The ‘Wheels’ of Culture


For the past 100 years, Americans have been passionate about their automobiles. But like all great love affairs, our relationship with cars has had its ups and downs. The automobile was once the symbol of freedom and independence, but that image has been tarnished by crowded freeways, pollution, gas shortages and, as witnessed this year, soaring prices at the pump.

But as the new three-hour PBS documentary “America on Wheels” illustrates, the automobile is far more than a mode of transportation. It has, in fact, affected every aspect of American life.

“I think this documentary is virtually unique in terms of the scope of what it looks at,” says former auto worker-turned-labor economist Harley Shaiken, who appears in the program.


“It really is a social history of the United States of the 20th century, told from the perspective of how the automobile has evolved and the impact it has had. I think one of the real strengths of the series is how it brings together factors--from the way women are affected, the way unions were formed, the reason cars were made with many colors, the kind of impact the auto has on a community, how we consume, how we work, where we live, how we relate to friends.”

Narrated by Hal Holbrook and featuring interviews and archival film clips, the first hour of “America on Wheels” chronicles how the car ushered in a new era for entrepreneurs, workers, women, minorities and unions, the emergence of the assembly line under Henry Ford and the rise of mass consumerism led by Alfred P. Sloan of General Motors.

The lighthearted second hour focuses on the period after World War II until the early ‘60s--considered the pinnacle of car culture, complete with tail-fin wars, the overabundance of chrome and the birth of the interstate highway.

The third part, says executive producer William R. Grant, was very complicated to do “because it deals with safety issues, the gas crisis, foreign competition to American auto makers, smaller cars and a little bit into the future and where we are in the present.”

Not surprising, a good deal of the third part was filmed in the mecca of congested freeways, Los Angeles. “Not that we are the first people to use L.A. as the metaphor for where the automobile has brought us to,” Grant says. “But I think it will speak for itself when you see it. We don’t do it in the typical, cliched away.”

Grant quips that he has “nothing to do” with the fact that “America on Wheels,” produced by WNET, is airing during the current gas price crisis. “That is a bit of serendipity,” he says of the timing.


Perhaps it’s not as serendipitous that “America on Wheels” is arriving on the heels of the 1995 TBS automobile documentary miniseries “Driving Passion.” But Grant says viewers will find very few similarities between the two. “We set out to make a traditional, classic public-TV history series,” he says. “ ‘Driving Passion” was a series of anecdotes. Ours is a sort of big story.”

(“America on Wheels” certainly isn’t the last word on the car, though. On June 23, the History Channel will present a marathon of its 12-hour series “Automobiles,” plus the new documentary “Classic Cars With Edward Herrmann.”

Perhaps one of the most compelling stories told in “America on Wheels” is about the sheer dehumanization of the assembly line.

“In the factories where cars are made, the assembly line is one of the most regimented places to work,” Shaiken says. “It’s certainly better [now for workers], but the underlying discipline of the line is the same--repeating your job every minute, not being able to go for a drink of water, not being able to stop and chat with a co-worker.”

As for the future of America and the automobile, Shaiken believes the electric car will become a viable alternative to the traditional auto. “At the beginning of the 21st century, the real battle may not be so much between us and the Japanese, but between the emergence of electric vehicles and new forms of mass transit. We will see that as well as a continued sort of competitive struggle between various car companies.”

Unfortunately, Shaiken predicts, our woes at the pump will continue. Not only will there be more gas price hikes, but also fuel shortages. “I think the issue isn’t whether we will have them, but when.”


Back in the 1950s, though, no one thought about gas shortages. Consumers wanted big cars that sported gaudy tail fins and were decorated to the max in chrome.

Chuck Jordan, a former GM designer, laments the fact that contemporary cars don’t have the character and personality of ‘50s automobiles. “People back then were more conscious of cars,” says Jordan, who appears in the second hour of the documentary. “With the new generation, their cars are not as passionate a thing as they were back then. Now, people want minivans. They are driving a lot of trucks. In those days, people were expecting some fabulous cars.”

One of the fabulous cars Jordan designed was the mega-finned 1959 Cadillac. “The original Cadillac fin was higher than the [roof of the] car on the coupe,” he says, laughing. “But even before the ’59 hit the street, we had already completed the ’60 design where we cut the fins off. That tells you we recognized that we probably overcooked it. But people loved that car. I think they probably love it more today because it was a reflection of that culture back in those days.”

“America on Wheels” airs 8-11 p.m. Monday on KCET.