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Teaching the Global Twentieth Century Through the History of the Automobile

Karen Robert


     The speed and complexity of change in the twentieth century make it a particularly challenging period for both scholars and teachers of world history.1 Without the advantage of hindsight, it can be difficult for historians to tease out logical patterns, identify meaningful connections, and prioritize one factor of change over another. This challenge can be most palpable in a sweeping introductory survey course, where the twentieth century often feels like a race to the finish line. The broad themes and interconnections carried through earlier topics such as the Silk Roads or the Columbian Exchange can fall apart under such pressures, and contemporary processes such as globalization and industrial expansion can get lost among the century's many wars and tragedies.

     My undergraduate course entitled "The Global History of the Automobile" addresses many of these challenges by inviting students to explore the last century through the genealogy of the car, an object most of them take for granted. While many students find cars intrinsically interesting, they rarely consider them critically as historical artefacts or imagine that they might have unique histories and distinctive meanings outside of North America. The course takes a broad approach to the history of mass motorization, exploring the automobile's relationship to industrial production, labour struggles, consumerism, changing conceptions of time and space, and environmental transformation. It introduces students to theoretical insights drawn from disciplines such as political economy, anthropology, and cultural theory and helps them learn to think historically by taking a familiar object and making it strange.2 In fact, by the end of the course, what most surprises students is the realization that the automotive system they take for granted is barely a century old.

     The automobile's power as a cultural symbol of modern industrial society also makes it a rich object of classroom exploration.3 Cars were celebrated in the early twentieth century as embodiments of modern speed, independence, and personal mobility. British intellectual Aldous Huxley declared in 1931 that the speed of motorized travel provided "the one genuinely modern pleasure," and artists like the Italian futurist Giacomo Balla tried to capture that sensation visually with painting techniques that evoked movement.4 The new medium of film was better suited to this task, however, and the early car companies invested heavily in their own film divisions to promote the vicarious thrill of driving and depict their vehicles conquering remote frontiers like the Sahara and Gobi deserts. In the 1920s, Detroit produced industrial films on a scale comparable to Hollywood's entertainment variety, and in France, audiences thrilled to the imperialist exploits of André Citroën's "Black Cruise," a filmed trans-Saharan expedition designed to promote the idea of automotive tourism within France's African colonies.5

     Luxury cars have also stood as the century's quintessential markers of prestige and new wealth; as such they have often galvanized public debate in societies undergoing rapid economic and political transformation. Since pedestrians and cyclists are the main victims in traffic accidents, particularly in the world's poorer regions, cars can be deadly markers of inequality.6 In 1960s Kenya, critics coined the Swahili term 'Wabenzi' to ridicule the new post-independence elite who showed off their status with imported luxuries like the Mercedes Benz.7 More recent controversies have emerged in China, where the country's nouveaux riche have attracted scorn for flaunting their extravagant vehicles, such as the Audi A6 (hence the derogatory term"A6ers").8 Finally, particular car models have sometimes stood as metonyms for specific political regimes. In Argentina, for instance, the Ford Falcon was evoked by artists and activists as a symbol of the military's widespread practice of 'disappearance' during the dictatorship of 1976 to 1983, while in re-unified Germany, the Trabant became an emblem of Ostalgie, or nostalgia for the Communist period.9

     Other world history instructors might consider using the history of the automobile as a window into contemporary modernization and globalization. Motorized vehicles and the millions of kilometres of paved roads built for them over the past century make up a network of global interconnection that is much more tangible, vivid, and human than the digital networks so often hyped in popular culture and emphasized in the globalization literature.10 As so many filmmakers and writers have shown us, the road trip makes for a fascinating story.11 Moreover, a burgeoning new interdisciplinary literature has now made it possible to explore the car's history on a global scale. In what follows I will briefly synthesize the key contributions of this new scholarship and indicate its points of intersection with world history before sharing some specific teaching strategies and resources.

Scholarly Approaches to Global Automobility

     Over the past two decades, scholars have expanded the study of the automobile well beyond issues of engineering and economics. Working in a variety of disciplines, they have examined the social, cultural, gender and environmental dimensions of automobile production and consumption.12 They have also explored beyond the familiar worlds of U.S. and European 'car culture' to reveal the unique histories of motorization in places as distinct as the Soviet Union, Zambia, and Brazil.13 While most of this new literature still focuses on the local and national level where so much empirical research remains to be done, these studies have decentered our assumptions about cars and their place within global modernity. For instance, a group of experts recently proclaimed the arrival of the motor vehicle to be "the single most important factor for change" in twentieth-century Africa, despite the fact that Africa remains the continent with the lowest per capita car ownership.14 Like other transportation breakthroughs more familiar to teachers of world history, such as the sixteenth-century maritime revolution or the nineteenth-century spread of railways and steamships, the automotive revolution has produced unexpected and contradictory effects across the world.

     A handful of scholars have undertaken transnational approaches to automotive history. For instance, in her book Forces of Labor: Workers' Movements and Globalization Since the 1870s, historical sociologist Beverly Silver makes a powerful argument that modern automotive plants transformed twentieth-century politics by acting as focal points of labor unrest and grassroots organizing.15 These monumental industrial facilities dwarfed the textile mills and iron works of earlier industrialization phases. Though Fordism's emphasis on unskilled and interchangeable workers undermined older craft trades and associations, it paradoxically made autoworkers into a new kind of mass political force by concentrating them in huge numbers and giving them unique power within industrial economies. In one location after another – from the U.S. to Europe, South America to Korea—shop-floor activists in the auto plants used strategic actions such as sit-down strikes to paralyze production. Their pivotal role within entire national economies won them historic wage concessions, making them the "aristocracy of labor" in their respective countries. Many also became leaders within broader democratic movements that challenged authoritarian regimes in places such as Spain, Brazil, South Africa, and South Korea. According to Silver, Fordism thus contributed in unexpected ways to the spread of democratic citizenship in the twentieth century.16

     In a different approach, historian Bernhard Rieger has traced the history of a single model, the Volkswagen Beetle, as a window into global commodity culture.17 He argues persuasively for the Beetle's status as a transnational commodity beginning with its origins in Nazi Germany, where it combined French and Czech design elements, American managerial techniques, and labor (both free and forced) drawn from a variety of European countries. In the latter half of the century Volkswagen carried the Beetle into global markets, carefully adapting its brand to local sensibilities and underplaying its German origins. The car thrived through the end of the century as "an icon with multiple nationalities" embraced equally by Americans, Mexicans, and Brazilians as part of their own cultural landscapes.18 By tracing the Beetle's multiple identity shifts as it crossed borders and political regimes, Rieger's study fits well with a commodities approach to world history, more commonly applied to raw materials exchanges.19 It also challenges approaches that simplistically equate globalization with Americanization.

     In "The Global History of the Automobile" course, students explore the following questions: How did our current motorized world come to be? How did the automotive revolution of the past century transform societies and ecologies and deepen global interconnections? To pull together the many threads of this story, we rely on the concept of automobility, coined and refined by social scientists such as John Urry and Matthew Paterson.20 Automobility comprises the dynamic and, I would emphasize, global system that has rendered the automobile a ubiquitous feature of modern life and made possible the act of driving itself as a unique form of individualized mobility.21 It embodies the mass production techniques and marketing strategies that have underpinned mass motorization; the marshalling of vast natural resources including oil, rubber, and metals demanded by the automotive sector; the global consumer culture that has evolved and expanded around cars; the primacy of automotive transportation over other forms of mobility (such as cycling or walking); and the spatial and ecological impacts of mass automobile use.22

     Political economist Matthew Paterson argues that just as cars provided drivers with new experiences of speed, the system of automobility brought about a 'speed-up' of capitalist accumulation in the twentieth century.23 To begin, the automobile industry introduced new mass production methods that profoundly expanded capitalism's productive capacities and deepened its demand for raw materials. The classic example here would be Henry Ford's monumental River Rouge plant, one of the largest industrial complexes ever built. At its height, the Rouge employed 100,000 workers and drew massive quantities of iron, steel, and rubber into its integrated port and warehousing facilities.24 Fordist production methods also transformed societies by imposing new forms of work discipline and organization, provoking the kinds of shopfloor resistance described in Beverly Silver's work.

     The drive to expand consumption was intrinsic to this growth in production. As early car interests knew, they needed to foster in people a deep and enduring desire for cars and for the new experience of driving in order to expand their markets and mobilize governments around the world to build the costly infrastructure required for mass motorization.25 Henry Ford's rival at General Motors, Alfred Sloan, introduced marketing innovations that complemented Ford's efficient production methods. Recognizing that buyers valued their cars as markers of prestige and social mobility more than as utilitarian machines, Sloan developed a hierarchy of makes and models to appeal to different market niches. By releasing new models every year and carrying superficial design features through the product line, Sloan coaxed buyers to 'trade up' often.26 General Motors and the other car makers poured money into advertising and promotional gimmicks to convey these complex messages to early buyers: that cars were safe, viable, fun, and sure signs of personal success.27 They sponsored new magazines and radio programs, professionalized motorsports to give non-drivers a vicarious experience of speed, promoted car tourism through published maps and travel guides, and offered potential buyers new forms of consumer credit.28 These methods extended globally in the interwar period as the big firms sought new buyers on every continent. For example, in the 1920s and 1930s Ford and General Motors were the first commercial interests to build national marketing and retail networks in large non-industrialized countries like Brazil and Argentina.29

     Finally, as motorized travel did expand, it accelerated the circulation of people and commodities as never before. Cars and trucks could cut across landscapes with a speed and flexibility that far outstripped any earlier mode of transportation, and drivers and passengers in all parts of the world gained access to new sites and forms of consumption. Though the examples most readily brought to mind might include the shopping malls and fast food outlets that proliferated in the post-war United States, in fact access to motorized transport had equally profound effects on more marginal regions of the world economy. For example, remote aboriginal communities in Northern Australia began to use cars not only to facilitate hunting and expand their access to ritual sites, but also to access new commercial markets for their art work.30 Motorized vehicles also opened up new opportunities in sub-Saharan Africa, where geography and disease had posed challenges to long-distance travel and where nineteenth-century rail networks had failed to integrate large regions of the continent.31

     As Paterson reminds us, this system of automobility has always been open to contestation. In the early twentieth century, people adapted to and resisted the new work regimes and dangers associated with the automobile, while countries competed to motorize their own economies, shore up their military defences, and replicate the prosperity achieved in the United States.32 Through the high modernist decades of mid-century the Soviet Union, Brazil, Canada, South Africa, South Korea, and others embraced automotive production as the cornerstone of industrial modernization and progress.33 Japan later emerged as a challenger for the global car market. Yet by century's end, the promises associated with mass motorization had begun to seem hollow. The world had successfully built a global transportation system dependent upon oil and sustained by nearly twenty million miles of roadway, though with great inequalities of access.34 Yet that system had contributed to intractable problems shared by all: pollution, climate change, military conflicts over oil, enormous traffic-related death tolls, and the car's destructive invasion and reordering of space.35 In the world's largest cities even the early thrill of speed had been reversed, as millions of daily commuters found themselves trapped in gridlock.36 Activists, researchers, and entrepreneurs around the world turned to newer digital networks to coordinate their efforts to bring about a more sustainable 'post-car' world.37

Teaching Resources

     Though the theoretical writing about cars may be too difficult for high school and even some college students, many accessible and engaging materials are available to get students thinking critically about automobility on a broad geographic scale. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the richest sources for classroom use date from the first decades of the twentieth century, when global automobility was in its formative period. It is easier for students to connect with the idea of automobility as a social construction when they can see that system in its early years, before it was fully formed. Moreover, much of the social history literature focuses on this period when the auto plant assembly lines were first in operation and when artists and observers still found the speed of driving to be new and exciting. Cars figured prominently in modernist art and literature, and early advertisements and promotional films offered transparently didactic messages, making them ideal material for class discussions and assignments.

General Works

Flink, James J. The Automobile Age. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988.

———. The Car Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1975.

Volti, Rudi. Cars and Culture: The Life Story of a Technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

A brief and accessible primer on car history that surveys both technological changes and social history, though focused mainly on the United States and Western Europe. This book is well suited to high school or undergraduate students.

Urry, J. "The 'System' of Automobility." Theory Culture & Society 21, no. 4–5 (October 2004): 25–39.

Provides a comprehensive definition of automobility.

Wollen, Peter, and Joe Kerr. Autopia: Cars and Culture. Reaktion Books, 2003.

Contains short articles and visual essays on many aspects of automobile culture, with a truly global focus.

Fordism, Consumerism, and Modernism

     As historian Joel Wolfe has noted, Fordism/Sloanism is best understood as "a set of ideas about the relationship between production and consumption," that laid the foundation for the twentieth century's global consumer society.38 As word spread about the new prosperity created in Detroit and the astonishing mobility achieved through widespread motorization in 1920s America, those ideas resonated powerfully with modernizing nation-builders around the world. For them Detroit was a kind of modernist Jerusalem onto which they projected their own aspirations for progress.39 The following primary and secondary works provide insight into the changes wrought by mass motorization in the United States and the ways they were interpreted and taken up in other parts of the world.

Downs, Linda. Diego Rivera: The Detroit Industry Murals New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.

The definitive study of this monumental artistic tribute to Fordism painted by Mexican muralist and Communist Party member Diego Rivera in the early 1930s. Rivera idealized the immense scale of human labour, modern technology, and natural resources brought together in Ford's River Rouge plant, though his murals barely registered the consumption side of Fordism. He also appropriated Dearborn as part of a broader 'America' that also included the peoples and resources of Latin America.

Students can examine a panoramic view of the murals at:

Mao, Tun. Midnight. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1957 [1933].

A literary depiction of 1920s Shanghai by one of China's most renowned realist novelists. Its first chapter includes a rich evocation of cars as symbols of modernity and cosmopolitanism.

Rieger, Bernhard. The People's Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Traces the Beetle's transformation and reinvention as a global commodity.

Ross, Kristin. Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture. The MIT Press, 1996.

Ross analyzes the cultural and social transformations that accompanied France's embrace of Fordist-style industrialization as embodied in commodities such as the automobile.

Sachs, Wolfgang. For Love of the Automobile: Looking Back into the History of our Desires. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

A lively cultural history of the automobile in Germany that includes illustrations and excerpts of primary sources. Sachs, a prominent environmentalist, brings a critical eye to Germany's 'love of the automobile,' but he takes seriously the cultural appeal of cars and their promise of freedom. The chapter on Nazi car culture is particularly engaging and works well with students.

Siegelbaum, Lewis. Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008.

Siegelbaum demonstrates how Soviet policy-makers partnered with Henry Ford to build their vision of a Communist Detroit. They embraced the modern technology and mass organization of Fordism but tried, with mixed success, to mitigate the individualism and consumerism associated with car culture.

Stearns, Peter. Consumerism in World History: The Global Transformation of Desire. London: Routledge, 2006.

Though not exclusively about cars, Stearns' work does make a case for seeing the automobile as the century's most symbolically significant consumer good.

Wolfe, Joel. Autos and Progress: The Brazilian Search for Modernity Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Wolfe explores Brazilian efforts at modernization and national unity through a history of Brazilian car culture. He shows that Brazilians were enthusiastic about mass motorization and deeply admired aspects of American car culture even while they sought to make the car Brazilian.

Labor and Politics

Chaplin, Charlie. "Modern Times" DVD, 87 min. New York: Criterion Collection, 1936.

The classic film send-up of Fordist/Taylorist industrial production methods. The opening scenes work wonderfully in the classroom and can be juxtaposed with industry films promoting these methods, such as General Motors'"The Easier Way," (available at which teaches supervisors "how to convince skeptics" to accept the benefits of Taylorist work rhythms.

Freyssenet, Michel. The Second Automobile Revolution: Trajectories of the World Carmakers in the 21st Century. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

The opening and closing essays of this collection provide a convincing overview of recent global shifts in the automotive sector and point to the social and environmental implications of mass motorization in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China).

Grandin, Greg. Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009.

This work examines Henry Ford's grand failed experiment to transplant Fordist production regimes to his massive rubber operation in the Amazon rainforest, where local social realities and complex ecosystems undermined Fordist systems of order and efficiency. Also useful for the environmental theme (below).

Pizzolato, Nicola. "Workers and Revolutionaries at the Twilight of Fordism: The Breakdown of Industrial Relations in the Automobile Plants of Detroit and Turin, 1967-1973." Labor History 45, no. 4 (November 2004): 419–43.

Pizzolato, like Beverly Silver, argues that restructuring in automotive production methods came in response to labor militancy.

Silver, Beverly J. Forces of Labor: Workers' Movements and Globalization Since 1870. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Silver not only points to similar patterns of labor mobilization in the auto sectors of different countries, she argues that these struggles propelled the international expansion of automotive production, as carmakers sought new locations with more passive workforces.

United Auto Workers. "75th Anniversary of the Flint Sit-Down Strike." 8:53 min. (Accessed March 12, 2015).

Includes original footage and interviews.

Wolfe, Joel. Autos and Progress. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Wolfe's final chapter illustrates the central role played by Brazilian autoworkers, led by future Brazilian president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, in Brazil's democratic transition.

The Car as Technology of Empire

Though not always counted alongside the grand technologies that facilitated late nineteenth-century imperialism, such as the railway, steamship, and Gatling gun, motorized vehicles were also used by business interests and colonial agents to reach into new territories and demonstrate the industrial countries' technological superiority. The new scholarship demonstrates that cars and trucks were also more easily appropriated and adapted by local peoples.

Bloom, Peter J. "The Trans-Saharan Crossing Films: Colonial Cinematic Projections of the French Automobile." In French Colonial Documentary: Mythologies of Humanitarianism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2008.

Bloom analyzes the way cinema and automotive technologies came together in these films of trans-Saharan driving expeditions to project images of French modernity contrasted with African stasis. Examples of these films can be found on Youtube.

Campanella, Thomas J. "'The Civilizing Road': American Influence on the Development of Highways and Motoring in China, 1900-1949." Journal of Transport History 26, n. 1 (2005): 78-98.

Explores the role of American business interests and experts in shaping China's early road policies.

Clarsen, Georgine. "Machines as the Measure of Women: Colonial Irony in a Cape to Cairo Automobile Journey, 1930." Journal of Transport History 29, no. 1 (March 2008): 44–63.

Explores the links between gender, mobility, and imperialism through the story of female overland travelers in East Africa at a time when assumptions of British colonial and industrial superiority were being challenged.

Gewald, Jan-Bart. " Missionaries, Hereros, and Motorcars: Mobility and the Impact of Motor Vehicles in Namibia Before 1940." International Journal of African Historical Studies 35, n. 2 (2002), 257-285.

Gewald traces the ways motorized travel transformed relationships and power dynamics between German missionaries and Herero people in Namibia. An excellent work of social history, this article also shows how motorized vehicles were appropriated by Herero leaders to assert local cultural pride.

Green-Simms, Lindsey. "The Return of the Mercedes: From Ousmane Sembene to Kenneth Nnebue" in Viewing African Cinema in the Twenty-First Century: Art Films and the Nollywood Video Revolution (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2010), 209-224.

Discusses the way contemporary filmmakers in West Africa have countered imperialist discourses through their often absurd depictions of automobiles.

Handy Jam Organization. "General Motors Around the World." 1927. Available at

This General Motors promotional film uses classic imperialist tropes to cast General Motors' global expansion as a civilizing mission to bring automobility to the world. Other industrial films can also be found at the Prelinger Archive, an open-source archive of ephemeral film.

Salvatore, Ricardo Donato. "Imperial Mechanics: South America's Hemispheric Integration in the Machine Age." American Quarterly 58, no. 3 (2006): 662–91.

A discussion of the importance of automobiles and highway projects to the shaping of an informal American empire in South America.

Impacts on Time and Space

Mass motorization extended the 'annihilation of time and space' first brought about by the nineteenth-century transportation revolution, both by providing drivers with new experiences of speed and autonomy, and by opening up new overland frontiers to long-distance travel.

Duffy, Enda. The Speed Handbook: Velocity, Pleasure, Modernism. Duke University Press Books, 2009.

This theoretical work explores the politics of speed as associated with modernity and freedom in the early twentieth century.

Volkswagen Canada. "Once More, The Story of VIN 903847." (accessed March 15, 2015).

A 30-minute documentary and interactive website prepared by Volkswagen Canada, "Once More" chronicles the global travels of Paul Loofs, a German-Canadian who drove the same Volkswagen Beetle around the world on three different trips between 1951 and 1971. Though intended as a VW promotion, the site offers wonderful resources for students to understand the new possibilities and experiences of long-distance car travel in the mid-20th century. Includes still photos, a map, and diary entries from Loofs' trips.

Ostashevsky, Eugene. "Italian Futurism and the Cult of the Machine." (accessed March 12, 2015).

A brief and accessible visual essay that raises questions about the Futurist celebration of mechanized speed.

Petrov, Evgeny and Ilya Ilf. Ilf and Petrov's American Road Trip: The 1935 Travelogue of Two Soviet Writers. Erika Wolf, ed. Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006.

A satirical account of a roadtrip across the United States in the interwar period, written by two special correspondents for the Soviet newspaper Pravda. An entertaining read, it provides surprising insights into Soviet perceptions of American society and mobility.

Seiler, Cotten. "The significance of race to transport history."Journal Of Transport History28, no. 2 (2007): 307-311.

A short piece that posits that the experience of speed and autonomy enjoyed by early drivers be understood as a privilege linked to global systems of racial hierarchy.

The Social Life of Cars

These resources offer ethnographic insights into the social meanings of cars in societies where private vehicle ownership and conspicuous consumption are not part of the prevailing 'car culture,' whether because of poverty, isolation, or state controls on private property. Where cars and money are scarce, vehicles can serve complex social functions and demand resourcefulness and creativity from the people who depend on them. Rather than treat these societies as imperfect versions of North American driving culture, students can be encouraged to question their own assumptions about consumption and individualism.

Altman, J. and Melinda Hinkson, " Mobility and Modernity in Arnhem Land: The Social Universe of Kuninjku Trucks." Journal of Material Culture 12, no. 2 (2007), 181-203.

A sophisticated analysis that shows how trucks have, over several decades, mediated relationships within this aboriginal community as well as with the Australian state and global networks. Includes information on the strategies used by community members to obtain and gain the use of motorized vehicles.

Colburn, Forrest. My Car in Managua. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.

A brief and highly readable description of the daily survival strategies of ordinary Nicaraguans in the late years of the Sandinista regime, told through Colburn's efforts to buy and maintain a used car in the context of the U.S. trade embargo and proxy war against Nicaragua.

Honigman, Heddi. "Metal and Melancholy." 80 min. Brooklyn: Icarus Films, 1993. (available for purchase at

An offbeat and at times disturbing documentary 'road movie' that follows middle-class professionals in Lima moonlighting as taxi drivers during Peru's debt crisis of the early 1990s. This film honors the ingenuity of people using their wits to keep their cars going in difficult economic circumstances.

Siegelbaum, Lewis H., ed. The Socialist Car: Automobility in the Eastern Bloc. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011.

This collection uses automobility as a window into the tensions and contradictions of state socialism in Eastern Europe.

Warlpiri Media Association. "Bush Mechanics" 2001.; (accessed March 25, 2015).

A documentary series celebrating the ingenuity of aboriginal 'bush mechanics' in the Australian interior and their ability to fix vehicles with any materials at hand.

Violence and Safety

Much of the recent critical literature about automobility has focused on the mortality associated with mass motorization and the way notions of traffic 'accidents' have been socially constructed.

Davis, Mike. Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb. London: Verso, 2008.

A compact and disturbing overview of the global spread of the car bomb: the weapon that, according to Davis, "gives claws to the weak".

Galeano, Eduardo. "The Sacred Car." In Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World. New York: Picador, 2001.

A polemical essay that uses traffic violence as evidence of the stark inequalities caused by neoliberal economic reforms in Latin America.

Moser, Kurt. "The Dark Side of 'Automobilism', 1900-30." Journal of Transport History 24, no. 2 (2003): 238–58.

Moser argues that early 20th century century motor sports helped foster a culture of aggression that prepared Europeans mentally and culturally for war.

Norton, Peter D. "Street Rivals: Jaywalking and the Invention of the Motor Age Street." Technology and Culture 48, no. 2 (2007): 331–59.

Traces the social conflicts that arose as drivers asserted the primacy of automobiles in early American city streets, which had previously been understood as public spaces.

United Nations. "World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims." (Accessed March 15, 2015).

This site, complete with photo gallery and public education materials, was prepared as part of the United Nations Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011-2020.

Automobility and the Environment

The environmental ramifications of automobility are vast enough to merit a course of their own. In the time available to us in this course, we address three broad themes: 1) resource extraction; 2) road building and spatial reordering; and 3) pollution and climate effects.

Conover, Ted. The Routes of Man: Travels in the Paved World. New York: Vintage, 2011.

Journalist Ted Conover travels to remote locations around the world and tells intimate, human stories of lives and eco-systems tranformed by the immense pace and scale of modern road building.

"Home" (documentary film by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, available freely online at

A visually moving film manifesto about the environmental impacts of the petroleum age, produced entirely with striking aerial footage. It is truly global in its reach and comes with an excellent teacher's guide. Highly recommended in general as a film exploration of the Anthropocene, but its focus on the past sixty years makes it a good fit for a car course.

McNeill, John R. Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century World. New York: W W Norton, 2001.

This comprehensive overview is about far more than automobiles. Yet among other themes, McNeill details the historic environmental impact of the petroleum age.

Paine, Chris. "Who Killed the Electric Car?" 92 min. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2006.

Paine's film traces the sobering story of General Motors' decision to scuttle its EV1 electric car project.

Paterson, Matthew. Automobile Politics: Ecology and Cultural Political Economy. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

A sophisticated analysis of the ecological politics underpinning mass automobility and the challenges facing efforts to break away from car dependency.

Tucker, Richard P. Insatiable Appetite: The United States and the Ecological Degradation of the Tropical World., Concise Revised Edition. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007.

Includes a chapter on the environmental impacts of intensive rubber production.

Challenging Automobility

The global automobile system has faced multiple challenges since the 1970s, including the international oil crisis, protests over highway building, consumer safety and environmental destruction, and the rise of new automotive economies and technologies. Many of the innovative solutions to the problems of automobility have come from the global south. In fact, French political economist Michel Freyssenet argues that the world is in the midst of a 'second automobile revolution' centered in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), where new technologies and emerging middle classes have the potential to transform the meaning of cars in the twenty-first century.40

Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (

A global NGO dedicated to helping cities promote sustainable transport systems. The website profiles innovative efforts to overcome car dependency around the world.

Macedo, J. "Planning a Sustainable City: The Making of Curitiba, Brazil." Journal of Planning History 12, no. 4 (2013): 334-353.

Excellent accompanying reading for the documentary "A Convenient Truth."

Mantel, Henriette and Steve Skrovan. "An Unreasonable Man." 122 min. 2007. (accessed March 15, 2015).

The opening section of this documentary about Ralph Nader recalls the drama surrounding Nader's clashes with General Motors in 1966 after the release of his book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile.

Vaz del Bello, Giovanni. "A Convenient Truth: Urban Solutions from Curitiba, Brazil." 52 min. Corte Madera, CA: Green Planet Films, 2007. Available for purchase or streaming at (accessed March 15, 2015).

An inspiring documentary about the sweeping urban reforms that transformed Curitiba, Brazil into a model of sustainable urbanism, including innovative experiments with car-free downtown streets and sustainable public transit.

Karen Robert is Associate Professor of Latin American and World History and Director of the Institute for World History at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. Her email is:


1 Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (New York: Vintage, 1996), ix.

2 Patrick Manning has urged world historians to more readily embrace theoretical approaches developed within other disciplines. Patrick Manning, "Methods and Materials," in Marnie Hughes-Warrington, ed., Palgrave Advances in World Histories (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2005), 53.

3 Roland Barthes, "The New Citroën," in Mythologies (New York: Vintage, 1972), 88-90; Peter Wollen, ed., Autopia: Cars and Culture (London: Reaktion, 2002), 11.

4 On Huxley, see Enda Duffy, The Speed Handbook: Velocity, Pleasure, Modernism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009); on the Futurists, see Walter Adamson, et al., Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2014). Peter Wollen's "Automobiles and Art" provides a good introductory overview, though with reference only to U.S and European examples. See Wollen, Autopia, 25-41.

5 Brian Oakes, "Building Films for Business: Jamison Handy and the Industrial Animation of the Jam Handy Organization," Film History 22, no. 1 (March 2010): 95-107; Peter J. Bloom, "The Trans-Saharan Crossing Films: Colonial Cinematic Projections of the French Automobile," in French Colonial Documentary: Mythologies of Humanitarianism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

6 David Brown, "Report: Pedestrians and Cyclists Account for Almost Half of Traffic Deaths," The Washington Post, (accessed March 12 2015); World Health Organization, "Global Status Report on Road Safety 2013: Supporting a Decade of Action," Geneva: World Health Organization, 2013. Uruguayan essayist Eduardo Galeano has equated car-related violence with the inequities of contemporary globalization in Latin America. See Galeano, "The Sacred Car," in Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World (New York: Picador, 2001).

7 John Kamau, "Wabenzi: In the Land of Poverty and Opulence," Al Jazeera March 30, 2013 (accessed March 15, 2015); see also Shiva Naipaul's travel memoir North of South: An African Journey (Penguin, 1996).

8 Michael Wines, "In China, 'Audi' Means 'Big Shot"," New York Times, November 16, 2012, "The Rich Hit the Road," and The Economist June 17, 2004, (accessed March 12, 2015); Rudi Volti, "A Car for the Great Asian Multitude," Technology and Culture 49, no. 4 (2008): 995-1001.

9 Karen Robert, "The Falcon Remembered," NACLA Report on the Americas 39 n. 3 (November-December 2005), 11-14; Daphne Berdahl,"'Go Trabi Go!': Reflections on a Car and its Symbolization Over Time," Anthropology and Humanism 25 n. 2 (December 2000), 131-141.

10 Sociologist John Urry has argued persuasively that cars and roads have more fundamentally shaped twentieth-century globalization than digital networks. See Urry, "The System of Automobility," Theory, Culture & Society 21 no. 4-5 (August-October 2004), 25.

11 See Ted Conover, The Routes of Man: Travels in the Paved World (New York: Vintage, 2011). For a unique perspective on the modern road movie, see Sara Brandellero, ed., Brazilian Road Movie: Journeys of (Self) Discovery (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2013).

12 See for example Georgine Clarsen, Eat My Dust: Early Women Motorists (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2008); David Gartman, "Three Ages of the Automobile: The Cultural Logics of the Car," Theory, Culture, and Society 21, no. 4-5 (October 2004), 169-195; Daniel Miller, Car Cultures (Oxford: Berg, 2001); Matthew Paterson, Automobile Politics: Ecology and Cultural Political Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Wollen, Autopia.

13 Jan-Bart Gewald et al. eds., The Speed of Change: Motor Vehicles and People in Africa, 1890-2000 (Leiden: Brill, 2009); Lewis H. Siegelbaum, Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008); Joel Wolfe, Autos and Progress: The Brazilian Search for Modernity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

14 Jan-Bart Gewald, Sabine Luning, and Klaas van Walraven, "Motor Vehicles and People in Africa: An Introduction," in Gewald, et. al., Speed of Change, 1.

15 Beverly Silver, Forces of Labor: Workers' Movements and Globalization Since 1870 (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

16 On the role of autoworkers within democratization movements, see also Joel Wolfe, Autos and Progress: The Brazilian Search for Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). For another comparative study of autoworkers' organizing strategies, see Nicola Pizzolato, "Workers and Revolutionaries at the Twilight of Fordism: The Breakdown of Industrial Relations in the Automobile Plants of Detroit and Turin, 1967-1973," Labor History 45, n. 4 (November 2004), 419-443.

17 Bernhard Rieger, The People's Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univeristy Press , 2013)

18 Rieger, People's Car, 332.

19 Erik T. Gilbert and Jonathan T. Reynolds, Trading Tastes: Commodities and Cultural Exchange to 1750 (New York: Pearson, 2005); Jonathan Curry-Machado, ed., Global Histories, Imperial Commodities, Local Interactions (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013). Rieger's study also aligns well with the research questions proposed in Peter N. Stearns, Consumerism in World History: The Transformation of Desire (New York: Routledge, 2001).

20 Sociologist John Urry's systemic definition of automobility has influenced much of the recent literature on cars. Yet political economist Matthew Paterson's refinement of Urry's definition is better suited to a world history approach because it leaves more room for human agency and contingency. See John Urry, "The System of Automobility," Theory, Culture and Society 21, n. 4-5 (August - October 2004), 25-39; Paterson, Automobile Politics.

21 Paterson, Automobile Politics, p. 25.

22 Though Paterson mentions the global implications of this system, his own illustrative examples draw mainly from Britain and the United States. See also Cotten Seiler, "Author Response: The Ends of Automobility," History and Technology: An International Journal 26 n. 4 (2010), 389-397.

23 See also David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell, 1991).

24 For a general history of Ford Motors, see Douglas Brinkley, Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress (New York: Penguin, 2004). Accessible overviews of Ford's manufacturing innovations appear in James Flink, The Car Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1975) and James Flink, The Automobile Age (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988); Rudy Volti, Cars and Culture: The Life Story of a Technology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). For a rich description of the Rouge's relationship to its primary-source hinterlands, see Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009).

25 For one example of this process, see the role played by U.S. 'experts' in the development of China's modern road system. Thomas J. Campanella, "'The Civilising Road': American Influence on the Development of Highways and Motoring in China, 1900-1949." Journal of Transport History 26, no. 1 (2005), 78–98.

26 For accessible discussions of Sloanism, see Volti, Cars and Culture, chapter 3; Wolfe, Autos and Progress, chapter 3; More theorized discussions appear in Paterson, Automobile Politics, and David Gartman, "Three Ages of the Automobile: The Cultural Logics of the Car," Theory, Culture and Society 21, no. 4-5 (Oct. 2004), 169-195.

27 For the synthesis of automotive advertising in the U.S., see Katie Alvord, Divorce Your Car! Ending the Love Affair with the Automobile (Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 2000), chapter 1. Paterson, Automobile Politics, analyzes the discourses presented in automotive advertising.

28 Stephen L. Harp, Marketing Michelin: Advertising and Cultural Identity in Twentieth-Century France (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2001); Wolfe, Autos and Progress.

29 Ricardo Salvatore, "Yankee Advertising in Buenos Aires: Reflections on Americanization," Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 7:2 (2005), 216-235.

30 J. Altman, "Mobility and Modernity in Arnhem Land: The Social Universe of Kuninjku Trucks," Journal of Material Culture 12, no. 2 (2007),181–203.

31 Gewald, et. al., Speed of Change.

32 On labor resistance, see Silver, Forces of Labor. On struggles over car-related 'accidents' and access to city streets, see Peter D. Norton, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. Illustrated edition. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008). On national security concerns, see Kurt Moser, "The Dark Side of 'Automobilism', 1900-30," Journal of Transport History 24, no. 2 (2003): 238–58.

33 For international perspectives on the relationship between Fordism and economic development, see Grandin, Fordlandia; Siegelbaum, Cars for Comrades; Wolfe, Autos and Progress. A comprehensive analysis of global shifts in automotive production appears in Michel Freyssenet, ed. The Second Automobile Revolution: Trajectories of the World Carmakers in the 21st Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009).

34 For a graphic representation of the regional differences in per capita passenger car ownership, see

35 Freyssenet, Second Automobile Revolution, 447-449; For a discussion of grassroots resistance to roadbuilding projects, see Stephen Perz, "Social Mobilization in Protest of Trans-boundary Highway Projects: Explaining Contrasting Implementation Outcomes," Development and Change. 43, no. 3 (2012): 797-821.

36 Note that traffic problems are not isolated to wealthy cities. Jakarta, Indonesia, is on the verge of 'total traffic gridlock,' where vehicles will take up "every single inch of available space on roads and highways." See "Jam Jakarta: Traffic in Indonesia's Capital," The Economist Feb. 4, 2010, (accessed March 15, 2015).

37 Some academic treatments include Stephan Böhm, et. al., eds., Against Automobility (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006); Kingsley Dennis and John Urry, After the Car (Cambridge: Polity, 2009); Paterson, Automobile Politics. The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy promotes alternative transport solutions around the world:

38 Wolfe, Autos and Progress, pp. 63-64; See also Stearns, Consumerism.

39 Classic works dealing with early automobile culture in the United States include McShane, Down the Asphalt Path: The Automobile and the American City (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995); Flink, The Car Culture; Flink, The Automobile Age (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988); Volti, Cars and Culture. For a more theoretical and cultural appraisal, see Cotten Seiler, Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America. University Of Chicago Press, 2008. For ideals surrounding Detroit, see Grandin, Fordlandia; Siegelbaum, Cars for Comrades; Wolfe, Autos and Progress.

40 Freyssenet, Second Automobile Revolution

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