On Faculty: Leslie Drives to Make Cars a Serious Subject Mike Field -------------------------- Staff Writer It takes a weather catastrophe like the Blizzard of '96 to make people think about their cars. About how much they depend on them. How far away things like work and the bank and the supermarket are on foot. How difficult life can become if the uncongested roads, ample parking and plentiful supply of gasoline are interrupted. About how much of our lives is affected--maybe even determined--by access to our automobiles, and what it can mean when that access is restricted. Stuart Leslie thinks about these things all the time. A professor of the history of science and author of Boss Kettering: The Wizard of General Motors, Leslie has made a serious study of the automobile as a part of American life. In fact, he even teaches a course on it, History of the American Automobile, offered to undergraduates for the past six years and again this spring. Although a lifelong afficionado of the American automobile, Leslie came to his academic interest in the subject matter in a somewhat roundabout way. Majoring in French history as an undergraduate, he changed to American history when he began his graduate work at the University of Delaware. There, a professor inspired him to look seriously at cars, and his doctoral thesis about Kettering eventually became the book. And a subject worth teaching. In his class, Leslie looks at the various ways our cars have helped to determine who we are. "If you were curious about the place of the auto in American life and you went to the library and did a search, you might conclude it plays a very minor part in our society," he says. "There is just not a lot of serious scholarly material published on the topic. Yet we all realize that the auto is very central. It affects how we work, where we work, where we live, even what we breathe. This past snowfall rather forcefully reminded us of how dependent we are on our cars." It can also remind many of us how little we know about what goes on under the hood, as for instance, when a family sedan dug out of a snowbank suddenly refuses to start. One of the first things Leslie does in his class is to put the students to work assembling bread-box-sized transparent models of a turbo-charged engine. "Some of the students find this exercise hopelessly beneath their abilities, but a lot of them really don't know what goes on under the hood," Leslie says. "This is largely because the technology of the typical car has become much less accessible. There are no carburetors to tinker with. In the old days a sign of knowing something about cars was when your car didn't start you got out and took off the air filter and shot some ether into it. Now most people can't tune their cars. I can't tune my own car." Yet Leslie suspects there is something more than a technology gap developing between the auto and the newest generation of drivers. "I'm part of the generation that can give its own auto-biography, a personal history defined by the cars we drove," says the 42-year-old father of two. "Starting out with your first junker, the car becomes a part of our identity. Even today, many of us buy a car because we want to project a personality." Leslie's first car was a 1963 Buick Special station wagon inherited from the family. It was followed by a 1964 Buick Riviera with a 464 cubic inch engine that he lovingly restored, then an 850 Fiat Spider, a 1974 Mustang II bought new, a 1200 Datsun, "a whole bunch of VWs," leading finally to the safely sedate Saturn station wagon he drives today. Each of those cars, he says, reflected a specific period and personality of his life. He wonders if the newest crop of drivers will retain the same sense of automotive identity that gripped earlier generations. "Autos don't seem to have the same place in the consciousness of today's students," he says. "Now the superhighway they're most interested in is the information one. When they talk about power and speed they're referring to megs and bytes instead of torque and rpms." Still, his course has proved perennially popular on campus, attracting a wide range of students interested in exploring American cultural and scientific history through the lens of the automobile. "I'm constantly surprised at how many different students express an interest in cars," Leslie says. "The course gets everything from pre-meds looking for something different to lacrosse players to gearhead types." Among the subjects covered are the ways in which the American automobile has affected business, the cities, the environment, sexual mores, advertising, the oil industry, women, art and fashion, and the national ideal of mobility. Often, the automobile's influence has been felt in unexpected ways. "It is surprising to find how useful the early suffragettes found the auto," observes Leslie. "Driving their own cars was sign of freedom and independence. It also enabled them to take their message out into the farming communities and rural areas that may not have heard them otherwise." One unmistakable change on the physical landscape imposed by the automobile is the U.S. interstate system, the largest civil engineering project ever accomplished. "Without the car it is difficult to imagine what our contemporary society would look like," Leslie says. "The physical landscape--as well as the social and psychological landscape--was transformed through America's love of the automobile." All of which goes a long way toward suggesting why the occasional inconveniences of the auto--like those experienced during and after the Blizzard of '96--do little to dissuade Americans from the allure of their own private transportation. "There are very few technologies we personalize like our cars," says Leslie. "All of the cars I've owned have had their own distinct personalities, whereas the computer is just a tool, a machine I use to get things done. But a car is different. Is there any other technology that gives you the same power and adrenaline rush as stomping on the accelerator? In the late 20th century the auto has come to represent freedom, our own personal space and time. People have predicted the demise of the auto ever since it was invented. Yet even in L.A. they enjoy it enough to put up with all the inconveniences. "Will the auto disappear?" Professor Leslie nods his head at the very thought. "Not in my lifetime," he says, and smiles.
Go to Gazette Homepage