Over the last 125 years Americans and automobiles have enjoyed an enduring love affair. The impact of this relationship is seen in many aspects of American life. The automobile industry has had a profound impact on the economy, captured the imagination of millions, and become a symbol for American ingenuity. In recent years, various media outlets have speculated that the relationship has begun to cool and that the best days are in the rearview mirror. Fortune, however, argues that “America’s love affair with its cars is far from over.”
The automobile was born in Europe but matured in the United States. A German patent was issued to Karl Benz in 1886, but it was Henry Ford who made the automobile a reality for the masses. The Model T was introduced in 1908, and by 1927 more than 15 million had been sold. Henry Ford’s innovation laid the foundation for a lasting relationship between Americans and automobiles. From 1908 until today, the automobile has undergone stunning changes. Vehicles have constantly evolved and have emerged as a mainstay in American life.
Despite the presence of vehicles in virtually every aspect of American life, many media outlets have predicted that America’s relationship with automobiles has reached its peak and is on the decline. Some point to the 1950’s and 1960’s as the zenith of American car culture. They identify the flashy vehicles of the era as a symbol of the heyday. Fortune believes that Americans are not losing affection for their vehicles, but getting smarter with how to use them.
There are several reasons to repudiate fears that American car culture is in decline. For one, vehicles are currently selling at all-time rates. There are now four vehicles for every five Americans, which is a new record. There were concerns that millennials would be the generation that turned their back on vehicle ownership, yet that trend is looking unlikely. CNBC believes “The American love affair with cars isn’t dead—it’s just being reshaped by Millennials.” Millennials typically prefer smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles than previous generations.
The automobile has long been a means to express individuality. In the past, automobile owners would show their personality with the brand of their vehicles. Supporting a particular brand was similar to supporting a sports team, with allegiances rarely changing. Today, drivers care less about the brand of a vehicle and more about the tech options in the vehicle. With a plethora of available options, drivers care more about what their vehicle can offer inside than the name on the hood.
Road trips and the idea of the open road have captured the American imagination for decades. Tales of traversing the country have been a mainstay in American songs, movies, and books. Naysayers have routinely predicted the romance between Americans and automobiles would fizzle, but the opposite has proved to be true. Vehicles today may not resemble the vehicles featured in American Graffiti, but that does not mean the affair is ending. It is merely changing. Americans and automobiles are in it for the long haul.