Cars have been in available in the US for over a century. The US car culture has been around almost as long. However as of recently it seems to be dying out. What is causing this decline of the US car culture? Is there actually a decline in the US car culture? There are many factors, but let’s look at the beginnings of the car culture.
The Beginnings of the Car Culture
As cars became affordable in the 1920’s more and more families owned one a car. Before the 1920’s owning a car was a luxury for the rich. Once people can afford something only “the rich can afford”, they start to consider it a status symbol. Thus everyone wanted a car. As cars got more options people wanted the bigger nicer cars. It started to be less about getting from point A to point B and more about doing it in style.
By the mid fifties teens where driving cars and working hard to own their own cars. Cars had become a personal expression of its owner. Going to drive thru restaurants, and drive in movies had become a staple of life. As Rock n Roll musicians started singing about cars, the love for hot rods became popular.
The Hot Rod
It’s hard to say what really started the hot roding movement. It may have been bootleggers. Who eventually started stock car racing and NASCAR. It may have been the need for speed and danger that returning WWII vets longed for.
Hot Roding was all about weight reduction, and more power. Bootleggers went as far as custom grinding their own cam shafts. Others took off everything that wasn’t required to make the car function. They went as far as channeling the bodies of cars so they sat lower on the frame. This with different tires and rims made these cars handle better.
These Hot Rodders went as far as changing engines. Mixing parts from multiple manufacturers. Flat head V-8 Ford motors went into any car body they had. This Flat Heads where by no means stick. They had larger pistons for other engines. The heads had been highly machined, and even custom intakes and headers. The hot rodders took the best stock parts of the day and made their cars the best they can be.
Muscle cars became popular in the early 1960’s. With manufacturers putting larger and more powerful engines in cars. Much of this was thanks to NASCAR, and NHRA. Manufacturers found if they won on Saturday they sold Monday.
With big block engines becoming the norm for smaller and smaller cars. These cars were fast. Everyone seemed to want a car that was powerful. Even though many times the horsepower ratings were very conservative. These cars would pass anything on the road but a gas station.
Emissions and Oil crisis
In 1970 the Clean Air Act was passed. This act started emission controls on vehicles. It also added CAFE ratings, the need that all gasoline be unleaded. All of these forced manufacturers to build engines with far less horsepower. In fact in 1978 the fasted production vehicle was the Dodge Little Red Express pickup. This was due to an exemption for trucks not needing catalytic converters in that year while cars did.
With horsepower ratings dropping the biggest down fall to the muscle car was the Oil crisis. In 1973 and again in 1979 the price of gas doubled. There were also gas shortages and long lines at the pumps in these days. Thus many people wanted more fuel-efficient cars. This was the rise of foreign compact cars that got better fuel mileage.
The Beginning of Sub Cultures
With the end of the muscle car area, people started to loss their love of cars. The US car culture had become a culture of need. People needed to get from point A to point B. Car manufacturers knew this and worked on producing fuel-efficient cars that meet emissions standards.
With these cars being boring, yet highly functional, their was a need by few to stand out. Thus started many sub car cultures. From the 1980-present there have been many popular car modifications for cars.
There was and still to this day the people who turn their cars into rolling speakers. With idea that louder and more bass is the key. Others have done vast amounts of suspension work to either raise or lower their cars. Sometimes it was lowering mini truck to the point of dragging the frame over even the smallest bumps. Recently it’s been to lift cars to fit over sized rims underneath. While all of this was going on there was a few people who were figuring out how to hot rod newer cars for more power.
The End or Beginning?
It’s hard to say what exactly started the import tuner craze. Was it Japanese people trying to copy the muscle cars of the US, was it teens who just wanted more power from the cars they could afford to own? The fact is yet again there was beginning a culture of people who wanted to race street cars. With 4-cylinder cars being light weight and fuel-efficient many people started to hot rod or “tune” these cars for power. Although there will always be people who turn their cars into “no go show boats“.
What’s happening today with the car culture?
With the computer controls of modern cars it’s harder than ever, to hot rod cars. Of people are doing it. Mostly with sports cars, and imports. This is just a bit of the current car culture. There are those who restore old classic cars. The biggest downfall to the current car culture is a lack of respect between those with modifying newer cars and those who are doing it to old cars.
Lowering a new Honda, adding body and engine modifications is still hot rodding. It may not make any sense to most people, but it’s no different that putting a 4′ tall shifter on a Model T with no doors or roof. To the owner it’s what they want and what they think is good-looking. If the car culture in the US is going to thrive we all need to acknowledge the hard work people put into their cars, no matter what we actually think of the car. The amount of work, time and love of cars is the culture. Even though fewer and fewer people each year have that amazing love of cars, those who do need to embrace it.
Future of the Car Culture
It’s hard to say what the future brings for car lovers of the US. With driverless cars just around the corner. We may no longer think of a car as the greatest freedom to go wherever we want to go. As laws get more strict for teenage drivers. More teens will hold off getting their licenses until they truly need a car for work. The only thing for sure is that as long as there is someone selling aftermarket car parts, people will buy them. As long as people can still own their car, there will be those who want it to stand out among the rest of the millions of car that all look the same. The car culture may slowly fade away but it will not die completely until there are no more cars.