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The Automobile: More than Just Transportation

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From earliest times, people have felt a need to set themselves apart from others in the society in which they live. Often this competitive desire takes the shape of acquiring material items to symbolize one’s uniqueness. These “status symbols” can come in many shapes and sizes. Common examples include houses, watches, jewelry, and clothing. Even purses have emerged as status symbols in today’s America. Modes of transportation, including the car, have long been another common status symbol. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the automobile has been one of the most powerful and pervasive American status symbols.

Awareness of social status is likely as old as people organizing themselves into societies. Grollier’s Encyclopedia defines status as “a person’s position within an institutional or organizational framework” (Westby). The first task of a human is survival. After satisfying his necessities, “man’s next task is to establish himself as a powerful individual in both his eyes and the eyes of society” (Behavioral Patterns). A system of symbols indicating one’s status in the society simplifies the communication of an individual’s power (Westby). Such symbols are part of nearly every civilized society. Status symbols are likewise an important aspect of American society.

In its early years, the automobile was far from being a status symbol. The first to possess something resembling an automobile were early inventors in their workshops. The invention of the automobile did not just happen all at once, and no single person was responsible for its inception (The Automobile). It was a slow process that was contributed to over time by a series of inventions (Automobile, Origin of). Most credit Nicholas Cugnot, who developed a three-wheeled steam powered carriage in 1771, with inventing the first “car” (The Automobile). Another major advance came from Nicholas Gustau Otto, who devised the internal combustion engine, which made the engine small enough for easy mobility (Brown 6). Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz were dubbed the automobile’s “fathers” following their developments with the internal combustion engine in 1888 (The Automobile). Although it was the focus of much interest, the automobile throughout the nineteenth century was a novelty rather than a symbol of status.

Once the automobile became somewhat dependable and available on a limited basis, early cars became toys for the wealthy. At this point, owning a car began to show status, because the car remained a rarity that was affordable only for those of great wealth (The Automobile). The price of cars was high because they were handmade. For example, in 1908, the Cadillac Model K had a price ranging from $2000 to $3600 (Brown 19), which was very expensive at the time (up to $80,000 in today’s dollars, Tom’s Inflation Calculator). The Mercedes, made by Daimler Benz, was a dream car only available to a “small, select clientele” (Mercedes car design history). The rarity of automobile ownership made it desirable to the wealthy, which subsequently made the middle class want it as well, reflecting their desire to become part of the wealthy class. Awareness of automobiles increased in 1908 when the Cadillac Model K won a world-wide race of six cars from New York to Paris (Brown 16). The middle class quickly became enchanted by the convenience and status of the automobile (For the Love of Automobiles). Although the automobile was emerging as an intriguing new symbol of status, its rarity prevented it from becoming pervasive throughout American society.

The affordability of the automobile changed with the mass production of the Ford Model T. With assembly lines and interchangeable parts, Henry Ford and his contemporaries were determined to bring the automobile to the masses. Ford wanted a car that “the average person could afford, operate and maintain” (The Automobile). His development of the assembly line lowered production time and costs, and in turn lowered cost to the consumer (Automobile, Origin of). Mass production made the car available to all classes of people. Ford’s determination to make a low-priced car resulted in the Model T, which took the automobile out of the luxury class and made it affordable for the ordinary family (Henry Ford). Making a car that was affordable to the average person was the first step in the spread of the automobile’s popularity, although that affordability led to a decrease in status resulting from mere automobile ownership.

The Model T is what put America on wheels. Because of the Model T, production at Ford increased from 10,000 cars in 1908 to nearly two million in 1923, and by 1913 the company was making more cars than all other American automakers combined (Brown 24). The price of a Model T was initially $825, but the price steadily declined as output increased, until a Model T cost $260 in 1924 (Brown 24). The Model T became very popular because it was simple, durable and cheap (Brown 24). The automobile’s popularity was firmly established with the production of the Model T, and an automobile declared the owner to be part of the modern age.

With the Model T, Henry Ford not only made the automobile affordable, he also led Americans to view the car as a desirable necessity of life. The mass production of the Model T increased “America’s romance with the automobile” (Automobile, Origin of) and the marketing of the Model T aimed to convince the American consumer that the car was an essential possession (Model T). Americans became attached to their automobiles, becoming “a nation in love with our cars” (Johnson). By making cars available to all people and using savvy marketing, Ford made the car a “must-have” for all and no longer restricted to the elite class.

Once automobile ownership became available to all, possession alone no longer conveyed status. The Model T lost its caché when everyone had one. Ford Motors continued to manufacture the Model T after it had passed its peak of popularity without addressing the reason for its declining sales (Automotive History). Ford’s most famous brainchild lost popularity largely because of the growing used car market in which Americans could buy used Model T’s at a much cheaper price than the identical new models. Other companies dealt with this problem by developing the annual model (Automotive History). The annual model meant that every year, a slightly different model was released, making it obvious who owned a brand new car and who did not. General Motors took the marketing of automobiles a step further, using social status as a means to sell a car (Spring 57). General Motors’ Cadillac division called itself the “standard of the world” and presented its owners as having superior taste (Brown 39). Due to its marketing success, GM passed Ford as the leading automobile manufacturer during the 1920s (Automotive History). The status symbol thus had become an important aspect of the automobile business. Once more people owned automobiles, owning a car was no longer a sufficient symbol of status, but the type of car one owned now became a factor.

Automobile manufacturers began to focus on status as a marketing tool. The manufacturers wanted cars to be “outward symbols of income” and not just a form of transportation (Spring). They did not want their consumers to be satisfied with just any car, because then there would be no reason to buy a more expensive model. The manufacturers wanted the consumer to know that everyone else would know that their car was expensive. The idea of the right car as a symbol of status took root and flourished with effective advertising.

America bought into the idea of displaying their status through their automobile with alacrity. For most Americans, a car was the second most expensive item they purchased, putting a fancy car right behind a fancy house as a way to show their wealth (Sugrue). People felt a need to display their success in status-conscious American society, and the car became one of the most prominent symbols of “making it” (Sugrue). In explaining this phenomenon, Hank Carpenter, a Sales Representative from Foreign Cars Italia, stated “When people have an excess of money, they are able to spend more on something like a car. They want to be able to show off their wealth” (Carpenter). In particular, the opportunity to buy an expensive high-end automobile gave people in cities a chance to display their wealth, and metropolitan elites quickly adopted cars as symbols of status (McShane). When the automobile became a preferred way to display wealth, it was firmly established as a status symbol throughout America.

Specific brands of automobiles held different levels of status, and some became more desirable than others. The Cadillac was one of the first luxury automobiles manufactured in the United States (1902 Cadillac). The most prestigious cars in the early years of the automobile were not Cadillacs, but instead were the “three P’s”: Packard, Peerless, and Pierce Arrow (Brown 39). However, after Cadillac introduced the electric starter in 1912, making it easier for women to drive, the American public increasingly preferred Cadillac for its ease of use, and it became the luxury car of choice (Brown 39). Cadillac set the standard for status for many years in American society.

By the middle of the twentieth century, luxury car manufacturers had designed an ever-changing sequence of vehicles that symbolized wealth and influence to their buyers. By the 1920s, Packard joined Cadillac as the preferred luxury brands (Brown 57). In the 1930s, Lincoln was added to the list, and the Lincoln Continental became popular in the 1940s (Brown 86, 138). By World War II, the luxury car was a popular way to demonstrate status in the United States.

Once the luxury car market became firmly established and luxury brands became emblems of power and prestige, stratification within the luxury automobile market began to appear. Two automobile lines emerged as the ultimate in status and refined taste - Rolls Royce and Bentley. In 1904, Henry Royce and his partner Charles Rolls became determined to build a better car than anyone else, and many consider they did so with the Silver Ghost, which was created two years later (Brown 20). Royce may have succeeded in his quest to create the “best car in the world,” though it was so expensive that few would ever enjoy its quality (Brown 20). Bentley built its first car in 1919 (Bentley). Rolls-Royce took over Bentley in the early 1930s but continued to produce Bentleys as a separate line (Brown 216). Bentleys and Rolls-Royces offered fastidious craftsmanship in a quiet, dignified motorcar that not only looked beautiful but offered high maximum speed and acceleration, excellent handling and smooth roadability (Brown 216). These upper-end cars provided the highest of status in an automobile for the discerning buyer.

When automotive consumers desiring a display of their status began to have more choices, advertising became even more important in enticing consumers to buy a particular brand. Advertisements “appealed to consumer’s desire to drive cars that played to their self image” (Sugrue). With the greater selection of cars to choose from, consumers could select the car that most corresponded to their own individuality and the manner in which they wanted to display their status. The variety and marketing of luxury cars only increased the power of the automobile as a status symbol in American culture.

Luxury automobiles and cars for the masses were never two distinct groups, but by the mid-twentieth century even more diversification had emerged, with automakers offering stratified product lines denoting increasing levels of status from basic economy models to mid-line middle class family sedans to the top-of-the-line status models. General Motors had a product line that included the basic Chevrolet, the slightly more desirable Pontiac, the middle-of-the-line Oldsmobile, the very respectable Buick, and the top-of-the-line Cadillac. Ford offered the Ford, the higher status Mercury, the elite Lincoln, and the Continental Mark IV for its most affluent customers. Not to be outdone, Chrysler produced the Dodge, Plymouth, and Chrysler lines, and the luxurious Chrysler New Yorker at its high end. Status through automobile ownership became not simply haves and have-nots, but instead increasing levels of status emerged.

In addition to increasing popularity, rapid technological advances were made in the automobile during the first half-century of its growth. The automobile changed drastically from the turn of the century through the 1920s (The Automobile). The early cars were very basic, and the advances made to improve the car made it more attractive to potential buyers (The Automobile). Many advances have improved the comfort of the automobile and made it easier to use. These include improvements during the 1940s such as automatic transmissions, power brakes and power steering (The Automobile). By the 1950s, the manufacturer’s goal was to build cars that were both comfortable and convenient (The Automobile). New models of cars were developed that were “luxurious, sporty, sturdy, or family-friendly” (Sugrue). In addition to varying models of cars, consumers were given more options on these models. For example, cars could be purchased in a wide range of colors, as compared to the single color black Model T. Many of the standard features that we take for granted today were not always included in cars. The improvements made to the automobile over the years have contributed to it remaining a powerful and pervasive status symbol in American society, when others fade from popularity if consumers look for a new way to stand out in a crowd.

The automobile was a particularly important symbol of wealth and success in the African-American community during this time period. Segregation denied many African-Americans the tony street address, but any status-conscious individual with money, regardless of color, could buy the right car. Luxury automobiles became a more important emblem of success in the black community than for other Americans. Many black singers during this time period sang about cars in their music (Sugrue). For example, Aretha Franklin sang about her pink Cadillac in “Freeway of Love.” Car advertisements were also put in magazines and newspapers targeted to a black audience because of the growing middle class of African-Americans (Sugrue). A Cadillac as a status symbol for African Americans became a stereotype. R&B singer Bo Diddley complained that record executives were reluctant to pay him fairly and would think “Buy him a Cadillac and he’d be fine, you know, that’s all they need in the ghetto” (“Morning Edition”). Owning the right car was and continues to be a powerful status symbol for many African-Americans in the United States.

After World War II, car styling became more important. 1948 brought the beginning of wings on cars with the distinctive fins on Cadillacs (Brown 225). Other brands developed unique style features that set them apart. Car manufacturers also earned status for their name in other ways. In the 1930s, Mercedes earned legendary status through its race cars, which transferred over to their consumer cars (Mercedes car design history). BMW (Bavarian Motor Works) joined Mercedes in exporting high end German cars to the US in 1956, due to the efforts of Max Hoffman, an influential New York retailer of high pedigree European cars (Brown 259). In the 1950s and the 1960s, several luxury sports cars joined the ranks of the status cars; noteworthy classics included the 1956 Corvette (Brown 262), the 1958 Aston Martin (Brown 275), the 1962 Ferrari 250 (Brown 300), the 1964 Porsche 911 series (Brown 320), and the 1967 Lamborghini (Brown 352). The cost of those types of cars continued to escalate the price of status. Options in the display of status emerged, with luxury sports cars bringing the option of flashier status in addition to the refined luxury of past automobiles.

In the 1960s, newly-licensed baby boomers emerged as a significant influence on American automobiles of choice. The original focus of these buyers was primarily speed and style, which led to the development of the muscle car (Naughton 71). The Ford Mustang was followed by cars such as the Pontiac GTO and the Chevy Camero. Some cars even evolved as anti-status symbols, such as the VW Beetle and VW minibus (Naughton 71). Just as they have influenced every other aspect of American Society, the baby boomer generation had a profound impact on the automobile’s role as a status symbol.

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Before the 1970s, few cars were imported from other countries (The Automobile). High gas prices in other countries forced manufacturers to produce smaller, more fuel-efficient cars (The Automobile), which were less desirable to American consumers used to large American cars with similarly large engines. When the gasoline supply began to tighten in the 1970s, consumers in America became interested in smaller cars (The Automobile). Because American automakers offered very few small cars, Americans looked to foreign cars, particular those from Europe and Japan. New laws were put into place in the United States to force manufacturers to make safer cars with better gas mileage (The Automobile), but it took American automobile makers some time to adapt to the new environment. Smaller foreign cars emerged as possible status symbols for those interested in fuel-efficient cars.

Beyond fuel efficiency, Vietnam and Watergate gave Americans additional reasons to reject American automobile brands. Consumers no longer trusted American industry. In the 1970s, Detroit car makers gave consumers more reasons to look elsewhere by putting out some of the worst American cars ever built (Naughton 72). A new group of luxury cars grew out of this trend, particularly the Japanese brands. The European brands such as BMW and Mercedes had already established a name for themselves in the United States, but the Japanese brands were not as well-respected. General Motors vice chairman Bob Lutz admitted that “we had grown inefficient, complacent, and lazy. Then people got a taste of well-put-together cars from the Japanese” (Naughton 72). Following on the earlier success of Japanese automakers, brands such as Lexus and Infiniti have more recently become popular luxury brands in the US.

With the greater wealth of the 1980s, people looked to new cars for their status symbols. The American cars were not as well made nor as fuel efficient as their foreign competition. BMWs became popular cars because of their quality, efficiency, and status. Social and market research expert Madelyn Hochstein says “Yuppies had the power suit and the power jewelry, and you needed the power vehicle to go with it” which was a black Beemer (Naughton 72). The high status cars for Americans shifted from their own domestic automobiles to the higher status cars from other countries, and this trend continues.

In today’s car market, the options of status cars are seemingly endless. The choices are vast, going from a foreign sports car to an American SUV. The SUV has been described as “the most ostentatious popular product of car culture” (Car Culture). The size of the SUV alone makes it a very visible status symbol. “Riding high and loaded with leather,” the SUV commands attention on the road (Naughton 74). Likewise, flashy colored Lamborghinis and Ferraris draw eyes. Some buyers may prefer the understated elegance and sophistication of a 7-series BMW or a Lexus LS. Bentley has created a new niche for itself between the levels of a Mercedes and a Rolls-Royce for the buyer reaching toward the money-is-no-object status conveyed by a Rolls but not quite there yet. The Toyota Prius has become a popular hybrid for those who want to “shout their green street cred in a car that looks like nothing else” (Naughton 77). The very complexity of the automobile options available to the status-conscious consumer indicates how pervasive this status symbol has become in our society.

Another way Americans have found to increase status is by customizing their cars, frequently using parts available from aftermarket suppliers. While aftermarket customizing is nothing new, it has become more popular in the last decade or so. In this area, the perceived status shown by the car is often very different depending on the generation of the buyer and their preferences in a car. Veteran mechanic Ward Taylor observes that today’s younger generation often think that what is cool in a car is “lowering them, putting 20s on them, and stereo systems that will blow your ears out” (Taylor). Aftermarket customization of cars has made it possible for individuals to make their cars unique status symbols.

Other people might consider older cars to be status symbols. Many people like restoring older cars. Mechanic Taylor notes that “There’s a certain class of people where that’s a huge status symbol to make a hot rod. Take an old 1930s vehicle and just make it beautiful” (Taylor). To a certain extent, the perceived status of a beautifully restored classic car or hot rod may be fully appreciated only by a small group of people, rather than society at large. A beautifully restored 1955 Chevy Bel Air may be admired by the general public, but only a few will truly appreciate what it takes to keep a classic car in prime condition. A car does not always have to be the newest, most expensive model for it to represent a status symbol to a subgroup of American society.

The amount of status a car shows also depends on where one lives. When living in a wealthy area, a car that may normally be considered only for the well-off will be more commonly seen, and therefore will not hold the same level of status as it would in a neighborhood of lower socioeconomic class. For example, a BMW is normally quite a rare indication of high status, but in Chapel Hill, BMW ownership is routine enough to go unnoticed, which reduces its impact as a status symbol. The allure of specific automobiles may vary from place to place in today’s America.

Vehicles of the future are likely to continue to feed society’s desire to project an image of high status. Sales Representative Hank Carpenter from Foreign Cars Italia says “Our sales are steadily increasing and I expect they will continue to do so. There will always be a market for these cars for the wealthy car buyer” (Carpenter). Cars are going to continue to advance as technology progresses. Future cars may be made of different materials than they are today, such as plastics replacing what is currently made from metals (The Automobile). More cars may also rely on alternative fuel sources, such as hydrogen or biofuels. Many of these possibilities are already being explored and put into use. Manufacturers and sellers of high end cars are curious as to what this will do to the cars in their market (Carpenter). Carpenter also discusses the movement of high-end cars into producing bigger four-door cars, which has not been seen in that market before now (Carpenter). Which automobiles will become the status symbols of the future remains uncertain.

America has many status symbols, but the automobile has been one of the most powerful and pervasive for nearly one hundred years. The automobile began as a novelty and soon became a toy for the rich. The development of the assembly line led to affordability and popularity, and subsequently luxury cars emerged and diversified. Today, many different status niches are available to car buyers, and the future holds more intriguing possibilities. Automobiles are a status symbol that have helped define American culture in the twentieth century and will likely continue to do so in the twenty-first.


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Eric from Los Angeles on July 31, 2014:

Very true about what you said about the status symbol of cars depends on the area. I'm located in Los Angeles where in one area, every other car is a Mercedes/BMW/Audi but when you drive about a half hour to a poorer area, you hardly see any luxury cars. Quite a contrast and really opens your eyes.

thegnome (author) from North Carolina on July 24, 2012:

Thanks. Check out my article on German Automobile performance I wrote it a few years ago, so some of the statistics are out of date, but the content holds true.

Sid Kemp from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on July 24, 2012:

This is an excellent, interesting, and very well-researched article. You cover both luxury cars and how the Model T was the first car for everyman very well. I would suggest that the luxury car represents the status of wealth, as you suggest. You mention sports cars derived from race cars, like Porsche and Lamborghini. I would suggest that that is an entirely separate line of status, based not as much on wealth and more on speed and sexiness. Would love to hear your thoughts on that!

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