- Auto Mechanics: Technology and Expertise in Twentieth Century America
Kevin Borg’s Auto Mechanics is a finely researched, rich social history. Filling a gap in the literature, Borg situates his study within the social-construction strand of technological history, adding another layer to this growing field of technological studies. An addition to [End Page 847] Philip Scranton’s series on Studies in Industry and Society, Borg tells the story of how auto mechanics became mechanics. His narrative analyzes the shifts in sociotechnical hierarchies that occurred over the course of the twentieth century. The result is an unpacking of the sociotechnical ensemble that defined auto mechanics identity, power, and status over time.
Auto Mechanics begins with the story of the chauffeur-mechanic. Because of the lack of infrastructure to accommodate early automobiles, wealthy car owners relied on chauffeur-mechanics for driving and auto repair in the first decade of the twentieth century. Driver-mechanics resented the social servile status they received from their employers. According to Borg, they expressed frustration and revealed their power by demanding kickbacks and commissions from garage owners, taking their owners’ automobiles for joyrides, and by using the cars for limousine services. Chauffeur-mechanics lost their positions as a result of legislation, court rulings, licensing regulations, education programs, garage owners’ assertions of power, and the decrease in need for chauffeur-mechanics: such social and technical phenomena relegated chauffeurs to a servant’s status. Blacksmiths, self-trained ad hoc mechanics in this period, also failed to remain auto mechanics because of these larger forces and their inability to adapt to changes in automobile technology. Borg argues that chauffeur-mechanics and blacksmiths only held power (never quite defined) because of their mechanical skill. While some new-generation blacksmiths successfully shifted to automobile repair, both groups of workers suffered because of social and technical obstacles. These histories serve as a microcosm of what forces influenced the auto mechanics’ profession in subsequent years and for the entire century.
To resolve the growing need for auto mechanics, a whole array of groups entered the picture to shape the profession. Borg traces the evolution of the education of the trade looking at how private groups, such as the YMCA, initiated vocational instruction on automobile repair. Soon public schools, bolstered by Progressive Era reformers, entered the act with the ubiquitous auto shops, along with a federal government committed to securing auto mechanics during WWI, helped institutionalize education. The successful lobbying of advocates for vocational education cleared the way for the passage of the Smith–Hughes Act in 1917, which allocated federal matching funds for state public schools that implemented such programs. Auto manufacturers and dealerships also pressed for the training of a unified workforce. Vocational auto shop helped acclimate aspiring mechanics to the rationalization of the workforce demanded by Ford and others by training them within the framework of the flat-rate/piecework system of auto repair. [End Page 848]
Perhaps the most interesting section of the book is when Borg describes the tension that emerged between auto mechanics’ tacit knowledge of their trade and the application of new diagnostic equipment imposed on repair shops by auto manufacturers. The Ford Laboratory Test Set, for example, was an effort by Ford to create brand loyalty and resolve the auto mechanic image problem by selling the appearance of objective science through these diagnostic gauges and thus creating a “feeling of assurance” from customers. Mechanics, however, relied more on their experience and the sharpness of their senses to diagnose car troubles. The last two chapters engage the post-WWII years, but are too breezy, covering 60 years of history in only fifty-five pages. Borg’s discussion of the auto repair gouging crisis, the 1960s Congressional hearings, the environmental movement, and the history of diagnostics and On Board Diagnostics offers a concluding note on the diminishing power of auto mechanics.
Borg’s impressive research, using diverse sources such as auto magazines, census records, city directories, and archives across the country...