June – September 1999

The automobile automobile began in the late nineteenth century as a self-propelled carriage. Within two decades it had spawned a diverse industry that would eventually dominate our economy, transform the landscape and profoundly influence American culture. Our obsession with personal “automobility” has been one of the driving forces of the twentieth century.

The first automobiles were sometimes powered by steam or electricity. However, the internal combustion engine, fueled by cheap gasoline, became the dominant propulsion system. Technological refinements such as the steering wheel, electrical ignition and pneumatic tires were universally adopted. The “horseless carriage” design gradually gave way to the modern open car. As early as 1914 the production of motor vehicles exceeded the production of wagons and carriages in the United States.

Built one at a time, and therefore expensive to produce, the early automobiles were purchased primarily by the wealthy. However, in 1913 Henry Ford reduced costs by revolutionizing production with the introduction of the moving assembly line. His Model T, affectionately referred to as the “tin lizzie,” was a car for the masses. Automobile ownership became a symbol of the American way of life.

With the mass production of automobiles, the middle classes as well as the wealthy were able to enjoy auto-touring. From auto camps to roadside diners, from gas stations to souvenir shops, the transformation of the American roadside had begun.

Automobiles were embraced by the public well before there were adequate roads on which to drive them. In fact, in the 1920s there were only a few hundred miles of hard-surface roads to accommodate millions of vehicles. The Lincoln Highway, a series of roads spanning the continent, was designated in 1913. It evolved into the interstate system – a massive public works project that slashed through cities and contributed to urban sprawl.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, the automobile was often considered a menace as careless drivers collided with horses and with each other, ran over animals, littered the roadsides with garbage and invaded private property. As the century draws to a close, some would say that little has changed to alter that view. The interstate highways and secondary roads are more crowded than ever: the roadsides are lined with strip malls. But we have not lost the desire to come and go as we please. The obsession with “automobility” continues.

This exhibition was prepared by Dean Koster and Kathy Wachel, with assistance from Cynthea Mosier, Chris Hunt, Toby Lyles and Cheryl Adams.