Automobiles and Leisure

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Although cars have been primarily used for commuting, shopping, and running errands, much of their appeal has resided in the opportunities for fun and adventure that they promise. In 2004, the recreational uses of private vehicles accounted for a significant portion of the mileage they covered. According to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, in 1995 the "social and recreational" uses of privately owned vehicles accounted for more than 18 percent of annual vehicle trips per household and nearly 23 percent of annual mileage.

When the automobile industry emerged and began to take shape in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, recreational uses of the automobile were paramount. Few bought cars with the intention of using them only for quotidian tasks. Automobiles represented effortless speed, coupled with privacy and the ability to travel without being limited to the routes and schedules of public conveyances. Although much has changed in the design and performance of automobiles since then, the same qualities are an important source of the automobile's appeal today

Automotive Travel and Touring

In a fundamental sense, all early automobiles were recreational vehicles (RVs). That is, their main purpose was to provide enjoyment, exhilaration, adventure, and a feeling of control. Despite the many faults of early automobiles, people eagerly seized upon the new invention as a source of recreation. Early motorists embarked on ambitious tours. In the summer of 1903, barely a decade after the emergence of the first American-built automobile, H. Nelson Jackson and his codriver, Sewall K. Crocker, set out from San Francisco with the East Coast as their destination. Sixty-three days later their Winton arrived in New York City. Numerous other crossings soon followed, and between 1905 and 1913 long-distance automobile travel received an institutional backing through the establishment of the Glidden reliability runs. These tours were used to good advantage by early automobile manufacturers to demonstrate the reliability of their products and thereby to boost sales.

While automobile travel offered an escape from everyday existence, motorists' adventures were not always of the sort that they had sought. Carburetors got out of adjustment, valves burned, gears stripped, clutches fried, and electrical systems succumbed to mysterious ailments. Successful trips often hinged on the ability of drivers and passengers to do roadside repairs. Most problematic of all were tires, which had a useful life of only a couple thousand miles and were prone to go flat at the most inopportune times. Fixing a flat tire entailed wrestling it off the rim, patching the tube, remounting the tire on the rim, and energetically working a hand pump to reinflate the tire. These difficulties were alleviated during the first decade of the twentieth century when cars began to be fitted with demountable rims or wheels, allowing the replacement of a flat or blown-out tire with a spare that had been carried onboard. Even so, changing a tire was a dirty, disagreeable task.

For all their mechanical shortcomings, early automobiles were usually better than the roads on which they traveled.. Towns and cities had some paved roads, but the dirt roads between population centers were dusty when it was dry and muddy when it was wet, sometimes to the point of being impassable. Efforts to improve roads originated with bicyclists' organizations toward the end of the nineteenth century, and motorists eagerly joined the movement. Growing numbers of automobiles created a new opportunity for financing road improvements: fuel taxes. In the United States, gasoline taxes were used exclusively for road construction and maintenance; hence, they could be viewed as users' fees rather than taxes, and as such they met with little opposition.

Fortified with growing tax revenues, federal, state, and local authorities took up the cause of road improvement, and by the 1920s the Lincoln Highway—which stretched from New York City to San Francisco—and its successors allowed motorists to journey from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean with relative ease. With better roads on which to drive, growing numbers of people eagerly embarked on motoring vacations, making long-distance automobile trips commonplace. According to one reckoning, no fewer than 20,000 cars traveled from coast to coast in 1921 (Belasco, p. 72).

Auto Camping

While improvements in cars and roads made long-distance travel more reliable, rapid, and comfortable, there still remained the problem of where to stay at the end of the day. Major hotels were located either close to railroad stations or in downtown areas, so many were not readily accessible to motorists, and most lacked parking facilities. Moreover, the hotel culture of the time emphasized formal decorum, including dress codes. These rules were inimical to the spirit of early automobile touring, which valued informality, spontaneity, and the egalitarianism that came from sharing the adventure of automobile touring.

With hotels unavailable or lacking in appeal, camping was a natural complement to traveling by automobile. As automotive touring gained in popularity during the first decade of the twentieth century, some enterprising motorists equipped their cars with dishes, utensils, and cooking gear for on-the-road dining and altered the seats so they could be folded into makeshift beds for onthe-road sleeping. Motorists could avail themselves of collapsible cots especially manufactured for automobile-based camping. From about 1910 onward, manufacturers offered vehicles equipped at the factory for car-based camping, although few were sold. Motorists could also avail themselves of tent trailers, which provided temporary quarters to set up as well as a place to store additional gear.

Even with better equipment the problem remained of finding a suitable campsite. At first, motorists set up camp at any opportune spot, but as more people embarked on road trips, permanent sites began to spring up, many of them established by local governments who saw automobile tourists as a source of revenue for local businesses. By 1922, more than a thousand camps were in operation throughout the United States. It was not long, however, before local authorities began to express concern that perpetual transients, migratory workers, and criminal elements were descending upon public camping grounds. A common means of discouraging "the wrong sort of people" from using public campgrounds was to set time limits and to charge fees for the use of these facilities. These policies in turn paved the way for private operators to go into the campground business, a development that many local officials were happy to see.

While campground operators attempted to weed out "undesirables," middle- and upper-class motorists often viewed themselves as spiritual kin to gypsies and other vagabonds, taking to the open road in order to leave behind the schedules, responsibilities, and worries of their everyday existence. Yet for these "motor hoboes" or "tincan tourists," as they called themselves, the days or weeks spent motoring and camping marked only a temporary change of lifestyle. Automobile touring did not signal a rejection of the dominant culture; for most, an automobile vacation was a way to refresh and reinvigorate oneself, and to solidify family bonds.

From Tourist Cabin to Motel Chain

Although auto camping promised a carefree life on the road, in reality it could be an onerous enterprise. Travelers had to stow a fair amount of paraphernalia in and on their cars, and then set up a tent and cooking facilities at the end of a long and often exhausting day on the road. In response to the evident needs of travelers, in the mid-1920s some auto camp entrepreneurs began to offer permanent shelter for travelers. The structures were simple in the extreme, little more than shacks or even converted chicken coops. But before long these spartan facilities began to give way to more luxurious accommodations, as entrepreneurs provided cabins with kitchenettes, innerspring mattresses, fresh linen, refrigerators, and even attached garages. In 1925, James Vail gave the English language a new word when he opened his Motel Inn in San Luis Obispo, California. Motel Inn was really a conventional hotel with facilities for automobiles, but the term "motel" soon had wide currency as lodgings for motorists sprang up along the nation's highways.

Although the United States was gripped by economic depression throughout the 1930s, automobile travel continued to flourish. While hard economic times resulted in modest increases in the size of the automobile population, gasoline consumption had increased by 25 percent by the end of the decade. But legions of automobile travelers were not always well served by existing motels, many of which left a great deal to be desired as far as amenities, cleanliness, and even safety were concerned. Finding good accommodations was a hit-and-miss affair, as motorists venturing into unfamiliar territory usually had no way of knowing what awaited them at the end of the day.

In the years following World War II a number of entrepreneurs began to fill the need for better roadside lodgings as postwar prosperity allowed unprecedented numbers of people to take to the highways. One of them was Kemmons Wilson, a resident of Memphis, Tennessee, who had been displeased with the motels where his family had stayed during a road trip to Washington, D.C., in 1951. His response was to join with a builder of prefabricated homes to create the first Holiday Inn. Within a few years, a chain of Holiday Inns had spread throughout the country, offering travelers accommodations that, while not luxurious, were always predictable. Other firms followed suit, sometimes through the direct ownership of individual motels, but more often by franchising arrangements that provided nationwide marketing and other services while requiring franchisees to meet strict quality standards.

From their thrown-together origins in the 1920s, motels have become a significant part of the consumer economy. In the early 1990s, the U.S. Census Bureau counted more than 25,000 "motels, motor hotels, and tourist courts" that employed nearly 300,000 people and accounted for more than $11.7 billion in revenues. In addition to their economic significance, automobile-oriented lodgings have exercised a major influence on the landscape, as motels and the massive signs advertising their location dominated significant portions of the roadside environment.

Roadside Business

While the auto camp and then the motel offered a place of repose for automobile travelers, other enterprises sprung up to meet the needs of the motoring public. Some of these establishments were conventional restaurants and cafés built along the highway, but the growth of automobile travel was paralleled by the emergence of new kinds of enterprises. On the East Coast and in the Midwest especially, eating establishments known as diners enjoyed considerable popularity. Streamlined in form and constructed from stainless steel, diners offered simple fare at affordable prices. For many of them, the key to the success was a location on the fringes of metropolitan areas, where they could be easily accessed by car.

While diners were the epitome of machine-age functional architecture, other roadside establishments went in the opposite direction as they attempted to lure motorists with large signs calling attention to the products and services they offered. Even more striking efforts to snare passing motorists entailed having the entire building serve as a sign. The result was architecture that might best be described as outlandish, even bizarre. These eyecatching designs were intended to attract the attention of the occupants of fast-moving cars, who had only a few seconds to discern a roadside establishment before deciding to stop and patronize it. The result was a wild cacophony of roadside images: hamburger stands shaped like enormous dogs, doughnut shops with gigantic concrete doughnuts on their roofs, cafés built inside permanently grounded stucco airplanes, and motel rooms that mimicked tepees. On a more restrained level, the patronage of automobile travelers was solicited by roadside businesses made to look like English Tudor cottages, log cabins, and other historical reconstructions. More innovative architectural styles also were used to encourage patronage. During the 1930s, the streamline moderne look that featured curved corners and glass-block windows found favor among some motel builders, while the highway architecture of the 1950s often exhibited the soaring roof overhangs and kidney-shaped signs that defined the style of that era.

Still, some entrepreneurs were not content with luring travelers out of their cars to shop or eat; rather, they hoped to enhance the appeal of their establishments by serving drivers and passengers right in their cars. Although the basic idea dates back to horse-and-buggy days, credit for being the first drive-in restaurant usually goes to J. G. Kirby's Pig Stand, which opened in 1921 on the Dallas–Fort Worth highway. Drive-in restaurants expanded rapidly during the 1950s, but most of them were relatively short-lived. The noise, litter, and traffic associated with drive-ins were a nuisance, and many drive-ins failed to generate sufficient revenues because teenagers and other hangers-on would place small orders and then remain parked for long periods of time, sharply limiting the influx of paying customers. Most drive-in restaurants had faded into history by the 1970s.

Much more successful in the long run were standardized restaurant chains, which, like many motels, were often run as franchised operations. One of the most enduring automobile-oriented dining establishments emerged in the mid-1930s, when a Boston restaurant owner named Howard Johnson began to build a series of roadside restaurants along the Massachusetts coast. By the late 1950s, there were 500 of them coast to coast Even more prominent have been fast-food establishments, led by the McDonald's chain. With more than 22,000 restaurants worldwide, and nearly 12,000 in the United States, McDonald's has defined the fast-food industry. Its business success has been built around a limited menu, low prices, decent quality, and fast service. But McDonald's and its competitors would not have been such smashing successes in the absence of the cars and highways that provided easy access to them, while at the same time encouraging travel and a consequent desire for familiar products available far from home.

Drive-In Movies

Paralleling the drive-in restaurant was the drive-in movie theater. Although drive-in movies are often associated with amorous encounters, not all patrons have used them for that purpose. At the height of their popularity, drive-ins appealed to anyone who wanted to see a movie without getting dressed, parking, standing in line to buy a ticket, and then finding a seat in a dark theater. They were especially suited to the needs of families with young children, and their heyday coincided with the early years of the post–World War II baby boom.

The drive-in movie theater was the invention of Richard M. Hollingshed, who in 1933 received a patent on it, and in the same year opened his first theater in Camden, New Jersey. This theater set the pattern that endured for decades: Cars were parked in rows on a gently sloped plot of land so their occupants had a good view of the large screen in front of them. In early drive-ins a movie's soundtrack emanated from speakers located in the building that housed the projectors, creating an annoyance for neighboring homes and businesses. It also posed a problem for the patrons—because the sound took a moment to reach the viewers, sight and sound were not always in synchronization. By the late 1930s, individual in-car speakers had overcome these problems.

Hollingshed's patent was overturned in 1938 in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, but not many entrepreneurs seized the opportunity to go into the drive-in movie business; only a few dozen were in operation in 1941. The drive-in's great era of expansion took place in the years immediately following World War II. By 1950, 1,700 were serving the American moviegoing public, and four years later there were 4,200 of them.

This era was the high water mark. Television competed for patrons' leisure time, and a relative decline in the number of children and teenagers eroded a major component of the drive-in's clientele. Even more damaging was suburban expansion and rising land values, as drive-ins could not produce the revenue offered by other uses for valuable real estate. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the number of drive-ins had dwindled to 433, many of which survive by using their facilities for swap meets and other such purposes.

The topic of drive-in movies inevitably leads to a discussion of the automobile's role in encouraging and facilitating sexual encounters. Although the opportunities afforded by a car's backseat fill a major chapter in our popular culture, there is little solid evidence of the extent of car-based romance. Still, the role of the automobile in fostering romance has been thoroughly played out in popular music. One of the biggest hits of the early twentieth century was "My Merry Oldsmobile," which concludes with this risqué promise: "You can go as far as you like with me, Lucille, in my merry Oldsmobile." Since then, more than 1,000 songs on automotive themes have graced the musical scene.

Automobiles also have been prominently featured in movies; one of the first films viewed by the public was Automobiles on Parade, a 1900 Edison production. "Road movies" like Vanishing Point and Easy Rider, which often play on the interrelated themes of rebellion and the search for personal freedom, have been film staples. Even when cars and driving have not been the primary subjects, some of the most memorable cinematic scenes have been car chases that range from the buffoonery of the Keystone Kops to the deadly serious pursuits featured in Bullitt and The French Connection.

Trailers and Motor Homes

Despite the widespread availability of motels, fast-food restaurants, and other roadside amenities, a substantial portion of the traveling public still seeks a self-contained experience, a trend that began in earnest with the "trailer craze" of the 1930s. Although the depression had cut severely into discretionary income, substantial numbers of people were able to acquire trailers, many of them homemade, and put them on the road. Trailer manufacture came to be one of the few economic bright spots of the depression; in 1937, nearly 400 companies were manufacturing and marketing upward of 100,000 trailers a year. The vast majority of those trailers were used for travel rather than permanent living, but the population shifts and consequent housing shortages that were brought on by World War II reversed the ratio, and as many as 90 percent of trailers owned or purchased during that period were used as permanent housing. The years following World War II saw a return to the recreational uses of trailers, but at the same time the use of trailers—or "mobile homes" as they came to be known—as fixed residences increased substantially.

For all their utility, trailers had a number of disadvantages. They taxed the engines, brakes, and suspensions of the cars towing them, and driving with a trailer could be tricky, especially when backing up or parking was involved. Many states forbade passengers to ride in trailers, so everyone had to find a place in the tow car. Numerous states also mandated lower speed limits for car-and-trailer combinations. Some of these drawbacks could be remedied by combining a car and a living space in one vehicle, a "house car," as it was originally called. Some early house cars were built on automobile chassis, while others started as buses or delivery trucks. As with trailers, many early house cars were home-built jobs. Often following plans that appeared in doit-yourself magazines, amateur builders used wood, metal, canvas, and fiberboard to create homes on wheels. At the other end of the house-car spectrum were professionally built vehicles sold to the wealthy. With varnished woodwork, silk curtains, and even rear observation platforms in some cases, they approached private railroad cars in comfort and elegance.

House cars went into relative decline in the 1930s as trailers became the preferred means of keeping the comforts of home while on the road. House cars—or "motor homes—enjoyed a revival in the years following World War II, when aircraft construction techniques were used to build light, streamlined vehicles. Their cost still kept them out of the reach of most people, but many vacationers found an acceptable substitute in station wagons that could hold a fair amount of camping equipment while providing a modicum of space for sleeping. Offering considerably more elbow room were camper shells that could be mounted in the beds of pickup trucks, as well as vans that had been converted into modest-sized traveling homes. Both types became popular from the 1950s onward, even though they suffered from significant shortcomings as far as space and amenities were concerned.

Sales of motor homes surged in the 1960s as incomes rose and the industry learned how to cut production costs. Major automobile manufacturers benefited from this trend by supplying their chassis to outside constructors, who outfitted them as motor homes complete with furniture and fixtures. Further expanding the sales of motor homes was the success of Winnebago Industries in using true mass-production techniques to drive down costs. Echoing the vertically integrated manufacturing philosophy pioneered by Henry Ford, Winnebago made virtually everything that went into its products, even the wooden furniture and window drapes. Also like Ford, Winnebago built its vehicles on moving assembly lines, lowering costs even more. Sales of motor homes soared to more than 65,000 in 1973 as other firms followed suit. Further encouraging the growth of motor homes, travel trailers, campers, and other vacation-oriented vehicles was the expansion of the interstate highway system; its long, straight stretches, sweeping curves, and gentle gradients were ideal for vehicles that were anything but nimble. But affordable prices and smooth roads were of little importance when service stations ran out of gasoline in the wake of politically induced supply disruptions in 1973 to 1974 and in 1979. Dealers' lots filled with unsold trailers, campers, and motor homes, and numerous firms went out of business, a situation that was exacerbated by a severe economic recession during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Sales rebounded in the years that followed, stimulated by a buoyant economy and cheap fuel. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the recreational vehicle industry was enjoying some of its best years, as 311,000 motor homes, travel trailers, camping trailers, and truck campers, along with 67,700 van and pickup truck conversions, were delivered to dealers in 2002. By this time, a total of 7.2 million RVs (not including van and pickup truck conversions) were on the road.

Car Shows

From its inception, the automobile industry has been eager to put its wares on display. The most significant locales are international car shows in cities like Geneva, London, Detroit, and Tokyo, where manufacturers draw attention to their latest models, along with "concept cars" that indicate future directions in automobile engineering and design. While manufacturers and dealers use shows as a means of selling cars and increasing profits, the typical car show is an amateur event where people can put on display special-interest vehicles, many of which have been restored or modified by their owners. Automobile shows are hugely popular; according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, in 1998, nearly 14 million people, 7.1 percent of the population, attended an auto show at least once in the preceding twelve months.

Events put on by and for car collectors are not necessarily modest affairs. At the summit of the car show pyramid are the exhibitions of classic cars known as concours d'elegance. Held in fashionable places like Pebble Beach, California, these shows feature cars that may be valued at several million dollars, and are rarely, if ever, driven on the road. More typical are local car shows featuring Ford Model As, 1950s vintage Chevrolets, and mass-produced British sports cars instead of Duesenbergs, Ferraris, and Pierce-Arrows. Many shows are organized by clubs catering to the owners of a single make of automobile. Participants have ample opportunities to share technical tips and discuss the relative merits of different model years of a particular make of car. These shows are often accompanied by swap meets where enthusiasts can find everything from complete cars to outof-print shop manuals.

Hot Rods and Customs

Car shows are an essential component of two important examples of the recreational use of the automobile: hot rods and custom cars. The origins of hot-rodding can be traced to southern California in the late 1920s, when modified Ford Model Ts and other cars began to compete in speed trials staged on dry lake beds. In order to improve their cars' performance and appearance, early hot-rodders modified engines, chassis, and bodywork, often on low budgets. By the late 1930s, speed trials on dry lakes and illegal street racing had become fixtures of the southern California car culture, but World War II put an end to them. With the war's end, veterans brought new skills back home and found relatively high-paying jobs. When combined with a love of cars, money and mechanical skills produced hot rods in infinite varieties: Model Ts modified beyond recognition, roadsters from the 1930s with modern overhead valve V-8 engines, and souped-up versions of more recent models.

Customizing (or Kustomizing, the spelling often used by practitioners of the craft) began with a similar desire to improve on mass-produced and often unimaginative designs. The heyday of car customization was the 1950s and early 1960s, when Detroit products like the 1949 to 1951 Mercury were prime candidates for customization. The repertoire of customizers included lowering the car by modifying the springs, chopping (lowering the roofline), sectioning (removing a fore-and-aft section of the body to make the car lower and sleeker), and "frenching" (enclosing the taillights and other protuberances in a kind of cowl), as well as changing grilles, bumpers, and other body parts. Interiors also came in for special treatment through the use of innovative upholstery materials and the installation of elaborate accessories.

At the far fringe of the contemporary customization scene are "art cars"—cars, vans, and trucks modified and decorated in an innovative, many would say absurdly weird, manner. Examples of art cars include vehicles shaped like high-heel shoes or telephones, as well as vans with their bodywork covered with cameras or decorative objects, and cars that make rococo buildings look like the epitome of functionalist restraint. Where traditional custom cars represent an attempt to extend and amplify the aesthetic appeal of the automobile, the creators of art cars often obliterate the shape of a vehicle to the point of making them into parodies of cars in particular and the consumer society in general. Art cars have a devoted following; the largest gathering of art cars, the Houston Art Car parade, draws more than 200 vehicles and 125,000 viewers.

Today, the legacy of traditional car customizers continues with the construction and display of low riders. Originally created by Mexican Americans in California and the Southwest, low riders now have an international following. Essential to a low rider are hydraulically mounted wheels that can vary a car's height, allowing it to ride a fraction of an inch from the road when on display, and then lifting it up to provide ground clearance for normal driving. Hydraulics also enable cars to vigorously hop up and down, which, of course, has led to car high-jump contests. Some hydraulic-equipped cars and small trucks have been designed to perform elaborate dances.

Automobile Racing

Low riders are not about speed and acceleration; "low and slow" has been the motto of their creators. In contrast, hot-rodding began as an effort to extract more topend performance from available cars. After World War II, attention shifted from speed trials on dry lakes to drag racing—getting down a quarter-mile track as quickly as possible. As the 2000s begin, drag racing is an important spectator sport, with major events drawing tens of thousands of spectators. Although drag racing has become a big business with substantial corporate sponsorship, it continues to attract a large numbers of amateur competitors. The National Hot Rod Association is the world's largest motor sports organization, boasting more than 85,000 members and 32,000 licensed competitors competing in nearly 4,000 events on 144 tracks. Although 6,000-horsepower dragsters capable of exceeding 320 miles per hour in a standing-start quarter mile draw the crowds, many drag races feature far more modest vehicles, including cars that take their owners to work during the rest of the week.

Drag racing is one of the few motor sports with substantial amateur participation. Other forms of racing are primarily spectator sports. The largest in terms of audience size is NASCAR, the sanctioning body for racing cars that vaguely resemble Chevrolets, Dodges, Fords, and Pontiacs. In fact, they share virtually no parts with ordinary passenger cars, but the willingness of spectators to identify racing cars with the cars in their own garages is an important source of NASCAR's appeal. In recent years NASCAR has gained a substantial following outside its southern heartland, and televised races often pull higher ratings than all other televised sports with the exception of pro football.

While NASCAR racers maintain a visual kinship with ordinary passenger cars, open-wheel cars hark back to an earlier time when race cars were stripped of nonessential items like fenders. The most prestigious (and vastly expensive) series is Formula One, which stages races in Europe, Asia, and the United States. Similar in appearance to Formula One cars but slightly less expensive to build and operate are the open-wheel racers of Championship Automobile Racing Teams (CART) and the Indy Racing League (IRL). Large numbers of fans also follow races that take place on dirt or paved ovals of one mile or less. Several kinds of cars compete on these tracks, including stock cars, sprint cars, and midgets. The racing scene also includes sports car races that have events for stock vehicles as well as cars built solely for racing. All in all, automobile racing is a major spectator sport. More than 11 million fans attended some sort of auto race in 1998, about the same number as attended professional football games. Motorcycle racing, which includes a variety of events ranging from flat track to road racing to stadium motocross, drew 3 million fans in 1998.

Whether it has been through attendance at a motor race or car show, restoring an old car, or hitching up a trailer and taking to the open road, the automobile has been closely associated with a multitude of recreational activities. Given the massive personal and societal costs that it has engendered, the automobile would never have emerged as the most significant technology of the last century were it not for the amusement, adventure, and recreation that it has offered.

See also: Auto Shows, Drag Racing, Fast Food, Open Wheel Racing, Shopping, Shopping Malls, Sports Car Racing, Stock Car Racing, Tourism


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Rudi Volti

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