Cruisin’ Culture

"Facing off" on Woodward. Photo by Tom Shaw/Musclecar Review magazine.

While the proper care and maintenance of the automobile was an importance part of car culture, it was the means to an end. And that “end” was showing off one’s car – and driving ability – through cruising or drag racing. The prosperity following World War II not only made the possibility of automobility available to a wider population, but also produced an increase in leisure time to the majority of Americans. While families responded by taking to the open road, teenagers took over local thoroughfares on weekends, driving for hours on end, hooking up with friends, and stopping at one of the many new drive-in restaurants along the way. Teenage girls – without cars of their own – could often be found cruising in the station wagons of their parents. Young men, on the other hand, were more likely to arrive and depart in “powerful, gaudily painted, ‘souped-up’ chariots amidst thunderclaps of noise, wildly spewing gravel, and engines usually at full throttle “ (Foster, 2003, p. 66).

Before the advent of the suburban shopping mall, the main street of most cities and towns was “where the people congregated to conduct the transactions of life” (Witzel and Bash, 1997, p. 44). To the young teenage driver, cruising down the highway and stopping at the teenage gathering spots along the way, served as a primary form of teenage socialization. As Bash writes of his own past experiences, “When Friday night rolled around, my friends and I hit the wild mix of cars, girls, drive-ins, bowling alleys, racing, [and] rock and roll music […]” (Witzel and Bash, 1997, p. 41). Cars not only served as the means of transporting teens from one lively meeting site to another, but also became important in their own right as personal and private teenage spaces. Within the self-contained confines of an automobile, a young man could find escape from judgmental parental eyes, as well experience intimacy with members of the opposite sex.

Among the young men who came of age during the 1950s and 1960s, a cool and sexy automobile not only served to impress peers, but was also considered a prerequisite to garnering the attention of the young women who congregated at the highway meeting spots. As Witzel and Bash write, “Driving an awesome automobile was the most effective way to attract females and keep their interest – far from the prying eyes of parents and other adult authority figures” (1997, p. 23). On a typical Saturday night in America, recall Witzel and Bash, young men who owned cars but lacked dates tried “almost every trick in the book to win over girls and get them to hop into their chariots” (p. 49). The mating rituals of teenage cruisers included cranking up the radio volume when stopped at a traffic lights, laying a “scratch,” i.e. long patch of rubber, when taking off, and letting up the gas to achieve an obnoxiously  loud “muffler rumbling” when heading out (Witzel & Bash, 1997, p. 50). Possession of a fast and racy automobile, combined with such attention-getting driving behavior, provided even the most socially inept young man with the possibility of attracting the girl of his dreams.

Margaret Walsh (2006) suggests that the glamorization of cruising, reinforced in popular films such as American Graffiti as well as the nostalgia that surrounds classic car culture today, serves to obscure how young women fared in cruising and muscle car culture. Woodward Avenue: Cruising the Legendary Strip author Robert Genat asserts that young women were satisfied with just being part of the cruising scene. Witzel and Bash – in Cruisin’: Car Culture in America – argue that cruising was mostly harmless fun, as “so-called ‘good girls’ seldom hopped into the back seat of the first deuce coupe to drive by […]” (p. 50). This lighthearted and romanticized view of cruising culture implies that sex took place in cars but neglects to mention its repercussions on the young women pursued by teenage boys. In addition, the young woman behind the wheel – rather than on the sidelines or in the passenger seat – appears infrequently in these two accounts as an anomaly. Rather, the teenage girl in cruising culture is most often presented as a naïve individual easily impressed by burning tires and shiny sheet metal. As Walsh writes, “Cruising, often to the tune of the new rock and roll music, frequenting the drive-in restaurants, the heart of teenage culture, or visiting the local drive-in theatre where teenagers could explore their burgeoning sexuality in relative seclusion, preserved the cultural mores of dominant male and submissive female. This new teenage ‘auto culture’ looked backwards rather than forwards in terms of gender equality” (p. 10). Perhaps an examination of women who currently own classic muscle cars, of which many are aging baby boomers who took part in cruising during the postwar era, will provide insight into the women’s true experience in cruising culture.

 

Foster, M. (2003). A nation on wheels: The automobile culture in America since 1945. Toronto: Thomson Wadsworth.

Genat, R. (2010). Woodward Avenue: cruising the legendary strip. North Branch, MN: CarTech.

Walsh, M. (2006). At Home at the Wheel? The Woman and her Automobile in the 1950s. Paper presented at The Third Eccles Centre for American Studies Plenary Lecture given at the British Association of American Studies Annual Conference.

Witzel, M.K. & K. Bash. (1997). Cruisin’: Car culture in America. Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Company.

 

 

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