Do Americans still love cars?

Hi there

I’m Tom. Although I was born in Europe and still live there, I’m a regular Car Talk listener.
First heard Tom&Ray almost 6 years back. Got so much into it, I never missed a single episode since 2008!

Now, chit-chat over. Currently I’m finishing an M.A. project at my university (which is located in Poland, Eastern Europe) and thought this may be the right place to ask that question.

I’m particularly interested in America’s love affair with the automobile. Namely, is that feeling still around? What may be the reasons according to you?
Or is it only another urban legend, another myth instilled to us in Europe?

Thanks a lot for your input!
I’ll monitor the thread, as I’m really curious about what you say.
Getting your perspective is priceless for me.


Some Americans love cars, but some are very clueless. I’d guess that America is such a big country that the car represented a way for Americans to see the country, and be independent. Our passenger railway system isn’t very good, compared to Europe and much of the rest of the world. Our interstate highway system, conceived in the '50’s and build in the '60’s does a good job at connecting just about all areas of the USA.

The car therefore is the most common way to move around America. I think there are car lover’s in just about every society. In America the type of car we developed were big cars, that were comfortable and smooth on the long distance drives common in America.

Europe as a whole as a much better public transportation system than the U.S. has. So in many places in Europe particularly the cities, you don’t necessarily need a car. Also many places in Europe predate the car, they tend to be more pedestrian or bicycle friendly. In the U.S. many cities and communities are built around the car, and the U.S. is typically more spread out than much of Europe is, couple that with either lackluster or no public transportation at all, and suddenly having a car is very much a necessity in many areas of the country.

Where I live for example, there is no bus service, no regular taxi service and certainly no metro/light rail service, so I drive basically everywhere. Which I have no problem as I like to drive.

Also there’s the issue of the economics of it. In the U.S. fuel and insurance are comparatively inexpensive compared to most of Europe. My daily driver has a supercharged petrol V8, I also have a pickup truck with a petrol V8, and a 39 year old roadster with a petrol I6. I pay about $95 USD a month for comprehensive insurance on the Mustang, and TR6, and liability for the F-150. In most European countries, I would likely be paying significantly more than that. Car ownership is quite inexpensive here, and it’s one of the reasons car ownership levels are high, and as I mentioned before many people depend on their cars to go everywhere, it makes sense that Americans as a whole love their cars.

With that said a lot of younger people aren’t as car-happy as previous generations, they don’t necessarily want a car, but often times they need one, and they are largely indifferent to what kind of car they have, all they care about is how cheap it is to acquire and how cheap it is to run. Back when I was 16, me and my like mined friends would discuss the pros and cons of what cylinder heads or exhaust systems we’d like to put on our rides, and on Friday nights we would wash and wax our cars after school and head down to the football (grid iron) game and maybe do some burnouts in the school parking lot after the game. We had genuine attachments to our cars and we learned all we could about them. These days it’s different, many kids today see cars as appliances and nothing more, there are still some gearheads out there, but there are a lot less than there used to be. It’s sort of sad IMHO.

I have similar thoughts as @fodaddy. My quick thought is it is not as much as a love vs a need. In the olden days for me and my buds a car something you fixed, maintained, customized and could feel a sense of accomplishment about keeping running and maintaining yourself. Cars now are complex, so many items are disposable rather than repairable, and require specialized equipment that I feel the love of cars has lost a large percentage of the population, and cars are now a disposable necessity.

Its pretty hard to generalize about all Americans the same as it is about all Europeans but cars will always be needed here due to the large expanses of space that cannot be accommodated by public transit. Over the years part of the spark went out of the joys of cars when they quit making yearly body changes and it became hard to tell one make from another. When they all look bland and the same, its just hard to get excited about them. I do think one word of difference though is INDEPENDENCE. Americans like to be independent and decide where and when to go somewhere on their own and not relying on public transport with the crowds. They don’t like someone else telling them what to do or how to do it so public transit, except out of necessity or in big cites will never be what it is in other places.

Of course some do. But, not so nearly as many as in the past. What can compete with the IPhone, pad, pod etc. There are many more diversions today and travel is less dependent on the car, or at least one car. Leasing has also taken away that ownership/pride/love we had for cars. Plus, with styling more genericaly geared to a wind tunnel, it’s hard to wear your car with the distinctive style as you could in the past.

Yes. There are some Americans who love cars (and trucks) but not to the extent that they once did. I believe part of the fault is the cookie cutter design of modern vehicles and their computerized complexity. In my day…most males and a few females were very adept at keeping their vehicles running for very little money. Those days are gone since vehicles are now computerized and the cost of parts has gone skyward.

You could buy plugs, points, condenser, rotor and distributor cap for about $10 and have a smooth running engine in less than an hour. We were always attentive to our engine/transmission/differential fluid levels and to the sounds of our particular vehicles. To top it off…gas was less than 50 cents a gallon when I started driving. You could cruise most of the night on a couple dollars worth of gas. Our newer young adult have to pay through the nose for all things transportation related. When you take the fun out of something…it’s very hard sometimes to be excited about it.

In the 1950s & 1960s, there was a mass migration of people from the cities to suburban areas.
Similarly, many industrial jobs moved to suburban areas.
Because those suburban areas had little or no public transportation, cars were essential for the folks who lived there.

Fast forward to recent years, when younger folks have re-populated urban areas where mass transit is abundant, and cars are either unnecessary or an actual burden to their owners, and you can see a major change in orientation to whether cars are necessary or not.

So…my answer is that whether an American is still in love with his car is highly dependent on where that American lives. If he/she is in his/her 20s/30s/40s, and is living in a vibrant urban area with abundant mass transit, then cars are likely not important to these people.

On the other hand, if you value clean air and quiet surroundings (as I do, and as many other folks in their 50s, 60s, and 70s do), then living in the suburbs and in rural areas makes the ownership of a car to be vital to one’s existence.

Where I live, the public transportation system is quite horrendous.

And the weather gets pretty hot in the summer.

So you’re going to have a heat stroke waiting for the bus.

And if you work odd hours (graveyard shift or start very early in the morning, as I do), you might have a hard time getting to work, as buses do not run 24/7. And if there is a connection, you may have to switch buses several times.

A car is an absolute necessity where I live.

I look at it this way, America was in Love with the car, but then it married it, forsaking all other modes of short distance transportation. Now Americans and their cars are like an old married couple.

Californians once had the hottest love affair with the car, but now are almost in a hostile relationship. Parking spaces are actually smaller than all but the smallest cars, gas stations are many miles apart and the roads are falling apart, becoming some of the worse in the country. You’d think they were headed for divorce court.

I recall some time ago reading about getting a driver license in Germany which a serious, expensive process. Here in the US, it is simple and inexpensive to get a regular, not a commercial driver license. The driving test is very cursory; does not test for any emergency situation. The capability of drivers varies but overall is not a problem for someone with a measure of tolerance.

Public transportation here is possible in urban areas and to the next heavily populated urban area but is quite lacking in most small towns in areas away from big cities. Greyhound buses used to go almost everywhere but I almost never see one now.

Lack of a car or a driver license is problematic for the very young, the very old, the handicapped and an increasing number of people who can’t afford or don’t want to afford to keep a car.


FWIW . . . I have both a German driver’s license (because that’s where I was born and lived for my first few decades) AND a California Class B air brake commercial license

The German driver’s license is no joke

Getting the commercial license, on the other hand, was almost comical

There was no verification that I had spent x number of hours behind the wheel

I learned parallel parking the 5 yard dump truck the day before the driving test

By myself, because nobody wanted to show me

I learned hill holding with the clutch the day before the driving test

By myself, because nobody wanted to show me

I even had to find a suitable truck and make it roadworthy

FWIW . . . I passed the driving test with a pretty good margin the next day

That was a few years ago and I’m now comfortable driving those monsters

Of course, since I also repair them for a living, I HAVE to feel comfortable driving them

Thanks a lot, everyone!
Getting the American perspective is priceless for me.

Just out of interest - are there any books/movies/dissertations that you’d recommend on that topic?

I agree with uncle turbo. Because of the sheer distances that you need to cover here, cars are everywhere. Not sure whether I’d call that a ‘love affair’, tho. Just having a car and liking it, does that mean you’re ‘into’ cars?
It is more an appliance like a toaster or a washing machine, but also something that some people get rid over time of because the style has changed.
The way people ‘like’ cars is a bit superficial, if you ask me.

@WhaWho America is very different from Euope in a number of ways. In our great democracy we believe in the right to drive (whether we even have the basic capabilities) and the right to a university education (whether or not we have the mental capacity to get one).

Of the two the education part was the easiest to solve, just lower the standards to where nearly everyone can pass. College credits for saw filing and basket weaving horrifies European visitors. Such skill are taught in trade schools there.

The driving part is the real dilemna. Without good public transportation and bicycles being impractical in many situations, we’ve had to lower the test standards to where nearly everyone medically fit can pass. In England, like Germany, the tests are brutal, and most British drivers fail at their first attempt. One woman in her late fiftes, finally passed after over 20 attempts!!!

But public transportation is very good in most European countries there and distances are short. My brother has lived in England, just West of London, for 5 years now and can’t be bothered owning a car. He rents one if he want to take a vacation trip.

I can find at least one car show where owners can show off their rides on Saturday or Sunday when the weather is nice (about 7 months).

@jtsanders Yes, here we have 5 old car/hot rod shows per season, one where the entire downtown of a 20,000 population town is dedicted to antique and specialty cars.

One shopping mall has an annual “Nifty Fifties” Ford and other car diplays. Not limited to Fifities cars. Last year there was even a Volvo sports car as driven by Roger Moore, “The Saint” in the British TV series. It had only 700 original miles on it; a real collector item.

On my street alone there is a young chap with an original Boss 302 Mustang, a guy with a 70s Plymouth Satellite with the big Hemi, a dedicated owner of a fully restored 1956 Chev, a Model T owner, and an Austin Healy Spite.

Most have 3 car garages, while others, rent space somewhere or get the use of a space from retired couple with only one car.

“Most have 3 car garages…”

In my neck of the woods, the newest (and most expensive) homes have 3 car garages, while the bulk of the older home stock–like mine–has 2 car garages. However, regardless of the number of cars that these garages can theoretically hold, I have observed that only a minority of the owners actually park their cars in them.

When the garage doors are open, you can almost always see that these garages are filled with…boxes…and…God only knows what other stuff. What I find most amazing about this phenomenon is that the houses are all 2,000 sq. ft. (if not more) with full basements, accessible attics, and backyard storage sheds.

Whenever I have moved, I have used the garage as the staging area for unpacking boxes after moving into the new house. I have always set 2 weeks as my goal to complete this task, as human nature is to defer things if you have not set a specific time frame for them–and I have always met that goal. However, most of my neighbors have not yet gotten their sh*t together sufficiently (after 17 years) so that they can unload that accumulated mass from their garages.

And then they wonder why my cars always look showroom new after 9 or 10 years, while theirs look faded and weather-worn after just 4 years or so…

@VDCDriver Yes, most garages are full of “stuff”! A family down the street has a new Dodge Ram 4WD crew cab and a new Nissan Altima, while the son in college has a 2 year old Nissan Sentra. All three cars (worth $75,000 or so) are in the driveway or on the street, while the garage is full of maybe $600 worth of stuff. They redid the kitchen last year and the old dishwasher, worth $0, is still sitting in the garage.

We have a normal double garage and have the 8 winter tires, lawn mower, ladders, Recycling BIN, tools and various implements, like chain saw and trimmers on peg board racks along the wall. An 8x8 garden shed holds everything else. Nothing in the driveway except two large wooden flower pots.

And, to top it off, Doc, then we have the problem of snow removal with multiple cars sitting in one’s driveway!

Because my driveway is clear of obstacles, I am able to clear the entire driveway with the snowblower and a bit of shoveling in about 45 minutes. It takes the neighbors whose cars sit in the driveway…maybe two hours to hand-shovel in and around their cars, and they usually wind up doing a really Half-A**ed job, simply because they have so little room to work in and around their cars.

And, of course, these folks wouldn’t have to scrape their windshields if they cleared their garages so that they could actually park there.

You would think that a couple of winters of this would convince people to get their act together sufficiently so that they could actually park their cars in their garages, but…apparently not.