‘Love Affair’ the ultimate story

Rousing the Rabble by Gazette columnist Roy Ronaghan, Feb. 11.

A comment made by councillor Colleen Ross about car shows at the Jan. 26 regular meeting of the Grand Forks City Council caused a stir in council chambers. During a discussion about a request from the sponsors of Park in the Park, Ross said, “Car shows are passe.”

The sponsors were asking for $800 – $1,000 from the city to purchase an advertizing banner to be hung over Highway 3 near Fourth Street.

Why are Canadians and Americans so in love with cars, particularly classic cars? When did the love affair begin?   

Emily Badger, a historian, has written an enlightening explanation in an article called “The myth of the American love affair with cars” posted on the Washington Post Wonkblog. She mentions Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia, who explains how the affair started.

Norton states, “This ‘love affair’ thesis is like the ultimate story. It’s one of the biggest public relations coups of all time. It’s always treated as folk wisdom, as an organic growth from society. One of the signs of its success is that everyone forgets it was invented as a public relations campaign.”

According to Norton, the term “love affair” was apparently coined in 1961 during a weekly hour-long television program called the DuPont Show of the Week, sponsored by DuPont. (At the time the company owned a 23 per cent interest in General Motors.) The program was called “Merrily We roll Along” and promoted as “the story of America’s love affair with the automobile.”

The program was aired in response to people’s protests against the need to accommodate cars with the construction of highways. Cities and towns were disrupted when whole neighbourhoods were razed to make way for freeways. People were also protesting the threat posed by cars to their freedom as pedestrians.

Groucho Marx was a key player in the television program. He used the metaphor of the car as the new woman in town called “Lizzie.” The driver, a man, fell in love with Lizzie and their “burning love affair” eventually led to marriage. They had a long honeymoon and a few challenges. In Marx’s view it was a typical marriage.

Marx is reported to have said, “We don’t always know how to get along with her, but you certainly can’t get along without her.”

According to Norton, the love affair analogy helped implant two ideas: that we are bound to cars by something stronger than need; and that people who challenge the human/car bond are out of step with their fellow citizens.

The love affair continues to this day and it manifests itself in classic car shows across the continent.  It may not be so heated, but it still exists.

Badger states, “The phenomenon of sports cars, weekend cars and collector cars is real. So, too, is the allure for many people of road trips, scenic highways or weekend drives through the country.” We might add “car shows” to the list.

People who can afford them continue to collect classic cars and they like showing them off. That will be the case in Grand Forks during the coming summer.

Historian Norton disputes the claim that people wanted car-dependent cities and suburbs. He states that what they really wanted was to get rid of the cars because the dangers they presented

Cars are still a danger to pedestrians and urbanized wildlife like deer and, in the case of deer, the accepted solution is to destroy them. That is certainly the case in B.C. where communities approve of deer “culls”. A better solution would be to lower speed limits in the areas most frequented by the animals.

Are car shows passe? Interest in them may be waning but they will be with us until the people who fell in love with them in the first place pass on.

After all, cars are just a means of transportation.