowing why the information is valid.
While that might make it sound like Motoring is boring, the book is also completely illustrated throughout with period photos and illustrations, making it a treasure trove of not only historical knowledge, but historic visuals, as well.
Context is the enabler of understanding — and knowledge without context has little meaning.
In the prologue, Jakle and Sculle set the scene — the context — for Motoring by providing the environment the automobile, the highway, and America existed in during its development, which in turn provides the scope for the book.
Chapter 1: Motoring: An Introduction
How did the automobile come to be?
As I've said in the past, it didn't occur in a vacuum, it occurred within a complex social and economic landscape. What's possibly even more significant for its development, is the individual's personal relationship with their car. Chapter 1 weaves all of those elements together as it provides a unique look into the forces that shaped the automobile — and that the automobile shaped in return — during its most formative years.
Chapter 2: America's Good Roads Search
One of the most important elements to the rise of the automobile was the development of better roads more suited for automobile travel.
The roads the automobile inherited here in the United States were largely dirt and gravel, or more often than not, muddy trails that were hideously maintained. After all, before the car, roads were intended for foot, horse, and carriage travel. The automobile was initially an interloper in the American way of life — not something that was embraced by enough people to cause a wide spread change in lifestyle — but that didn't last long. With the mass adoption of the horseless carriage, the search for improved roads designed to be used by automobiles gained steam like nothing before in human history.
Chapter 2 takes a broad look at the way the American roadway system developed from its infancy with local interest created through automobile clubs to the beginnings of the national fervor that paved the way for the massive interconnected highway system we know today.
Chapter 3: Detour Ahead: Rebuilding America's Roads
I didn't expect this chapter, but I found it fascinating.
Chapter 3 covers the approach used during the first part of the Auto Age to update America's roads to accommodate the then-new automobile. Its subject matter covers the practices used by engineers and contractors, technology of road construction, road design, and maintenance and repair.
Described over time and with a focus on the impact on the motorist, it is one of the most interesting chapters in the entire book — at least for me. It looks at everything from the grading of early roads with teams of horses to the concrete construction of the modern interstate highway system. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the entire book, this chapter alone might be worth the price of admission.
Chapter 4: Highways as Public Prerogative
America has always been a highly individualistic society. It's a critical part of our social underpinnings. As noted in Motoring, the American highway system is one of the rare occasions when early American's decided to empower the government to do something for everyone. While there were certainly dissenters, they weren't up to the challenge of facing the broadly-felt exuberance to create better roads for faster travel and greater freedom than had been experienced previously by horse and buggy or mass transit.
Chapter 4 takes a look at how the highway system in America came to be — from social will and impact, to finance and business, to governmental management of the process.
Chapter 5: Dealerships and Garages
Motoring wouldn't be complete without a look at the motorist's experience with both automobile dealerships and the garages that service their pride and joy.
Really, the whole automotive experience revolves around both concepts and this chapter looks at each in its own section. Although a great introduction, the book the Garage, which I've previously reviewed — also by authors Jakle and Sculle — takes a much more in-depth look at this rich subject matter, and really brings it to life. If you're as interested in this subject as I am, I highly recommend continuing on with it by picking up a copy of the Garage.
Chapter 6: The Tourist's Roadside
This is a subject matter I'm very familiar with.
Growing up with long road trips all over the place, I've become a bit of a connoisseur of the roadside.
Not that I stop a lot.
But I do love seeing the quaintness of the eclectic roadside — something that has been disappearing over the years, replaced by mundane sameness. In my opinion, to the detriment of road going culture.
Chapter 6 takes a look at road trips, roadside attractions, and the road-going lifestyle as it developed over the 20th century — a lifestyle I will never get enough of.
Chapter 7: Rejecting the Roadside as Landscaped Landscape
I'm sure many people don't think about it today, but our landscaped roadways — whether they appear to be or not — came about from a bit of trial and error over many years.
As explained in Chapter 7 of Motoring, the beauty of our roads was a heavily debated idea as our highways were being born and what we see today, from shopping strips, to billboards, to panoramas, to manicured (or not-so-manicured) interchanges were something of a hot button issue. Today, what we see as we travel came about because some enterprising engineers fought for beauty as well as practicality, and Chapter 7 tells the story.
Chapter 8: Limited-Access Highways as Dream Fulfillment
The modern freeway as we know it, came to be as limited-access highways, which is a fancy way of saying no cross streets. More than that, they meant faster travel. While today, we consider them to be the norm and often complain at their congestion, there was a time when these were the stuff of fantasy and the speed with which we are able to reach what would before their creation be considered great distances, wasn't something people could even hope to achieve.
In Chapter 8, the authors explore the factors that influenced the creation of — and were also influenced by — our modern interstate highway system.
Chapter 9: Motoring by Truck
While most motorists see the highway through the lens of their commute or a road trip, truckers are a group of people that have just as much claim to the open road and have their own unique perspective on the development of the highway system.
In Chapter 9, Jakle and Sculle explore the historical underpinnings of trucking, the trucker's experience on the open road, and the impact trucking has had on society, the economy, and the highway system at large.
Chapter 10: Motoring by Bus
Historically, much emphasis is given to the development of the car early in the Auto Age, but it wasn't the only vehicle on the road. Not only was the truck invented early on, but the bus as well.
The bus was a more economical solution than a personal or family automobile for those struggling financially, it also allowed train operators to provide excursions at stops for passengers, and it functioned as an alternative to train travel, altogether.
Chapter 10 covers the view of the open road from the angle of the bus rider, the impact the bus had on the country historically as a whole, and the highway system in particular.
Chapter 11: Convenience in Store
The car has impacted virtually every facet in modern American life, which includes grocery stores and gas stations, and has turned the modern gas station into a miniature grocery store — and even some grocery stores into gas stations.
The convenience store is a modern way of life for Americans and it is what the gas station has evolved to become. Chapter 11 covers that evolution from the perspective of the convenience store, the gas station, and the motorist.
If the development of the gas station and its impact on the automobile, the economy, and society in America is of interest to you, be sure to check out the Gas Station in America, also by John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle. It was the first of their books I read and reviewed and it stands out as my favorite.
Chapter 12: The Highway Experience: A Conclusion
Chapter 12 brings the separate elements of the book together and moves them all forward into our current lives. Looking at the world from where we've been to where we are is fascinating. If for no other reason than modern history is rarely woven together with a common thread, but rather broken up into eras of social change or marked by wars or strife.
The truth is that it is the automobile and the highway system that provides that common thread that has shaped our world and our lives in a way many of us don't even realize, but Motoring's final chapter brings that all into focus and makes it plain the real impact it's had.
I grew up during the last quarter of the 20th century, my Mother around the middle, and my Grandfather near the beginning. I am a product of all those time periods of the Auto Age, having both been raised with rich stories about them, and having explored the open road extensively from childhood. Because of that opportunity to travel, as a child I got to see remnants of all the time periods of the Auto Age: up close, still in use, and magical — something very difficult to find today.
Even with having had those experiences, Motoring has filled in gaps I never knew were missing, all the while taking me back on a wonderful journey through my life, and providing me with an awe-inspiring perspective on the power and importance of the automobile and the highway system I didn't appreciate the same way as I do now.
I highly recommend picking up a copy of Motoring: The Highway Experience in America and reading it from cover to cover. I have no doubt it will provide some fascinating context for just about anyone who lived through it, and even more so, for those who never got a chance.
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