Johns Hopkins Gazette: January 22, 1996

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

     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

     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

     "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

     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

     "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

     "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.

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