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Auto Mechanics

Technology and Expertise in Twentieth-Century America

Kevin L. Borg

Publication Year: 2007

The history of automobiles is not just the story of invention, manufacturing, and marketing; it is also a story of repair. Auto Mechanics opens the repair shop to historical study—for the first time—by tracing the emergence of a dirty, difficult, and important profession. Kevin L. Borg's study spans a century of automotive technology—from the horseless carriage of the late nineteenth century to the "check engine" light of the late twentieth. Drawing from a diverse body of source material, Borg explores how the mechanic’s occupation formed and evolved within the context of broad American fault lines of class, race, and gender and how vocational education entwined these tensions around the mechanic’s unique expertise. He further shows how aspects of the consumer rights and environmental movements, as well as the design of automotive electronics, reflected and challenged the social identity and expertise of the mechanic. In the history of the American auto mechanic, Borg finds the origins of a persistent anxiety that even today accompanies the prospect of taking one's car in for repair.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Studies in Industry and Society

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v

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pp. vii-viii

I must break with the usual academic acknowledgments format and recognize up front the significant contributions of my spouse and partner, Jere Borg. Throughout this book’s decade-long gestation she has been a patient listener and my most reliable editor. She has read and commented on draft upon draft of every section of every chapter—sacrificing time, emotional energy, and sleep beyond what either of us had anticipated when we began our life journey together.

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Introduction: Technology’s Middle Ground

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pp. 1-12

Cars break down. They always have. On a warm spring day in 1901 a man named Robin Damon expected to enjoy the new freedom of automobility—swift individual travel without rails, without schedules, and free of willful horses. Instead, he and his friend spent six hours in the hot sun replacing spark plug gaskets, putting in new ignition points, and replacing a broken battery wire in the friend’s stranded “gasoline carriage.”1

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1. The Problem with Chauffeur-Mechanics

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pp. 13-30

On a summer Sunday in 1906 a New York Times headline told a paradoxical story: “Chauffeurs Lord It over Their Employers.”1 Chauffeurs became a serious problem for wealthy motorists during the first decade of the twentieth century. They extorted commissions and kickbacks from garage owners, took their employers’ cars out for joyrides at all hours, and exhibited a brazen disregard for social decorum. They did not behave as servants. Between 1903 and 1912 howls ...

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2. Ad Hoc Mechanics

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pp. 31-52

Accounts of early motorists often mention the important role ad hoc mechanics had in keeping these new machines in repair. Floyd Clymer recalled that in his boyhood town of Berthoud, Colorado, about 1906–7, “Our car engines were sometimes repaired by the local plumber, Andy Bergun—and, when the springs broke on the rough dirt roads (which was quite often) blacksmiths Bimson or Preston would do a nice job of welding for about a dollar per spring.”1 Bellamy Partridge wrote of driving his first automobile, a two-cylinder Rambler, on an ambitious 112-mile trip in about 1905–6.

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3. Creating New Mechanics

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pp. 53-75

“Get those big paying jobs in a small fraction of the time and expense of learning by the experience route,” promised the Detroit YMCA Automotive School. Rather than spend years as a garage apprentice sweeping the floors and polishing brass, graduates would save “literally years of work and hundreds of dollars” in lost wages.1 Many young Americans rushed to embrace the new technology widely touted in the media, a phenomenon much like that surrounding communication ...

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4. The Automobile in Public Education

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pp. 76-98

In 1912 a group of boys at San Bernardino High School in California presented a petition to the board of education asking it to include classes in electrical work, gas engines, and automobile repair.1 Four years later the high school in Duquesne, Pennsylvania, organized a class in vulcanizing automobile tires “in response to a request from the boys themselves.”2 When the high school in Sioux City, Iowa, opened an auto mechanics class in the fall of 1920, school officials found that “there were more boys on hand than we could accommodate.”


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pp. PS1-PS16

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5. Tinkering with Sociotechnical Hierarchies

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pp. 99-114

Creating new mechanics through auto shop helped resolve the problem of determining who would be responsible for maintaining the millions of new automobiles being sold every year. Motorists no longer had to employ chauffeur-mechanics, wait at blacksmiths’ shops, or seek out machinists or plumbers. They could now turn to automobile mechanics trained to make full-time careers out of maintaining and repairing their cars.

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6. Suburban Paradox: Maintaining Automobility in the Postwar Decades

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pp. 115-137

“Why, if my kid wanted to be an auto mechanic, I’d take my hammer and knock him in the head,” groused a middle-aged Iowa mechanic at the close of the 1960s.1 In the quarter-century following World War II the imagined freedom and prosperity of suburban automobility ran hard up against the social hierarchy of technological knowledge. World War II and the years that followed established a milestone in the development of America’s automobile culture and suggested ...

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7. “Check Engine”: Technology of Distrust

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pp. 138-169

Theodore Jackson entered the office at his boss’s request to answer the complaints of a disgruntled customer. Jackson, a Washington, D.C., auto mechanic in the early 1960s, exchanged heated words with the customer, and before long the irate customer hauled off and slugged Jackson right on the jaw, breaking it completely through in two places and landing Jackson in the hospital for eight days. Doctors wired Jackson’s jaw shut for six weeks, and he could not work for ...

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Conclusion: Servants or Savants? Revaluing the Middle Ground

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pp. 170-177

In the late 1990s neurologist and writer Frank Wilson noted the similar, highly developed manual dexterity of a surgeon and a world-class sleight-of-hand magician and then went on to observe parallels in their audiences’ perception of their skills: “The patient in a doctor’s office or in a hospital and the person in an audience watching a magic show . . . participate in a ritual shifting of power and responsibility to another. Conceding helplessness, the patient says to the doctor, ‘I trust you. I know you can heal me.’ The magician is placed on the same kind ...


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pp. 179-234

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Essay on Sources

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pp. 235-242

When it comes to historical sources, auto repair is everywhere and nowhere. Auto mechanics and repair shops existed in virtually every community across America, but there remains no conventional cache of business or labor records from which to work. The occupation’s social status had repercussions here as well. Auto mechanics and repair shops did not often keep sufficient business or personal records. Even if they had, few archives or libraries sought them out.


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pp. 243-249

E-ISBN-13: 9780801893261
E-ISBN-10: 0801893267
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801894855
Print-ISBN-10: 0801894859

Page Count: 280
Illustrations: 32 halftones
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: Studies in Industry and Society