- Auto Mania: Cars, Consumers, and the Environment
In Auto Mania, Tom McCarthy sets out to create the product life cycle of the American automobile. In well-researched, thoughtful chapters, McCarthy provides readers with superb snapshots of paths taken and missed in the history of auto manufacturing. He creates a history of technological innovation with a particular emphasis on the environmental impact of the automobile, which historian John R. McNeill has called one of the twentieth century’s socially and environmentally most “consequential” technologies. However, Auto Mania, by casting its net so wide, ultimately creates more questions than it answers.
The American automobile is no typical consumer good. McCarthy acknowledges this early on when he writes: “All of the automobile’s environmental impacts occurred in a larger context shaped by [End Page 845] consumers as much as (and sometimes more than) producers” (xiv). His account, though, will not specifically analyze either of these perspectives; in Auto Mania, McCarthy explains that he intends to explore “. . . what consumers have done with automobiles (behavior) . . . [as well as] possible reasons for their actions (motivations)” (xiv). This is not, however, what one finds in the twelve chapters that follow. Frankly, there are other titles that still discuss these matters with more completeness than does McCarthy: such as James J. Flink for consumer culture and David Gartman’s for vehicle design. In a tremendous contribution to the literature on automobiles, though, McCarthy’s very readable book connects producers and consumers to some of the auto’s considerable environmental impacts.
The chapters that follow, if taken as a whole, leave many gaps in the consideration of the automobile; considered in singularity, though, each chapter gives a unique twist to the well-worn history of automobiles. When these vignettes work best, McCarthy presents details of the well-treaded evolution of the auto with the context of environmental history. For instance, in the treatment of Ford’s Model T, he explores the auto of the 1930s as a revolution in the gathering of raw materials over a broad area in order to collect them for manufacturing in a central location. He extends this discussion by investigating the environmental hazards that derived from the intensity of this manufacturing at Ford’s Highland Park and Rouge plants. This point then connects smoothly to junkyards and manufacturers’ efforts to wrestle with obsolescence and style changes. In the end, writes McCarthy, consumer exuberance over annual style alterations won out.
Although Auto Mania connects this story to the present by discussing the increasing importance of cars as cultural signifiers after World War II, discussion of the culture of automobile consumption is not the book’s greatest strength. The book gains traction again later when it reaches issues of pollution and the Clean Air Act, CAFÉ standards, and the ensuing alterations (and not) of automotive design. In each case, however, the later chapters are brief and relatively undeveloped, which gives the reader the sense that McCarthy has bitten off more than he could or should chew in the book’s sweep.
On the specific topics within these chapters, Auto Mania contains some stunning successes. For instance, in order to discuss post-war consumers’ interest in styling, McCarthy develops a fascinating discussion of the event known as the “1958 Buyer’s Strike.” This early rejection of Detroit’s products shows American consumers making an early bow toward imports and smaller vehicles (well before the 1970s reaction to the Embargo that is often credited with shifting consumer patterns). For this episode, McCarthy specifies the experience of the Volkswagen Beetle. Although the Big Three had attempted to guide [End Page 846] consumers through style and social rank, writes McCarthy: “Small foreign cars had a reverse snob appeal Detroit could do little about. A small, inexpensive import, in sharp contrast to a low-priced domestic car, suggested that its owner was a discerning sophisticate rather than a poor man” (134). Detroit, by contrast, chose this moment to unveil models such as the infamous Edsel that relied on styling...