How the Automobile Shaped America: Culture

July 09, 2013

Americans did not invent the automobile, but over the last century cars have come to define much of what it means to be an American. A symbol of independence and personal freedom, cars made us mobile, transformed our society and shaped our modern culture. In the final installment of this series, we take a look at just a few everyday ways cars helped alter our world.

Drive-Through Service

Drive Thru

Americans have always been addicted to speed. Speed equals convenience, which for better or worse is one of the single most important factors when defining the American ideal of a quality experience in our consumer-oriented society.

Today pharmacies, coffee shops and beer distributors offer drive-through service. While fast food chains McDonald’s and In-N-Out Burger have at one time or another claimed to have pioneered the concept, the country’s first drive-through window was actually opened in 1928 by the City Center Bank in Syracuse, New York.

The first hamburger restaurant to offer drive-through service was Red’s Giant Hamburg in Springfield, Missouri. In 1947, Sheldon “Red” Chaney decided he could serve more customers faster by opening a drive-through window at his Route 66 hamburger shop. The business survived until Chaney’s retirement in 1984, one year before America’s most iconic highway was removed from the U.S. highway system.

The Road Trip

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

Most of us can relate to the all-American experience of the road trip. Some of these trips, real or imagined, have made for great literature and memorable film. Here are some that we found unforgettable.

Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel On the Road is arguably the first modern road novel. Other classic road trips in literature include John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley (1962); Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968); Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971); Robert Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974); William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways (1982), and many others.

Road trips have also propelled many of the narratives in the most popular American films of all time. From drama (Easy Rider) to comedy (National Lampoon’s Vacation) to post-apocalyptic science fiction (The Road Warrior) to B-rated action films like Duel (which helped launch the career of one of America’s most celebrated directors, Steven Spielberg), the formula for a great American road movie is simple: put a couple characters into the same car, give them a mission or a destination, and let the action and hilarity ensue.

Rock 'n’ Roll

Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston

Cars have, until recently, always been synonymous with fast times and fast women—timeless fodder for rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, music historians have long believed that a 1951 car song by R&B singer and saxophonist Jackie Brenston was the first example of American rock ‘n’ roll. In 1991, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame made it official when it dubbed Brenston’s “Rocket 88”— a song about an Oldsmobile—“the first rock song.”

Rolling Stone magazine charted the birth of “rock 'n' roll guitar” to the popular 1955 Chuck Berry song, "Maybellene," a hit about a two-timing woman and a race between a Ford and Cadillac. From the Beatles to Elvis, the Beach Boys to Bruce Springsteen, Jan & Dean to Janis Joplin, almost anyone who made it big in the early world of rock had a car song or two in their repertoire.

Shopping Malls

Shopping Malls

After World War II, as the American suburbs expanded thanks to the automobile, a new and more convenient kind of shopping center was needed away from downtown. Indoor shopping centers were not new; the Cleveland Arcade, considered the first of its kind in the U.S., opened in Ohio in 1890.

But the real birth of the indoor malls we know today actually began during the mid-1940s, primarily on the West Coast. The earliest were retail stores gathered in suburban “cluster complexes” or strip-style arrangements. Seattle's Northgate Center (since renamed the Northgate Mall) opened in 1950 and is now considered to be the first “enclosed” modern shopping mall.

Over 50 years, untold billions in retail sales and thousands of new shopping malls later, the basic formula for “building retail” remains the same throughout the world: enclosed space with stores attached, away from downtown, and accessible primarily by automobile.

Youth Culture

Happy Days - Youth Culture

We now live in an age when, according to the Pew Research Center, some 75 percent of teens own a mobile phone and 93 percent spend over 10 hours every day interfacing with some sort of online or electronic media. Cars no longer play quite the role they used to in the lives of young people. But make no mistake: cars started it all, as exemplified in popular TV shows like Happy Days.

Google the words “automobile impact teen culture” and you’ll find some 126,000,000 results outlining how the automobile singlehandedly created and “drove” the phenomenon of teen culture for almost the entire second half of the last century.

The website summed it up best: “The car not only provided a means for suburban and rural youth to travel to central cities, but it also created a kind of portable ‘private space’ that enhanced other customs, including courtship, sex, drinking, and listening to the radio.”

In allowing young people to connect in the 1950s and ’60s, cars gave rise to youth culture and gave young people a voice. It paved the way for changes in fashion, music, movies, food and art. In doing so, it also paved the way for what has happened in every decade since.



  1. David Albq. NM

    How could you miss mentioning the movie Grease. That car was sexy, the race, and the song with the car. You forgot to mention the spoof on Home Improvement you guys missed the boat on this one. Another movie American Graffiti.

  2. Jim Vanwormer near denver, CO.

    I grew up with my friends and their cars and my cars. I own 3 , 67 Pontiacs.

  3. Scott America

    Americans did not invent the automobile, I ask for a retraction Henry Ford, ect..... true American

  4. Tom Lisbon, Ohio

    Of course Americans didn't invent the automobile...they made it the American icon. You can't discuss the first two centuries of America and not credit the car with shaping the country. It's a shame today's youth will only have dot coms to remember. How can a few 1' and 0's compare to the GTO, the '55 Chevy, flathead Fords, etc etc? Sadly they can't.