by Carl Abbott on Feb 18, 2009
Rushing to beat a deadline, General Motors and Chrysler last Tuesday afternoon filed required restructuring plans with federal officials. Chrysler wants $5 billion more in federal loans to stay afloat. GM needs another $9.1 billion now, with more requests likely down the road.
The short-term question of whether the two auto giants warrant a bailout or bankruptcy sidesteps the deeper reality: Americans finally have enough cars.
The precipitous plunge in auto sales over the last year was caused principally by spiking gasoline prices, tight credit and disappearing paychecks. But a deeper look shows that we’ve reached the end of the automobile century.
Like other successful 20th-century technologies such as telephones and television, the growth of registered automobiles long outpaced the growth of American population. The industry brought jobs to Detroit and Kenosha and eventually to Spring Hill, Tenn.
Our memory of the Model-T era, which ran from 1908 to 1927, may be hazy, but those were the years when automobiles began to change from a toy to the necessity of the present day.
The first nationwide auto registration statistics date from the early 1920s. Unlike the shrinking corporations of today, these were the boom years when General Motors was preparing to move its headquarters from Flint to Detroit, and Walter Chrysler was starting to remake Maxwell Motors into his future Big Three company. In 1922, there was one registered passenger car or truck for every nine Americans. The country was well on the way to the twenty-first century reality of a car (or two) in every driveway.
From Keystone Cops comedies to contemporary movie chases to sophisticated art, American culture quickly absorbed the automobile. Take this example: 1922 was also the year that Sinclair Lewis published his satirical novel about George F. Babbitt, a businessman in the fictional city of Zenith. In ways that would resonate with many car owners today, Babbitt treasured his car: “To George F. Babbitt, as to most prosperous citizens of Zenith, his motor car was poetry and tragedy, love and heroism. The office was his pirate ship but the car his perilous excursion ashore.”
The United States reached an automotive milestone in 1968. Amid the turmoil of war, riots and assassinations, few people noticed that the year ended with 100,546,000 automobiles and trucks for 199,399,000 resident Americans. One-car families had become two-car and three-car families, with the upshot that every child, woman and man in the country could ride in the front seat at the same time. Two years later, the 1970 census reported the closely connected fact that more Americans lived in automobile-dependent suburbs than in central cities. The pattern of auto-dependent living that the majority of Americans still enjoy was firmly set.
The numbers for the 21st century are even more startling. For 2006 (the last year with complete statistics) the census estimates that there were 225,087,000 Americans aged 18 or older. At their disposal were 234,525,000 passenger cars, SUVs and light trucks, not to mention 8,819,000 heavy trucks.
Every adult American can now sit behind a steering wheel at the same time and still leave another 20 million vehicles sitting idle in driveways and parking lots.
In short, we have enough cars.
We will need to keep producing and buying new trucks and cars to retire reeking beaters, replace cars that wear out and swap older, inefficient vehicles for ones that use less fuel per mile. However, the market is essentially saturated (or “mature,” if that sounds better). Cars are in the same category as refrigerators and land-line telephones. After a century, Americans are no longer adopting automobiles as a new technology. We’re simply maintaining the status quo until something better comes along.
Some sort of American automobile industry will survive the bailout debate, but it will never be the economic powerhouse it was in the last century.
Carl Abbott is an Emeritus Professor in the Nohad A. Toulan School of Urban studies & Planning at Portland State University, Ore., and a writer for the History News Service.