When I was a boy, growing up in London in the 1970s, it was a Saturday ritual in my family to visit art galleries. One of my favorites was the Photographer’s Gallery, on the borders of Covent Garden, where I’d see works by American photographers like William Eggleston and Garry Winogrand which completely enthralled me. In particular I was captivated by the pictures of cars, the casual way to which these wondrous (to me) machines were strewn in environments that were only slightly less magical.
I was an Americaphile from a very early age, and a child fascinated with automobiles. Thus, naturally, American cars were objects of great fascination to me, symbols of something to which even then I very consciously aspired, something compelling. Left-hand drive, bigger, more powerful, more potent than most of the vehicles one then encountered in England, they were the icons, the representations of what America meant to me then. At seven I had an inkling of the symbolic importance to America of its automobiles. So these images, of majestic-yet-utilitarian Chevrolets, Fords, Plymouths and Dodges, rim-deep in weeds in some suburban lot or beached upon breeze blocks outside a tenement were extraordinarily redolent to me, in a way that has not diminished at all, so that rust-flecked, paint-flaked metal resting weary on perished rubber deflated like elephant wrinkles, seen through chain-link fences, still inspires wonderful emotion decades later. I suspect that it will for all my life.
Ironically by the year I turned seven, 1976, the OPEC oil crisis of two years earlier had taken a drastic toll on the American auto industry, and the cars that ensued for the next decade would be hard put to inspire positive emotion in anyone, seven years old or seventy.
But it wasn’t simply the chrome giants of the 1950s, the sleek whales of the 1960s or the MOPAR muscle of the 1970s alone which fascinated me. I was democratic in my tastes, and though those exceptional autos were exciting, my imagination was equally inspired by the rusting pick-ups and commercial vans, the family sedans and trailers; and in particular by the sight of them in their contexts. Cars and their people were the thing to me. The amateur drag racers of the Pro-Stock class, the P150s laden with the equipment of trades and marked by curious signage, the bumper stickers and the steering wheel covers. These cars were the most potent representations of an Americana that was as much defined by them as anything else. Hence their magic.
1976 was, incidentally, the year our family got its first car, and it sucked. It was a Morris Marina, produced by the British Leyland car company. I was white and I still recall its registration number, LPJ739P. Like much of British industry British Leyland was beset by industrial action during the period, and the company had to be bailed out by the British government late in the decade. Morris Marinas were in many ways symbolic of the British auto industry’s decline during this period. They were old-fashioned and ugly, and plagued by mechanical problems. It was said at the time, and quite seriously, that buyers should avoid cars built on a Friday or a Monday, as the workers’ already low standards of care and attention would be worsened by either the prospect of the weekend or at the thought of the long week ahead.
Even though this was our family’s first car. I can recall no particular excitement about it on my part. I believe I barely gave that vehicle any attention at all. Nonetheless it opened another enduring experience to me, that of gazing out of the window from the backseat of a car during a long journey. Yes, my parents took that car, reputation notwithstanding, all over southern England, visiting towns, country houses, historical universities and such. I was a quiet child, given to inner narratives and the adventures of the imagination, so (at least it seems to me) I wasn’t the voice from the backseat perpetually asking “are we there yet?”
Instead I was watching the world pass by. I can still recall with utter clarity certain moments; cresting a hill and seeing bright sunlight bursting horizontally under low rainclouds and reflecting off the light-colored road surface that certain sections of British motorways have (or at least had); driving late through twisting country back-roads, our headlights on high beam illuminating high bushes and trees by the roadside and the sudden brightness of reflective road signs, the way it all looked utterly differently when the headlights were returned to normal strength at the first flash of another car’s approaching lights; the road ahead seen (naturally, this being England) past windscreen wipers and rain.
These were the backdrops for my reveries, which varied according to the landscape we were passing through. If forests or woodland, then perhaps Robin Hood fantasies, or knights. If rolling fields then maybe pilots of World War I, in leather helmets and white scarves wrestling with the joysticks of Sopwiths as they crossed ditches, hedges, fields of green wheat, yellow rape.
Although that particular fantasy gave way to P-51 Mustangs and P38 Lightnings a generation and a war later, though to be fair Spitfires and Hurricanes did figure too in my not-very-patriotic flights of fancy, as well as in the collection of Airfix models my father and I would glue together and paint at the workbench my father constructed at the window on the landing of the staircase.
A few years ago Nader Ephraimi, a painter friend of mine, held an exhibition of his new work in a small gallery near to the river in one of the streets of Williamsburg’s Northside. They were large canvases, made photorealist-style from photographs and video-stills, all taken from the passenger windows of cars on long journeys. Instantly upon seeing the first image my mind was inundated with a tumbling gale of memories. All my backseat reveries and daydreams charged back pell-mell; the recall was instantaneous and almost overpowering. Each image contained the inner life of my boyhood.
We had other cars after the Morris Marina, including a Vauxhall Carlton, a larger, more powerful sedan that my father got from his company as he progressed up the ranks. Barely more memorable than the Marina, the only thing that stands out for me about the Vauxhall is that it was the car in which I learned to drive. On one of our peregrinations around the home counties we had discovered an abandoned airfield, complete with a gate that had fallen off its hinges. If you drove in, and we did, there were two runways and a perimeter road that were perfect for a young learner driver who was five years too young to legally practice on public roads. So I learned clutch control, gear shifting, three-point turns, parallel parking and whatnot there, and ultimately had the thrill of taking the car up to 50 miles an hour in fourth gear around the perimeter road.
We used to attend an event that took place in London on the last Saturday of each month. From around seven o’clock in the evening, in Battersea Park on the south side of the river Thames, hot rods and custom cars would congregate for what was known as the Chelsea cruise. At one time it had been a more impromptu gathering, with cars cruising back and forth across the Chelsea bridge. But the outbreaks of illicit drag-racing across the two-lane bridge had compelled the authorities to move the event to one of the park’s parking lots, where the cars parked in a sort of concourse, or staged burn-out competitions. There were a lot of domestic customs, often workaday family sedans—Ford Cortinas and such—tricked out with jacked up rears, the better to show off Jaguar independent rear suspension systems, narrowed to fit, which performed far better than the torsion bar systems common then, and additionally looked great, with their upper and lower A arms and coil-over shocks, especially when chromed. V8s, of course, were the engines of choice, and while some cars had imported small-block American units, the domestic 3.5 liter unit that was stock in the bigger Rovers was the more common choice.
Among the herds of eager wannabes the big beasts of the gasoline savannah stood out: ’55, ’56 and ’57 Chevrolets, some stock, some hot rods with 10x15” General Grabber (a model created for the hot-rod market in the 1970s, now relaunched as an off road tire) rear tires and Wolfrace five-slot alloy wheels; Novas; Impalas; Hemi ’Cudas; Trans-Ams, ’32 roadsters and even totally tricked out Model Ts. Blown, injected, with or without nitrous—as an obsessed schoolboy I was infinitely familiar with every permutation of customizing automobiles, could list the spec of just about any type of vehicle, year, parts, add-ons, from 30 feet away. I remember one Saturday night seeing a car burn out so vigorously that the prop shaft twisted under the torque, a component failure that left the car immobile, needing a tow and facing an expensive repair; the driver was gleeful, the crowd In raptures. In later years the cruise became more motorcycle-oriented, given over in particular to owners of Japanese race bikes, who, with their vehicles’ greater ease of escape, returned to the habit of illegally racing across the bridge, as well as trick riding—wheelies, stoppies and such—but back in the 1970s it was all about cars, especially American ones.
In my father’s book collection at the time was a small paperback that he’d picked up somewhere, called simply Custom Vans. It was a photobook featuring shots of the exterior and interior of customized commercial vans. The modes of the period dominated, of course — metallic browns and golds, pinstripes, crushed velvet, shag carpeting, tuck-and-roll upholstery, and reel-to-reel tape decks were the look. Vans had wider wheels and were lowered, and of course the interiors were completely transformed, turned into Hugh Hefner-esque rolling bedrooms. There was a ubiquitous bumper sticker that went with the turf: If My Van’s Rockin’ Don’t Bother Knockin.’ There was a particular lifestyle that seemed to go with these vans — a sort of nomadic stoner refusenik outsider thing, shades of hippie, surfer, redneck and Hell’s Angel all in one — that even as a boy it seemed a great shame to me that the book contained no pictures of the van’s owners.
Given the importance of cars to Americans it’s odd that none of the great photographers ever examined the link between the two explicitly. For all of Eggleston’s, Winogrand’s, Arbus’, Avedon’s, Goldin’s et al’s exquisite teasings out of the American psyche through images, none of them directly tackled the fascinating degree to which Americans are bound up with their automobiles.
The British fashion photographer Craig McDean made an excellent stab at tracking the arc linking humans and their machines with the book I Love Fast Cars. An anthropological stroll around any one of the myriad small dragstrips in the American South and Midwest, the book barely concerns itself with the cars themselves. What vehicles are seen are depicted obliquely – a slice of rear wheel and tire, obscured by clouds of burn-out smoke; a tailgate.
But there is one image that sums up the attachment to the freedom to roam that is seen as the American birthright. One of the most rewarding pictures in Irving Penn’s Worlds In A Small Room essay is that of the Hell’s Angels. One Angel, a blond man with piercing eyes, is completely at one with his machine. He sits astride it, his girl riding pillion with her cheek on his back resting. It is clear that this is no simple vehicle for him. In his lifestyle and his choices he has deliberately bonded with this device; they are fused, they have become one entity. He is it; it is he. “I am Machine,” he seems to say.