Fast cars and the boomer generation

During the 1950s and early 1960s, teenagers from Detroit’s working class gathered on Woodward Avenue to hone mechanical skills, exchange automotive information, and test-drive vehicles of their own design. Auto designers and engineers who traversed Woodward on a regular basis often stopped to converse with the young “gearheads” not only to provide materials and offer advice, but also to receive an automotive education available only on Detroit streets. What these auto executives learned on trips down Woodward was often incorporated into the design and engineering of American automobiles. As Witzel and Bash (1997) write, “Many of the performance specs written by hot rod buffs in the back alleys and garages became a part of Detroit’s mass-production repertoire” (p. 93). The muscle car was perhaps the most successful example of this collaboration between mechanically gifted hot rodders and business savvy auto execs. The incorporation of hot rod technology into a fast and affordable automobile for the growing youth market changed the fortunes of the auto manufacturers as well as the face of the teenage population that gathered on Woodward Avenue to cruise and race.

The post war baby boom phenomenon, coupled with the increasing affluence of the American middle class, created the first generation of teenagers with free time and discretionary income. The muscle car was engineered and developed to take advantage of this rapidly growing young male market. The mass-produced Pontiac GTO – taking its inspiration and technology from the Woodward hot rod – was immediately embraced by the baby boomer generation. Sold for just $2500, with an initial production run of 60,000, the GTO rapidly became Detroit’s best selling muscle car (Witzel & Bash, 1997, p. 93). Other American automakers were quick to follow General Motors’ lead, cranking up assembly on “fully warranted versions of the passenger coupe, sports car, and hot rod all rolled up into one fast, unified package” (Witzel & Bash, 1997, p. 93). Soon Woodward Avenue, and streets in cities and small towns all over the United States, were filled with the rumbling of GTOs, Dodge Chargers, Plymouth Roadrunners, and Chevy Chevelles.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, those who participated in illegal street racing did so in vehicles of their own invention or construction. Not only were these individuals practiced drivers, but also possessed a remarkable amount of automotive knowledge and mechanical skill. This all changed with the advent of the mass-produced muscle car. As Witzel and Bash (1997) recount, “Now, almost anybody without car know-how could slap down a few bucks for a fast car, challenge you to a race the next day, and beat your pants off” (p. 72). Suddenly, production-line racers outnumbered homemade hot rods not only on Woodward Avenue, but on illegal street racing venues all across the United States. Cruising and street racing were no longer activities shared by a select group of scrappy, mechanically adept working class teenage boys, but were practiced by anyone with the means to purchase an inexpensive yet crazy fast muscle car.

The relative affordability of the muscle car would suggest that some of the thousands of vehicles produced from 1964 to 1973 would wind up in the hands – if not under the “heavy feet” – of young women. However, the record of women who participated in muscle car culture as drivers is sketchy. Interviews suggest that teenage girls who liked to drive fast often borrowed the cars of boyfriends or brothers to race on Woodward Avenue. As one aging baby boomer remarked, “I was lucky enough to have a boyfriend whose father owned a Ford dealership and gave his son a new Mach 1 Mustang every year. So of course, I left the boyfriend at home and took his car out on Woodward Avenue […] every Friday night with the girls. We would race from light to light – one-mile runs. I lost to a Porsche but won every other race – the guys didn’t think a girl knew how to drive” (Interview, 22 Jul 2009). Other young women participated by combining family cars with a little imagination. As Susan Whithall, who often borrowed the family Pontiac Tempest to drive to her part-time job in suburban Detroit, writes, “I’d gun it down Woodward and hope people would think it was a GTO” (Genat, 2010, pg. 44). However, conversations with classic muscle car owners suggest that gender expectations of the era discouraged if not prohibited all but the most determined from participating in 1960s and early 1970s muscle car culture as drivers. When asked if she thought about getting a muscle car as a young woman, the owner of a classic 1965 Mustang remarked, “No, I was pretty focused on getting an education, getting married, having a family, and having a house” (Interview, 18 Jul 2011). The proud owner of a classic 1967 GTO had to wait until her five children were grown and gone before she could think of purchasing the car she longed for as a young woman. In addition, while the original muscle car was priced low enough for the male teenage buyer, $2500 was still out of reach for the majority of young driving women. The women’s movement, still in its infancy, had not yet equalized salaries; during the 1960s, “Help Wanted” ads were divided by sex, with the best paying jobs in the male column. Thus it was unlikely that young women with jobs would apply their meager paychecks to the purchase of something as extravagant and impractical as a fast and racy muscle car.

Many of the women who admired muscle cars from afar 40 years ago now have the financial means, as well as societal acceptance, to purchase the automobiles they desired as teenagers. Once on the sidelines of muscle car culture, they can now be found at car shows and cruises in southeastern Michigan talking cars and sharing stories with fellow graying car enthusiasts. Uncovering how and why aging baby boomer women acquire classic Mustangs, Challengers, Chargers, and GTOS, and discovering the meanings that accompany owning and driving them is the goal of this project. My hope is that this knowledge will not only increase our understanding of women’s relationship to the automobile, but will provide an alternative, and heretofore absent, history of the American muscle car.

 

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

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

 

 

2 thoughts on “Fast cars and the boomer generation

    #   Fast cars and the boomer generation | clezott's blog | Muscle Car Guys on 07.23.11 at 7:19 am     

    […] reading here: Fast cars and the boomer generation | clezott's blog Tagged with: youtube  If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing […]

    #   Bob Baxter on 08.08.11 at 12:26 pm     

    I really whats going to be the car for the GEN Xers… I hope it’s not a Prius.

    #   yanzee on 08.15.11 at 11:57 pm     

    good car. may be very fast walking compared with other cars.

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