One historian calls it a "masterstroke of public relations" made possible by a single 1961 television special.
A love of cars seems as fundamentally American as George Washington eating apple pie in a suburban McMansion financed with a subprime mortgage. But the chart below, which tracks the phrase "love affair with the automobile" in books across the 20th century, makes us wonder if this love was ever truly timeless. Though Americans drove and owned cars for the entirety of this period, there's no mention of a "love affair" in the public discourse until roughly 1960:
University of Virginia historian Peter Norton offers a more precise date for your consideration: October 22, 1961.
It was on this Sunday night when NBC aired a program called "Merrily We Roll Along"—promoted as "the story of America's love affair with the automobile." During the show, host Groucho Marx introduced the "love affair" metaphor to millions of viewers, casting cars as "the new girl in town." To make this love work, Marx explained, Americans were willing to overcome intrusive regulations, endure awful traffic jams, and if necessary, redesign entire cities.
"We don't always know how to get along with her, but you certainly can't get along without her," said Marx. "And if that isn't marriage, I don't know what is."
To Norton, "Merrily We Roll Along" was less a story about America's existing love affair with the car than the invention of that very idea. The show's sponsor, DuPont, had an obvious interest: it owned 23 percent of General Motors at the time. Norton calls the show a "masterstroke of public relations" manufactured by the car industry to counter the likes of Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford, and other critics who, at the dawn of the interstate highway era, questioned the wisdom of dedicating every inch of urban street space to personal vehicles.
"This is the beginning of the 'love affair' thesis," said Norton earlier this month, during a talk at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board. "It was after this show that the word becomes part of mainstream discussion. Although nobody remembers how it entered the discourse. I'd suggest to you that these are re-writers of history."
The phrase has become so entrenched in American life that the premise itself rests high above questioning. (Today Google autocompletes a search for "American love affair with—" to "cars," producing 21.8 million results as of this writing; the second-most common ending, at 5.31 million pages, is "guns.") On the contrary, Norton's work has documented that for most of the early 20th century there was no clear consensus over whether cars or other users had more of a right to city streets.
"This story's success is apparent in a powerful governing assumption: streets are for cars," writes Norton in a chapter about the love affair thesis in the 2014 book Incomplete Streets: Processes, Practices, and Possibilities. "Drivers accept that streets are for cars and don't have much to say about it—until another street user behaves as if streets are for anything else."
During his TRB talk, Norton argued that historical revision like the love affair concept is often used to "justify the assumptions" that guide urban planning today. If you believe America's love affair with the automobile was a natural outcome of free choice, then it's easier to rationalize the idea of rebuilding cities to accommodate car travel. But if that underlying assumption is flawed—and the "love affair" is artificial marketing lingo—then its outcomes may not reflect true public preference after all.
Here's Norton talking to Wonkblog's Emily Badger about how America's car reliance is not necessarily the result of people choosing the car over all other modes:
"If you locked me in a 7-Eleven for a week, and then after the end of the week unlocked the door and you studied my diet over the previous seven days, then concluded that I prefer highly processed, packaged foods to fresh fruits and vegetables, I would say your study is flawed," Norton says.
A big problem with Norton's case is that many Americans obviously do love automobiles, and with good reason: a car is an extremely convenient way to get around. Motorization was increasing well before 1961 in the United States, which suggests the love affair might have already existed, if perhaps gone unspoken. So does the fact that car use increased with economic growth in countries around the world, many of which wouldn't know Groucho Marx from Karl.
Norton acknowledges that the "love affair" may well be real for some people. He just wants everyone to appreciate the careful craftsmanship, by vested interests, that went into making it the dominant theory. At the close of his recent chapter in Incomplete Streets, he takes the additional step of suggesting to advocates of alternative transport that they can learn a key lesson from this history about the power of a strong narrative:
Motordom did not believe Americans loved cars enough to bring about the motor age unaided. Rather, it so feared the hostility to automobiles, especially in cities, that it organized perhaps the greatest private-sector public relations effort ever undertaken. It could not have succeeded if the car had not held powerful attractions, which it certainly did. But motordom knew that it would take more than that to convince Americans to recommit their streets to the almost exclusive use of motor traffic, and to rebuild their cities around cars. Advocates of alternatives have much to learn from their success.