The Big Book of Car Culture: The Armchair Guide to Automotive Americana

by Jim Hinckley and Jon G. Robinson

Published by Motorbooks/MBI Publishing

320 pages, 2005



Movin' On Down the Highway

Reviewed by Holly Day


The Big Book of Car Culture is going to mean something different to whichever generation reads it. To me, a child of the 1970s, the book was a nostalgic reminder of traveling in the back of my parents' VW minibus, stopping at all sorts of crazy roadside diners run by crazy-haired matrons, parking on the shoulder of whatever empty road we were traveling down to camp out for the night. To the generations before me, this book will likely bring up all sorts of wonderful memories of watching the passing shapes and sizes and ideals that made up the evolution of the automobile. To Generation Y and beyond, there'll probably be a whole lot of wondering head-scratching at the very notion of a "road trip" or even the concept that not all cars have to look exactly the same, since obviously, one bland, streamlined shape serves everyone so well. I guess I'm just a bitter old lady, still stuck on fancy tail fins and chrome hubcaps.

There is something to the fact that too many people today seem to think the purpose of a road trip is to reach the destination, instead of taking the whole ride in as part of the package. The Big Book of Car Culture is full of beautiful and novel places that used to lure travelers to briefly stop and gawk, like gigantic duck- or shoe-shaped diners, bizarre little museums that refuse to advertise what you're paying to see (like the museum to The Thing! which was also frustratingly not revealed in the book). Wonderful little independent food stands -- like the one that invented the corn dog -- and curio shops that once stretched along Route 66 have now almost all disappeared due to travelers' preference for taking the quicker interstate routes. Those shiny diners have mostly all been replaced by giant fast food chains that have nothing to lose by the decrease in traffic.

Aside from the journey, authors Jim Hinckley and Jon G. Robinson all pay great attention to the evolution of the modern automobile, with sections dedicated to the independent car inventors that paraded out design after design up until the 1950s, when the government placed regulation on the industry. The fantastically beautiful Duesenberg (ever wonder where the phrase, "It's a Duesy/doozy?" comes from?) is profiled, as is a variety alternative-powered vehicles, eight-wheeled cars, the Checker cab company, and the Ford Model-T. There's also a short section on the Harley-Davidson company, its founders and "electric bicycles" in general.

All of that would be enough for one book, but there's still more to come. There are short segments on police technology, hotel and motel chains across the country, automobile graveyards, tourist traps, crash test dummies, dealership giveaways and roller coaster rides, all with accompanying period photographs and postcards. Perhaps it's in this all-inclusive approach that the book starts to run into trouble. There's a lot of information here, and there's not enough room in its 315 pages of text to flesh anything out to great detail. Hence, I suppose, the term "armchair guide." There aren't a lot of new photographs here, either, and if a site listed in a book like this is still in existence, I would prefer to see at least one recent photograph as opposed to a single one that's nearly 30 years old. Overall, though, The Big Book of Car Culture is really beautiful to look at, and is a good overview of the impact automobiles have made on our everyday life and the face of America in general. | January 2006


Holly Day works as a high school journalism instructor and an entertainment columnist in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her work has most recently appeared LO-FI Magazine, California Quarterly and Brutarian Magazine.