Student & Teacher Resources

Tough Guys and Pretty Boys

    1. Questions for Reading
    2. Questions for Discussion
    3. Making Connections
    4. Questions for Writing
    5. Questions for Research


I. Questions for Reading

1. Gartman provides an overview of “Tough Guys and Pretty Boys” in the first three paragraphs of his Introduction. What is his argument going to be?

2. In what specific ways, according to Gartman, did mass production of the Ford Model T elevate engineering over style?

3. What was Alfred Sloan’s strategy in the 1920s to enable General Motors to compete with Ford? What does Gartman see as the significance of Sloan’s decision to abandon the new copper-cooled engine GM was trying to develop in the early 20s?

4. What does Gartman mean when he says in “The Changing American Character” that Americans were (and are) “deeply ambivalent” about mass production? that the acceptance of mass production led to the replacement of the “work ethic” with the “comsumption ethic”?

5. What was the “gender dimension” to the conflict in the early automobile industry between engineers and stylists? How did Harley Earl manage to gain some power for stylists at GM?

6. How did the engineers seek to undermine stylists’ increasing influence in the auto industry during the 1930s? How did the stylists respond?

7. What happened to the design of American cars in the late 1940s and 1950s? What, according to Gartman, were the design features of these cars meant to suggest?

8. What was significant, in Gartman’s view, about the failure of the Ford Edsel in the late 1950s?

9. What were the causes of Americans’ growing dislike in the 1960s and early 70s of the big, chrome-laden, extravagantly-styled cars so popular in the previous decade?

10. How did designers regain in the 1980s some of the influence they had lost in the 1970s?

11. Why does Gartman believe that the explosion of “lifestyle cars” in the 1990s has “created a new, more equitable balance of power between the designers and engineers”?

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II. Questions for Discussion

1. Gartman asserts in his Introduction that the automobile has long been much more than just a transportation device, that it is “an embodiment of American dreams and desires—for freedom, progress, individuality.” Does your car embody these values? Does it embody other values important to you?

2. The automobile, as Gartman notes, was originally something that only the very rich could afford. That changed drastically with the success of Henry Ford’s inexpensive Model T. Do automobiles still have any connections and associations with wealth, luxury, status despite the fact that almost everyone owns one?

3. “Safety doesn’t sell,” said legendary GM designer Harley Earl. Does safety sell cars today?

4. Gartman says that in the 1960s America’s counter-cultural young people embraced the Volkswagon Beetle as “the anti-car.” The Beetle is the best-selling car of all time, eclipsing even the Ford Model T. Sales of the Beetle in the U.S. stopped in 1978, but the new Beetle was introduced in 1998 and has been extremely popular. Who drives the new Beetle today, and what characteristics and values seem to be associated with these drivers? Is the car popular today with young people who reject mainstream culture, and especially its materialism?

5. Gartman suggests that the popularity of SUVs in the boom years of the 1990s was due to Americans’ sense of financial instability in a decade of corporate downsizing and global competition: “Americans once again sought to escape their problems in cars with the ability to get out of town, into the country, off the roads. The size and bulk of SUVs had the added benefit of connoting safety and protection, creating an impregnable cocoon of steel in which to weather the economic and social storms that swirled in the new global economy.” Do you agree with Gartman’s analysis?

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III. Making Connections

1. In “The Utilitarian Vision of Henry Ford,” Gartman explains the basic features of mass production and how they reduced the cost of producing an automobile. Based on Stephen Meyer’s “The Degradation of Work Revisited,” how did the introduction of mass production alter factory work, and how did workers respond to these changes?

2. In “The Changing American Character,” Gartman argues that with the introduction of the five-dollar day in 1914, Henry Ford “raised the wages of his workers in exchange for their submission to the inhumanities of mass production and adoption of a stable, consumption-oriented lifestyle focused on the family and home.” Would Stephen Meyer agree with Gartman’s assessment?

3. Would Virginia Scharff be likely to concur with Gartman’s depiction of the early battles between stylists and engineers, and the tension between Edsel and Henry Ford, as having “a gender dimension”?

4. At the end of “Contradictions in Fantastic Styling,” Gartman says that one of the results of the energy crisis of the 1970s was that “engineers regained the power to design cars in order to meet new government regulations of emissions, fuel economy, and safety.” According to Martin Melosi in “Auto Emissions and Air Pollution,” what was the impact of the energy crisis on the industry’s efforts to reduce tailpipe emissions, how did the engineers of the late 1970s achieve improvements in fuel economy, and what was the effect on safety of the way engineers achieved improvements in fuel economy?

5. Gartman calls the minivan “a deeply gendered vehicle.” Why does he think so, and does Margaret Walsh’s discussion of women and their driving patterns in “Gender and Automobility: Sexual Equality in Modern Times” support Gartman’s claim?

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IV. Questions for Writing

1. Analyze the product literature for the 1934 Chrysler Airflow. What kind of buyer do the text and images indicate Chrysler was aiming for? Consider not just physical or socioeconomic characteristics, like age and wealth, but personality traits.

2. Examine some of the product literature and one of the magazine advertisements for the 1949 Ford. What does this material reveal about the relationship between engineering and design? Does it confirm Gartman’s views of the industry in the post-war years? Contradict them? Something in between?

3. Analyze the image and text from Ford’s product literature for the 1988 Aerostar in relation to Gartman’s discussion of the minivan in “Postindustrial Lifestyle Cars.”

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V. Questions for Research

1. In his discussion of Harley Earl, Gartman draws attention to Earl’s Hollywood connections and his desire to “create in sheet metal the entertaining spectacles” that his former neighbor, the movie producer and director Cecile B. De Mille, put on screen. Learn more about De Mille and his movies, and Earl and his cars: in what ways were Earl’s cars “sheet metal” versions of De Mille’s movies?

2. The energy crisis of the 1970s, as Gartman, Stephen Meyer, Thomas Sugrue, and Martin Melosi all note, had enormous effects on the automobile industry, on the cars Americans drove, and on American attitudes towards fuel economy, pollution, imported cars, the price of gasoline, even speed limits. Investigate these effects of the energy crisis, and explain how the current situation in one or two of these areas compares to, and may have been shaped by, the earlier events.

3. SUVs began to be criticized in the late 1990s as having unsafe design and engineering features (a high center of gravity that made them prone to roll over, a stiff frame that absorbed less impact in collisions, etc.), criticisms explained in detail in Keith Bradsher’s book on SUVs, High and Mighty. How has the auto industry responded to these criticisms? How would Gartman interpret the controversy over the safety of SUVs and the industry’s response to criticisms?

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For other Resources on Design see:

Automotive Oral Histories

A History of Scholarship on the American Automobile Design

Tough Guys and Pretty Boys


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