- Machines of Youth: America's Car Obsession by Gary S. Cross
In this welcome addition to the literature, Gary S. Cross delves into a subject often referenced but rarely explored directly: teen car culture. Specifically, Machines of Youth examines how modern American youth culture evolved hand-in-hand with mass car culture, with important implications for both. Tracing a rise-and-fall arc, Cross dates the emergence of teen car culture to the 1930s, places its peak in the 1950s–1960s, and follows its relative decline in the 1970s–1980s before concluding with a discussion of its legacy in the 1990s and beyond.
He begins in the 1930s, when several factors converged to make this culture possible. Chief here were the vast array of inexpensive used cars on the market, thanks to the throwaway culture of Sloanism; the persistent role of American youth as early and eager adopters of new technologies; [End Page 983] the emergence of the public high school as a mass experience, and thus a critical nexus for a range of coming-of-age activities; the widespread availability of after-school jobs, allowing many to buy and run cheap cars, even in the Depression; and the very low unrestricted driving age in most states, enabling kids as young as sixteen to cruise as much as their gas money would allow. Consequently, "the car came to shape the American teen experience just as youths were beginning to enter high-school peer cultures" (p. 12).
The second chapter focuses on one particular slice of youth car culture rooted in the 1930s: the largely white, male, and working-class hot rodder. Weaving together the stories of a number of early participants, Cross explains how and why this subset of teens modified and raced their cars, especially in Southern California. He follows the same thread through the next four chapters, dwelling on the "war on hot rods" of the 1950s, when authorities cracked down on the various forms of hooliganism that went hand in hand with souped-up cars and adolescent adrenaline; the culture of cruising in the 1950s–1960s, including the peak years of drive-ins, main-street cruising, and "parking" in secluded areas; and the latter-day working-class hot rodders of the 1950s–1960s, the so-called "greasers." Subsequent chapters examine the evolution of Latino lowrider culture, the decline of cruising in the 1970s–1980s, and the emergence of a generational divide in the 1990s between old hot rodders, nostalgic for their American-muscle-powered youth, and younger enthusiasts with hoppedup Hondas. He ends by pointing to the many ways in which youth car culture seems to have declined—replaced, in part, by the virtual culture of the smartphone—but Cross is not entirely convinced of this. Pointing not only to the "fast and furious" crowd but also the online realms where today's young gearheads dwell, as well as the curious mixed nostalgia of resto- and rat-rodders, Cross concludes that youth car culture isn't dead, at least not yet. As for the future, he admirably steers clear of firm predictions: "Time will tell" (p. 188).
My only quibble concerns sources. To be sure, Cross consults many of the right periodicals, including Hot Rod and Rod & Custom, but the absence of a number of others directly relevant to his story—Honk!/Car Craft, Hop Up, Drag News, Popular Hot Rodding, and Street Scene, among others—is puzzling. As for secondary sources, he has done an excellent job plumbing the depths of the popular literature on hot rods and customs. Most of the relevant scholarly titles are there, too—notable exceptions include John Heitmann's survey, which examines teen car culture, films, novels, and hot rodding; Jeremy Kinney's work on sports cars, another important pillar of 1950s–1990s youth car culture; and Jeremy Packer's work on youth auto safety, among others. Yet those he does cite do not always directly inform his discussions of clubs and early crackdowns, driver's education, drag racing, street rodding, the rise of import...