- Auto Mechanics: Technology and Expertise in Twentieth-Century America
Effective maintenance of equipment and infrastructure, the social critic Eric Hoffer liked to say, was "the best test for the vigor and stamina" of an organization or a nation. The United States has often failed Hoffer's test, privileging the invention and development of new technologies rather than keeping up its old ones. Historians, too, have largely neglected maintenance and repair, which makes Kevin L. Borg's new book pathbreaking and ever so welcome. In seven richly detailed chapters, theoretically sophisticated and attentive to nuances of race, class, and gender, Borg analyzes the changing background, training, and expertise of auto mechanics over the course of the twentieth century.
He begins with the "chauffeur-mechanics" of the early 1900s, the first group to earn a living working on automobiles. While expected to be deferential and obey orders, chauffeurs often refused to wear livery, took their bosses' vehicles out for joy rides, and hired themselves out as jitney operators for pocket money. Their actions previewed the class conflicts that would continue to characterize relations between automobile owners and those who fixed autos. Another early group working under the hood were what Borg calls "Ad Hoc Mechanics"—bicycle dealers, machinists, electricians, blacksmiths, and even plumbers who occasionally performed car repairs. Drawing on new evidence, Borg revises the traditional assumption of historians that men with skills like blacksmithing easily transitioned to become successful full-time automobile mechanics.
But where, then, did the legions of mechanics who dealt with the ever-increasing number of cars come from? "Creating New Mechanics" is the first of a cluster of chapters addressing institutional efforts to recruit and train new generations of auto mechanics through formal classroom and shop-based instruction. Some of the earliest courses on automotive mechanics were offered by the YMCA, starting in 1904. During World War I the U.S. Army established its first schools for the purpose. But it was the American high school, by embracing vocational education and particularly the curriculum dubbed "auto shop," that provided the major means of recruiting and training young people (predominantly males) as auto mechanics. High school students supplemented their classroom experience with on-the-job training at local garages or car dealerships, and some later received in-service instruction from automobile manufacturers. Consolidated in the 1930s, this educational regime endures today, although it has never been wholly satisfactory. [End Page 464]
An individual car owner may speak fondly of "my" mechanic, trusted and expert, but motorists have always believed that, as a class, mechanics are dishonest, incompetent, or both. Tensions between customers and mechanics worsened during the 1950s and 1960s as Americans, increasingly suburban, depended more on their cars than ever before. Moreover, the vehicles they drove had become loaded with power accessories, air-conditioning systems, and the like, making them more prone to trouble. When new emissions-control technologies were added starting in the 1960s and 1970s, mechanics struggled with new and seemingly intractable problems, and auto repair became more contested than ever.
In his final chapter, "'Check Engine,' Technology of Distrust," Borg analyzes the efforts to find a "diagnostic fix" (p. 152), both for the problem of exhaust pollution and for the problem of poorly trained mechanics. Americans tried independent testing centers, where machines would supposedly diagnose a car's troubles and enable the car owner to then go to a mechanic and order a particular repair. Not surprisingly, these costly establishments frequently misdiagnosed problems or missed them altogether and left customers frustrated. In the late 1980s, advances in computerization led to another try at a fix: onboard diagnostics or OBD. Developed primarily to monitor automakers' compliance with Clean Air Act emissions parameters, OBD memory retained a coded record of many engine functions. This data told mechanics "what to fix or at least where to begin looking" for car trouble (p. 164). But the near-century-old system for creating auto mechanics was not attracting bright, computer-savvy young people. By the 1990s, given the public's...