How The Automobile Shaped American Culture

cars 4th

By Tom Merola, Automotive Tire Expert | Email:

Automobile's & America

No other innovation has so quickly altered as many aspects of modern society as the automobile. As Americans, we did not invent the automobile, but over the last century cars have come to define much of what it means to be an American.

A symbol of independence and personal freedom, cars made us mobile, transformed our society and shaped our modern culture. Everyone can point to small ways cars impact their lives on a personal level.

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They have affected all aspects of society such as family life, the economy, and even the environment. It is hard to find a movie, book, or TV show that does not have some type of automobile in it.

Automobiles over time have brought more positive and negative effects than any other invention throughout transportation history. That is why, on this 4th of July holiday, we're reflecting on the ways the automobile has directly affected the advancement of society as a whole.


From Drive-Ins to Drive-Thrus

galaxy drive in

There’s nothing better than the delicious smell of french fries filling your car as you speed off to enjoy your late-night feast! This is a relatable experience for most Americans, not to mention drivers all over the globe. We associate drive-thrus with greasy, delicious burgers and fries, low prices, fast service and often, 24-hour access.

Drive-in restaurants became popularized in the early 1920s. As cars became more affordable for families and therefore more commonplace, it was only natural that the restaurant industry would evolve to meet the increased demand for food on-the-go. The drive-in was born out of a combination of driver laziness and the desire for fast, efficient service.

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While fast food chains McDonald’s and In-N-Out Burger have at one time or another claimed to have pioneered the concept, the country’s first drive-through window was actually opened in 1928 by the City Center Bank in Syracuse, New York.

Today’s drive-thrus are held to high standards, as the wide variety of options forces franchises to strive for greater levels of customer satisfaction. There are many factors that affect drive-thru success, and they all have the automobile to thank for their success.

The Road Trip

road trip

The mixed blessing of America is that anyone with a car can go anywhere. The visible expression of our freedom is that we are a country without roadblocks. And a driver's license is our identity.

Every summer, millions of Americans take to the road. Whether or not they have a destination is rarely the point - The iconic American road trip is an end in itself.

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But road trips are forms of travel and movement that encompass much more than what we see on the Road. Travel is a social and cultural practice that Americans have used to construct ideas about themselves, their society, the past, and the future.

Road trips have always offered freedom, which comes in many forms, to a very broad audience. Nearly every road tripper main purpose is freedom, flexibility, or the lure of the open road.



American pride and NASCAR, they are never far apart. The transformation of NASCAR racing into a thriving, increasingly global sporting brand has taken 40 years.

It was in 1979 that NASCAR racing was first shown on national television in America. What happened next was truly sensational. ESPN began showing NASCAR racing in 1981 and this partnership was vital to the success of both entities. By the middle of the 1990s, its total viewing audience was second only to American football.

It is a success that couldn’t be further away from the origins of motor car racing. Such racing was first codified by the aristocratic elite of French society as the 19th century turned into the 20th, and it spread from there across Europe, before reaching America.

In its own mythology, at least, NASCAR, owes its initial development to the collapsed American economy of the 1930s. Unemployed men sought to earn money by bringing moonshine whiskey that was distilled in mountain regions down into urban areas.

Naturally, government agents sought to suppress this illegal behaviour and what ensued was car-chases. As an offshoot of this activity, these whiskey-bootleggers began to race each other for fun. It oesn't get more American than that!

The Mobile Middle Class

mobile middle class

Roughly 50 percent of Americans live in suburban communities—that’s over 150 million people, according to the Census Bureau. For most of these individuals and families, the automobile is a necessity.

But in the 1950s these things, along with washing machines and white picket fences, came to define the iconic image of a modern American family from a Norman Rockwell painting.

This new, “mobile middle class” became the backbone of a contemporary and prosperous American culture that, 50 years later, is still the envy of the world. Yet none of it would have been possible without the automobiles that provided an essential link for working fathers (and later, mothers) commuting to and from well-paying jobs in the city.

Rock and Roll

rock and roll

In 1949, General Motors introduced the Oldsmobile 88. Dubbed “Futuramic” and advertised as “the lowest-priced car with a ‘rocket’ engine,” the sleek new vehicle epitomized an American fascination with speed, exploration, and space travel in the early 1950s.

The Oldsmobile’s appeal was so widespread, that in 1951, Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats recorded the song “Rocket 88” — an ode to the fantasy of driving the stylish car.

Many historians would argue that “Rocket 88” was the first Rock and Roll song, citing the tremendous raw energy the band brought to the music. Without question, it signaled a connection between car culture and Rock and Roll.

By the early 1960s, the intersection of car culture and Rock and Roll was well-established and vibrant. Transistor radios became a standard feature on many new car models, allowing increasing numbers of Americans to listen to music while on the road.

There's a distinct connection between the postwar resurgence of the U.S. automotive industry with the rise of the teenager intersecting with Rock and Roll culture. The very act of driving had come to symbolize a new-found freedom of movement, particularly for American teenagers.

Billboard Advertising


The National Highway System was expanded beginning in 1955, with wider, multi-lane highways to allow for increased speeds and more vehicles. This also started the trend of billboard advertising along the open spaces.

The 1900’s were a great period of time for billboard marketing, however the explosive growth that followed did not happen by chance or in a bubble. It was the popularity of automobiles that really contributed to the growth of the outdoor advertising industry. In fact, it was the mass affordability of Henry Fords Model-T which brought private transportation to the masses, and as a result created a new mobile audience to which the billboard industry could market.

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Much like the automobile industry that has been changing and growing since the introduction of Ford’s Model-T, outdoor advertising has steadily evolved to meet the needs of a growing and continuously more sophisticated and regulated marketplace.

Ongoing innovation in the outdoor advertising industry has seen growth in the size of billboards, changes in the materials being used, as well as upgrades in technology such as improved mechanical components and digital billboards.

Youth Culture and Muscle Cars

teens 1960

There were two distinct groups of guys in high school back in the '60s: Those who had cars, and those who didn't. For the sake of your reputation, you didn't want to be the kid without a car.

The deep relationship between American teen culture and the automobile allowed young people to connect and gave rise to youth culture. It paved the way for changes in fashion, music, movies, food and art.

Songs from bands like the Beach Boys romanticized the American car, and movies like "Goldfinger" and "Bullit" emphasized the power and speed of those classic '60s muscle cars, Anderson says. Cars were the ultimate status symbol that set teens apart from their friends.

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Freedom, independence, love and popularity were just some of the abstract ideas that teens pinned onto car ownership. It was the beginning of a new world—of cruising down Main Street to meet with friends.

The ritual of picking up your date and making out while parked. Not to mention all of the pleasures and frustrations of repairing, souping up, customizing, or racing a car.

However, that's not always the case with today's generation of teenagers. Cars no longer play quite the role they used to in the lives of young people.

But make no mistake: Cars started it all.

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