Sunday, December 4, 2011

Yamaha's retro bike

Now that I seem to have killed the battery in my e-bike by letting it drain down to zero (something that lithium ion batteries apparently do not like), I'm trying to figure out my next step in keeping some kind of car alternative on the road. On the one hand, I could just shell out for another battery. Or...I could get one of these cool things. It's bound to be the more expensive option, but it sure looks like it would be fun to ride. It's an update of Yamaha's first motorcycle, the YA-1, first manufactured in 1955 (at left). The new version, the Y125, is supposed to get close to 200 mpg, which would get me to the grocery store and back any number of times (that's the trip that killed the bike battery).

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Heritage wheels: Anything but old

I've been reading an article by Bernhard Rieger on the Volkswagen Beetle* this evening as I'm prepping for tomorrow's session of my "Cars, Culture, and Place" seminar at Tufts. I think I like teaching this class for the same reason I like teaching about tourism: car culture and the tourism industry just never fail to amaze me in their inventiveness in making darned near anything into a marketable product, and teaching a course on them is a great way to find out what they've been up to lately. Reading about the history of the Beetle made me decide to go see how VW is marketing the new, all-new, really new 2012 New Beetle on its website, where I found a great example of heritage marketing and how it performs the classic modern trick of selling us the past and the future simultaneously.

On the "Profile Update," just under where it says "Completely redesigned," there's an option for "Heritage wheels," which turn out to evoke the classic style of 1960s Beetle wheels. "Close your eyes and picture the classic wheels," the text says. "They're too iconic to forget, right?"

Then when you click on "Details," you get the having-it-both-ways message: "Now open your eyes and see how cool they look taking us into the future. That’s right, we redesigned the old wheels to be completely cool and anything but old." Old, yet new--what could be better than that?

One of the things that Rieger's article shows is that German VW executives at the home office in Wolfsburg initially resisted the idea of introducing the New Beetle in 1998, not grasping the potential appeal of a somewhat-nostalgic, somewhat-ironic retro-vehicle for American buyers. The roll-out ad campaigns capitalized on this highly postmodern blend, but it struck me that the current promotion for the 2012 model shows how hard it is to sustain the momentum of the nostalgic/ironic impulse over time. Despite the evocation of the Beetle's status as an icon ("Those crisp, clean, curved lines hark back to the original"), there's actually nothing playful, ironic, or--ironically--really new about the way the car is now being marketed.

That sense of playfulness was a big part of the novelty of the original VW ad campaigns, which became almost as iconic as the car itself, and the New Beetle was able to play off of some of that older creative energy. Based on my short cruise through the website tonight, though, VW has turned to a highly conventional approach to promoting the car at this point: emphasizing its cool features and posing it in dramatic settings. Even novelty gets old, I guess--or maybe the real irony is that novelty gets especially old. As Alfred Sloan showed a long time ago when he brought the model year and built-in obsolescence into the car industry, constant change is an essential ingredient of getting people to buy new cars before they really need them. Within that logic, invoking the past is a tactic to be used sparingly, when you use it at all.

*"From People's Car to New Beetle: The Transatlantic Journeys of the Volkswagen Beetle," Journal of American History, June 2010 (pp. 91-115).

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Living history at the motor court

I posted a piece on the NCPH "Off the Wall" blog last week about the phenomenon of "ubiquitous display" that we're exploring in our reviews over there. I got another great example of this while I was in Plymouth, Mass. for the New England American Studies Association conference this weekend. I was staying just north of the town center at what seemed to be a generic Best Western motel, but when I was in the lobby on Saturday morning I noticed a set of four black and white photos on the wall that didn't seem to be the usual motel décor.

The photos showed what appeared to be equally generic buildings: a ranch house, a New England farmhouse, some small roadside cabins. When I asked about them, though, the woman at the counter told me they showed the motel site in its earlier life, first as a horse farm and then, after 1949, as a motor court. She pointed out that some of the cabins could still be seen along busy Route 3A, the main road that goes through this heavily-visited town.

I was pretty tickled by this "heritagization" of a slice of automobile and tourism history, which memorialized--albeit in a low-profile way--both the era of the post-World-War-II "heritage boom" and the transitional phase between auto camping and the motel as we know it today.

I was even more tickled later in the weekend when I learned from Karin Goldstein, Curator of Collections and Library at Plimoth Plantation, that the Plantation's creator, Harry Hornblower, had originally planned to site the living history village on a different piece of land from the one it now occupies. But the property he bought was expropriated by the state for the construction of the highways that carry traffic from Boston to Plymouth and points south, including the vacation mecca of Cape Cod. Hornblower was forced to turn to Plan B, which was to locate the village on land he inherited from his grandmother.

The expansion of the region's tourist economy in the 1940s, which presumably prompted the owners of the horse farm north of the town center to add their motor court, displaced Plimoth Plantation before it could even be built. At the same time, of course, the new road was a crucial mechanism for bringing visitors to what quickly became one of Plymouth's most popular attractions. I don't know what Harry Hornblower thought about that turn of events (it would make a fun piece of research, for someone with the time to do it!). But my guess is that he probably felt the kind of ambivalence that most of us experience in relation to car culture. We use our cars to escape from the modern world that has given us the car and all its attendant problems; we rely on things we deplore (like sitting in traffic on a crowded, noisy road) to facilitate things we love (like the chance to stroll down a recreated 17th century street in a living history village). Tourism displays usually work to hide the fact that the two kinds of experience are in fact integrally linked, but the photos in the motel lobby brought brought that into visibility in an interesting way. It was subtle, like the unlabeled photos themselves, but it was an admission that car tourism, too, has a "living history," in which we're all taking a role.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Highway heritage vs. the fossil fuel industry

As a counter-balance to the purely celebratory uses of automotive heritage that I wrote about in my last post, here's an example of using heritage designation in much more activist and critical ways. Calling themselves "The Rural People of Highway 12," a coalition centered in Idaho is using Route 12's various scenic and historic designations as key tools in their fight against the growing numbers of oil companies using the road to haul half-million pound "megaloads" of drilling equipment north to the expanding tar sands oil fields in Alberta.

Started in the 1920s, Route 12 was originally intended as a freeway running between downtown Detroit and Madison, Wisconsin. It was extended to Yellowstone National Park in 1939, and then absorbed into the Interstate system starting in the 1950s. By 1969, it reached its terminus on the coast of Washington state. 

Like Mass. Route 2, the road I'm currently studying, it's one of those highways that's been overlaid with various heritage designations in recent years.  It's the paved spine of a number of scenic, historic, and recreational routes:  the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway (designated as a byway in 2002 and as an All-American Road in 2005), part of the TransAmerica Bicycle Route (itself something of a historic site, having been created as part of the "Bikecentennial" in the 1970s), a couple of Wild and Scenic River corridors, and parts of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and the Nez Perce National Historic Trail.  According to the Rural People website, Motorcycle Magazine called it the best recreational motorcycle route in the nation ("many curves, much beauty" notes the website).

The Rural People of Route 12 see themselves as David fighting Goliath, and when you go up against the fossil fuel industry, that's pretty much the size of it (as Tim DeChristopher just discovered in Utah after disrupting a federal auction of oil and gas leases in that state).  Heritage designations, like historic preservation laws, can seem like very puny weapons in that kind of fight, as the same urgent drive toward automobility that created Route 12 in the first place continues to push us to keep feeding our petroleum habit despite the increasing evidence of how ultimately suicidal this is. Most of these designations themselves are intended to draw visitors to the region, and nearly all of those visitors are going to be arriving in some kind of two- or four-wheeled vehicle.

So it's a paradoxical strategy at best.  But it's a strategy, and it seems much more intelligent than celebrating automobility in a more simple-minded way.  Tar Sands Action's planned late-summer civil disobedience campaign in Washington, DC is a more direct and potentially consequential kind of action, and I hope we start to see more and more serious protests (including from my surprisingly quiescent Canadian compatriots) against this environmentally ruinous plan of extracting the oil in the Alberta tar sands.  If highway heritage can play any role in all of that, it's all to the good.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Indy at 100

I haven't posted for a while, but couldn't let Memorial Day weekend go by without noting the centennial of the Indianapolis 500. Sport is a highly ritualized activity, where participants and audiences often share a strong consciousness of the lineage and history of what they're doing (in recent years I've gotten tired of hearing the phrase "storied franchise" used in describing one sports team or another, but it does capture that sense of heritage that surrounds so many sports organizations and venues, particularly in an era of increased interest in vintage and retro sports of all kinds). Unlike a lot of heritage activities, there's no distinct break between past and present in sport (except in the cases of defunct franchises, like this one). And car culture, of course, is anything but past. So sport involving cars is a great way to get a sense of how contemporary car afficianados are thinking about the automobile's past.

As I noted in a previous post, they're definitely doing that in a celebratory rather than a questioning way, reinforcing the notion of "heritage" as a realm where it's difficult to bust anyone out of the mindset that accepts the present as a natural extension of a progressive past. With events like the Indy 500 centennial, it's all about veneration of past heroes, participation in folk traditions, and communion with places that have acquired the patina of legend (in addition to its enshrinement in commercial and popular culture, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has the blessing of the National Park Service with its placement on the National Register for Historic Places in 1975 and the granting of National Historic Landmark status in 1987).

It's also about the commemoration of technological innovations, and not always high-tech ones. For example, the humble rear-view mirror made its first official appearance on the winning car at the 1911 Indy 500 (that's it on the right, at the famous Yard of Bricks that remains from the 1909 brick course). Driver Ray Harroun was unable to find a mechanic to ride along with him and perform the important job of letting him know who was behind him, so he supposedly borrowed the mirror idea from a horse-drawn vehicle he'd seen, although the notion already seems to have been in use by women drivers who used their hand-mirrors in a similar way. This cars-and-history project of mine has kicked up so many juicy metaphors and turns of phrase that I've come to resist all of them as clichéd (driven to the past, life in the past lane, you get the picture). But something about celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the rear-view mirror strikes me as particularly apt for thinking about how automobility's promise of charging forward into the future depends on a keen awareness of a past that's never quite as settled as we'd like to imagine it is.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

If Ken Burns made car ads

Car ads are like little zeitgeist-meters. They’re amazingly responsive to all kinds of social anxieties, which they instantly repackage in ways that allow us to continue feeling good about driving. Feeling nationally or personally emasculated? Concerned about the transition into being a soccer mom? Worried about climate change? Fear not. You can buy a minivan and still be hot; owning a Nissan Leaf will cause you to be hugged by grateful polar bears. All is well in the world of the car ad.

Which is why Chrysler’s “Imported from Detroit” ad, which debuted in a two-minute version during the 2011 Super Bowl and has been running in a shorter format since then, is so striking. It brings the anxiety right into the frame of the commercial, using image, music, and association to evoke the long pain of deindustrialization and the resulting gutting-out of cities and economies. The full-length spot, which has topped ten million views on YouTube, features Detroit-based rapper Eminem driving through the city in a gleaming new Chrysler 200 (née Sebring) while a raspy male voice discusses the city’s ups and downs over footage of monuments, factories, athletes, homes. The opening riff of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself," a nervous insistent strumming, permeates the piece, giving it much of its edgy feel. Eminem winds up at the stunningly restored Fox Theater, where the guitar riff merges with a vocal crescendo from a black gospel choir on the stage, dropping to a reverent hush behind his somber delivery of the line, “We’re the Motor City, and this is what we do.”

I have no particular trouble finding things to critique about this ad, because, well, that’s what I do. There’s a subtle “othering” of Detroit’s industrial and postindustrial working people, in the “Imported from Detroit” tagline and in the images of past struggles—Diego Rivera’s famous Detroit murals, the gigantic iron fist of the memorial sculpture to Detroit boxing great Joe Louis—and present production of goods (the unseen workers behind the gleaming Chrysler 200) and services (the doorman who nods to Eminem as the car rolls past an upscale hotel). Despite the invocation of working-class heroisms and skills, the emphasis here is on luxury and the relationships that sustain it. The doorman’s brief nod seems to reinforce Rachel Sherman’s argument that these service-economy laborers become complicit in creating and sustaining the very hierarchies that limit their own options (see Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels, University of California Press, 2007). This othering of the working class is subtly racialized, particularly in in the appearance of the gospel choir, which, as Douglas Harrison notes, is a kind of convenient shorthand in American pop culture for moral strength and resilient human spirit, appearing to transcend race while drawing on histories of racial struggle. The ad also plays with the romance of ruins, but very fleetingly, in a early brief shot of an empty building façade that is immediately superceded by more heroic and positive images. It hints at the struggle-and-recovery story even while it draws on the aesthetic fascination of decay and decline (the contemplation of which has become almost an industry in itself around Detroit).

So there’s lots to question here. But what I really find myself thinking when I watch this ad is, “Damn, these guys are good.” Never mind that it’s difficult to tell what’s an “American” or “imported” car at this point; never mind that the real challenge for places like Detroit is to try to discover what they might become apart from the gigantic industries that dominated them in the 20th century. The ad works on the level of myth, implicitly tying together the histories of labor and racial struggle, industrialization and deindustrialization, Detroit and America, TARP and Toyota, in a way that asserts persistence and resilience on every level. Oh, and it’s selling a car, too. The fact that the car seems like an after-thought only makes the ad more effective. This is the “tragedy with a happy ending” that William Dean Howells famously said Americans prefer when they go to the theater. It invokes loss, but in a way that feels shared and thus ultimately unifying. It is, in short, a Ken Burns film.

If Ken Burns made car ads, he would work for Portland, Oregon-based Wieden + Kennedy. W+K is fully capable of making jauntier car ads; their popular “Hate Something, Change Something” campaign for Honda, aimed at improving the image of the diesel engine in the U.K., was chirpy and upbeat (and wouldn’t it be nice if someone would undertake a similar makeover for diesels in the U.S.?). But they’re also not afraid of sentiment, and they’ve learned a thing or two from Burns about evocative music and how to enlist the gravitas of difficult histories without allowing them to provoke too many questions that might disrupt that bittersweet sense of shared struggle. (Their recent ad for Royal Enfield motorcycles is really a hymn to the city of Chennai, arguably the Detroit of India. Watch it and tell me you don’t find yourself thinking of Burns’s Civil War series.)

Ken Burns moves historical materials into the realm of the mythic, and W+K is moving that powerful combo into the realm of advertising. It’s daunting to think about how to counter that technique. A few comments on the YouTube ad do take a critical tack, but the overwhelming response is emotive and supportive. The ad creates a kind of virtual vernacular memorial space for the slow disaster that is Detroit; people are asserting solidarity and pride in a way that seems directed at the city’s working class but that is really being stimulated on behalf of capital, not labor. What would a counter-myth for a post-industrial, less car-dependent society look like? When we find one, we may do well to take a leaf out of W+K’s book when we're ready to sell the public on it.

[NOTE: This piece is cross-posted from the NCPH blog "Off the Wall." If you feel inspired to comment, please do so over there.]

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

High fuel prices = instant heritage?

In the face of rising fuel prices,, a joint venture of several big media companies, has revived an earlier feature, the "Gas Saving Moment of the Day."  These tips, ranging from advice on keeping your tires properly inflated to a suggestion that it wouldn't hurt Americans collectively to lose a few pounds, date to the last big spike in oil prices, back in 2008.  Of course, most of the same ideas and advice could be heard during the "oil shocks" of the early and late 1970s, and variations on the same theme came up during the gas rationing of the World War II years (remember "When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler"?). 

This seems to offer yet more evidence, as if we needed it, of our collective amnesia and denial when it comes to fossil fuels (we know our fuel mileage is better if we drive at 55 mph, but we don't act on it until prices rise or we're faced with shortages).  But this cycle of forgetting and remembering and re-remembering is also starting to have heritage-like overtones to me.  Every time we hit one of these patches, we dredge up our rather limited repertoire of suggestions about how to save fuel.  And while some new ideas do get added to the list each time, there's also enough sameness that it can't help but resonate with past experiences of being reminded that oil is not, after all, an infinite resource.  (Even some of the newest ideas aren't all that new--for example, there have always been hybrids and alternatives, including those that run on wood and air.) 

And those suggestions themselves--slow down, use older and less energy-intensive forms of transport, act in community by car-pooling or taking the train, become more aware of the mechanics and physics of your vehicle by checking tire pressure, etc.--represent something of a retreat from the faster-is-better individualism and convenience that drives so much of car culture.  It's like a little taste of living history, with echoes of earlier periods of austerity and an unwilling but not necessarily unpleasant acceptance of different values.

All of this doesn't amount to anything quite as conscious as a revival movement or a mobilization of folk culture, but it feels to me as though there's something quasi-heritage-like taking shape here.  Heritage theory shows us how commemoration and obsolescence often go hand in hand, with preservation sometimes even coming first and helping to redefine something as "past" even while it's still a part of everyday life.  With each layer of rediscovery that gets added to our histories of high fuel prices, perhaps we're actually seeing the first inklings of a real shift into post-fossil-fuel mobility, nudged along by historical resonances that are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

The 1944 poster image above, by Harold Von Schmidt, is from the New Hampshire State Library.