- Auto Mechanics: Technology and Expertise in Twentieth-Century America
Kevin Borg begins his history of auto mechanics with the important truth that cars break down. Along with the adoption of the automobile, repair became a fact of life for American drivers. Borg asserts that the unreliability of automobiles tempered the libratory potential of the new technology, cultivated anxiety among users, and created a new occupation, that of the auto mechanic. Although much recent scholarship on the automobile has focused on consumption, Borg defines a new avenue of inquiry, the “middle ground” of repair, which proved to be an undefined space between production and consumption. Borg plumbs the ambiguities of this middle-ground and mechanics’ identity over the twentieth century, using public debates, census data, and institutional records to explore the intersections of social status and technological knowledge.
In this study, Borg poses critical questions about co-evolution of expertise and status that rework our understanding of social hierarchies in the Machine Age. He asks: “How can we understand the occupation’s ambiguous social status – between stigmatized, dirty service work and technological expertise – as both servants and savants?” (5). Examining the social construction of mechanics, Borg argues that “mechanics’ relationship to the automobile – a technology strongly associated with freedom, power, and progress –both challenged and reinforced evolving American hierarchies of gender, class and race” (6). What we learn is not only how this category of work was created, narrowly defined, and maintained but also how mechanics’ identity, although predicated on technological knowledge, became, paradoxically, distrusted and devalued even as Americans increased their dependence on the automobile.
Borg traces these questions through seven chronological chapters that span the twentieth century. After defining the concept of the “middle ground,” the author uses a case study of chauffeur-mechanics to interrogate struggles over authority between owners and mechanics. Early automobiles needed constant repair [End Page 762] and this gave rise to a new group of laborers drawn from the ranks of native born, white, young men who were mechanically skilled and who both drove and cared for the automobiles of wealthy owners. The “chauffeur problem” described the tension between a new class of worker and their employers. Because of their skill, mechanics found themselves in high demand, however their relative position of authority did not last long as patrons, motoring interests, and garage owners initiated “legal, educational and bureaucratic changes” that curbed the mechanic’s power (24). By World War I, mechanics’ control of the technology shifted to a new venue, the independent and dealer-owned repair shops.
The subsequent three chapters explore the production and reproduction of the trade through education. Chapter Two discusses the diverse antecedents and occupations that contributed to car repair as a sideline business. In the 1910s a wide range of craftsmen, from blacksmiths to bicycle repairmen, and a host of others became “ad hoc” mechanics. Chapter Three explains the institutionalization of mechanical training in the Army and in courses hosted by civic organizations such as the YMCA. These classes turned the previously haphazard process of acquiring automotive knowledge into a system that created, defined, and reproduced mechanics (53). Chapter Four follows the evolution of training in the 1920s from nonprofit organizations to public schools. Borg argues that shop classes “narrowed and ossified the already strong gender and class construction of the trade,” sharpening social and technological hierarchies along class, gender and racial lines. For instance female students were regularly discouraged from taking shop class. In addition, the author considers the overlapping categories of race and class in a discussion of segregated schools and the limited access of African Americans to well-funded shop classes. If schools defined who could become a mechanic, it did not ease the anxious relationship between consumers and repairmen, and the sixth chapter considers the efforts of the automotive industry to alleviate motorists’ mistrust of mechanics. Initiatives included licensing mechanics, redesigning automobiles to make minor repairs easier, instituting flat rates for service (which did not sit well with mechanics), and recasting the image of mechanics...