Student & Teacher Resources

A History of Scholarship on American Automobile Design


I. Questions for Reading

1.What reasons does Gartman offer for the lack of scholarly attention to auto design?

2. What factors does Gartman argue finally caused scholars and intellectuals to analyze auto design in the 1950s and 60s?

3. Gartman asserts that early critics of auto design like Vance Packard, John Keats, and Ralph Nader were wrong to assert that market research drove the design of cars. Why does he think so?

4. What does the stylists’ frequently-invoked sentiment, “I can see, but I cannot hear,” mean?

5. Gartman argues that analyses of auto design as appealing directly to sexual desires are too simplistic. Why?

6. How did European and American artists and intellectuals tend to regard the ornate American cars of the 1950s? What, in contrast, was the view taken of these cars by Reyner Banham? What does Gartman see as the strengths and weaknesses of Banham’s view?

7. In “The Postmodern Validation of Auto Design as Art,” Gartman writes that “[t]he eventual victory of stylists was not a victory for art over the market, but for their vision of the marketplace.” Explain what Gartman means by this.

8. Why does Gartman regard as “myth” the common notion of the “individual artist as creator, an isolated loner struggling against the world to realize an aesthetic vision”? What does he propose instead as the appropriate model for the creation of auto designs?

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II. Questions for Discussion

1. Gartman notes in the Introduction to “A History of Scholarship on American Automobile Design” that different makes of automobiles have long had comparable levels of safety, efficiency, and reliability, and that “most of us choose the car that looks best from the broad category that meets our transportation needs.” Analyze a recent car purchase by you, a friend, or a family member. What role did the car’s style play in the decision? Were different models considered, and if so, was style a factor in differentiating them? If style was an important consideration, what specific elements of a car’s look mattered, and why?

2. What cars do you regard as stylish? What cars do you regard as ugly? What features of their designs make them so? Do these design features make the vehicle and its driver appear to have other characteristics (fast, powerful, old-fashioned, environmentally-conscious, successful, fun, etc.)?

3. Gartman claims in “Scholarly Inattention to Auto Design” that auto enthusiasts have “often elevat[ed] particular cars and brands to the level of cult objects, around which quasi-religious devotion developed.” List some individual makes or models that might qualify as “cult objects.” Who regards them in this way? Why?

4. In “Auto Design as Mass Culture,” Gartman argues that auto design is “part of a mass culture that changed and evolved with the social conflicts and contradictions of America.” What “social conflicts and contradictions” might be contained or displayed in certain cars or types of cars today, like the PT Cruiser, the new VW Beetle, the SUV, gas-electric hybrid vehicles, etc.?

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III. Making Connections

1. In the final section of the essay, Gartman summarizes the argument of his own book, Auto Opium, on the relationship between auto design and “social conflicts and struggles.” His other essay here, “Tough Guys and Pretty Boys,” offers specific examples of ways the designs of cars of particular eras are, in Gartman’s view, shaped by social, economic, and political events. Select one of the cars, or types of cars, from after 1990 that Gartman mentions in the final section, “Postindustrial Lifestyle Cars,” and explore its connection to the social, economic, and political events of the 1990s and early 21st century. Feel free to depart from or criticize Gartman’s analysis.

2. In “Driving While Black,” Thomas Sugrue notes that certain makes and models of cars have been especially prominent as status symbols in African-American culture. Sugrue sees this as a reflection of economic improvements among blacks and of the rise of the black middle class. How would Gartman analyze the association of African-American celebrities with sports cars and luxury cars?

3. During the energy crisis and economic downturn of the 1970s, automakers were forced by a combination of consumer demand and government regulation to focus on producing fuel efficient cars rather than stylish ones, Gartman notes. How does Martin Melosi’s account of the auto industry’s response to pollution and energy concerns during this period affect this view of automakers as focused on environmental issues?

4. How would Stephen Meyer view Gartman’s claim that because they were “[u]nable to realize their needs for individuality, sociality, and autonomy” as mass-production workers, many blue-collar Americans in particular have sought to express these things in the consumption of material goods like cars?

5. Virginia Scharff, in “Femininity and the Electric Car,” shows that the electric car came to be regarded as a “woman’s” vehicle because it was embodied “feminine” characteristics like comfort, safety, style, and ease of use rather than the “masculine” virtues of speed and power. Women, however, rejected the electric, for they, too, wanted speed and power, while men embraced the incorporation of comfort and style into the gasoline-powered car. Are any of today’s cars regarded as “women’s” or “men’s” cars? What role do design features (as opposed to engineering features, like the engine) play in this?

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IV. Questions for Writing

1. Gartman notes that early scholarship from the 1950s and 60s focused on automakers’ use of design to appeal to consumers’ emotional desires, with advertisements as the main vehicle for making this appeal. Examine a current TV, magazine, or web ad for a particular vehicle. Does the ad appeal to the viewer’s desires? If so, what kinds of desires, and what elements in the ad make the appeal? Be sure to consider both the text or voiceover of the ad and the images in the ad.

2. Gartman complains that most of the popular writing in car enthusiast magazines is “wholly uncritical of automobiles and the industry that produced them.” At most, he writes, such publications offer “mild criticism for the technical and aesthetic failings of particular cars,” but little or nothing in the way of “a detached, critical perspective on the automobile in general and its industry, or their relation to American society as a whole.” Select one of these magazines—Car and Driver, Motor Trend, or any of the countless publications devoted to particular types of cars or trucks, individual makes and models, etc.—and analyze its content. Does Gartman’s complaint hold up for the magazine you’ve selected?

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V. Questions for Research

1. Investigate in greater detail the impact of Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed. What did Nader say about the auto industry—its management, engineers, and stylists? How did Congress respond to his book? How did the auto industry respond? What were the long-term effects on the industry and on auto design, if any?

2. Locate some automobile ads from magazines of the 1950s. Do they appeal to consumers’ emotional needs and desires, for example for fun, excitement, adventure, status, etc.? Do they appeal to consumers’ sexual desires?

3. Select a current vehicle and research its design history, its presentation in advertisements and product literature, and its reception by automobile journalists and magazines. What are the vehicle’s important design features? To whom were the vehicle and its features designed to appeal? Is this reflected in the ads and product literature, and if so, how?

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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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