Volume II, Number 2, Fall 2006

"Wheeling to Change" by Dániel Antal

Daniel Antal is an undergraduate student at the Department of American Studies, ELTE, Hungary. Email: daniel_antal@yahoo.com.

The industrialization in the 19th century brought along several changes in the lives of Europeans and North Americans. As the first steam engines started puffing, a new way of life was about to be born. Technological inventions and the demand for development inevitably began to reshape and influence societies all over the world. Today, everyone is used to the fact that we are surrounded and helped by gadgets in every sphere of our lives. Indeed, we could not even imagine life without most of them. Among all those things that were first constructed more than a hundred years ago, the automobile was perhaps one of the most influential. This essay aims at discovering the roles of the automobile in the United States and in Hungary. We shall look at some of its technological, infrastructural and social effects as well as probe the image of the automobile in these two cultures. The paper will also investigate rising awareness about the environmental effects of the automobile, as well as the different attitudes towards alternative ways of transportation in the two countries. Our main aim is to try and understand the similarities and the differences between the evolution of the two countries’ car society, and to survey the future role of the automobile in Hungary and in the United States.

From Model T and Solid Rubber Tires to the Symbol of Freedom

At the end of the 19th century cars were considered a recreational device of the privileged wealthy both in Hungary and in the United States. In Hungary, the first automobile was purchased by the mechanic, Béla Hatsek. In 1885 he ordered a Benz automobile from Germany, with solid-rubber tires. By 1899 there had already been about fifty vehicles traveling the unpaved roads of the country at a maximum of twenty kilometer per hours. At the time, the public in Hungary regarded motorized transportation as a ridiculous, dangerous and, most importantly, foolish way to get around. In some other countries, like Graubünden canton of Switzerland, they even banned motorized vehicles, as they were thought to be too dangerous. At the same time, Budapest’s public transportation system also underwent serious development: by 1889, the first tramways were established and by 1896 the construction of the first underground in continental Europe was also finished.

The history of the automobile’s positive image in Hungary began when in 1900 the Hungarian Automobile Club was established by founders Count Pál Szapáry, Donát Bánki, the internationally known professor of mechanical engineering, and József Törley, the brilliant businessman, famous for his bubbling wine. Hardly did a year pass after the establishment of the club, they organized the first Hungarian car exhibition, and the first automobile race. Obviously, the automobile was rapidly transforming into an admired symbol of wealth and development.

Similarly to Hungary, in the United States the first cars were also only for the rich. Most of the cars produced at the time were handmade and lasted for a short period of time. Therefore, a smaller repair on the car or a replaced part cost a fortune for the owner.

In 1908 Henry Ford came up with the idea of producing only two types of cars instead of several ones. By making these cars all identical in performance, designing more simple parts that were easy to install, and by painting all of them black, he could lower the costs of production. Access to the car was no longer the privilege of the rich. Any American citizen could afford to buy a car after a period of penny-pinching. As a result, by the beginning of the 1920s half of the automobiles running on the roads of the world were Ford’s Model Ts. At the same time, in Europe, motor companies like Peugeot, Austin, Morris, Singer, Fiat and Citroën were established, and they started producing vehicles using the successful Ford recipe.

However, the price of the automobile was still too high for an average European. It was only later, in the 1930s, that the idea of the so called “people’s car” was born. Hitler’s idea was that the car was a simple necessity that should be accessible for most people in his Nazi Germany. Therefore, the affordable, reliable, and fuel efficient Volkswagen was designed, thanks to Ferdinand Porsche. The car turned out to be a great success, especially after World War II when liberated Western Europe quickly began to reestablish its economy and society, rebuilding its damaged infrastructure and reviving its vivid social life.

At the same time American economic help brought along hope in the everyday lives of those who were sorely tried by the privation and horror of the war. After years of oppression Western Europeans had great admiration for the freedom that the United States represented. In many areas of life the time-honored American methods were adopted. America’s popular culture also quickly struck its roots in the soil of Western Europe, with which came Europe’s newest obsession with the automobile, the powerful and famed symbol of development and personal freedom. New roads were constructed, and as people started to breathe freely once again, they bought their first cars. As an effect, in France, Germany and England we can clearly see today, how dependent these countries became on the automobile.

On the other hand, Eastern Europe had a slower and more restrained development, especially when it came to personal freedom. The automobile—and especially those made outside of the Soviet Union—quickly became symbols of capitalism, representing bourgeois extravagance. Until the end of the 1950s, practically no individual was allowed to own a car except for those in higher positions (politicians, company executives, engineers, doctors), who could have their own cars in order to perform better in their field of work. While private automobiles hardly existed, public transportation developed by leaps and bounds. In order to facilitate the transportation of workers, new bus lines, trolleys and tramways were set up, and the construction of new subways began.

At this time, and for many more years, there was a certain kind of car at the sight of which Hungarians shuddered with horror. The infamous black Volga, with its curtained windows served as the formal vehicle of the ÁVÓ, the State Security Police, who dragged away thousands of innocent people from their homes during the communist regime. Therefore, for many people the automobile was associated with authority and oppression, and perhaps this is the reason why even today black luxury vehicles with dark windows are looked on as symbols of domination. It was only in the 1960s that the number of private cars started to rise again due to political decisions, allowing some lucky and solvent citizens to buy their own cars.

Meanwhile the automobile in the United States was living its golden days, with more and more highways and bigger, stronger and more comfortable cars. In America the automobile became what French social critic Henri Lefebvre called “the epitome of possession.” The car became a must for everyone, and it started to play an increasingly important role in American popular culture. Songs and movies, such as the film American Graffiti, give an excellent overview of the time’s car frenzy, and the ongoing social changes it symbolized for many: breaking with strict social control, desiring sexual adventures, and, last but not least, demonstrating masculine power. As Clay McShane put it in his book about the automobilization of American cities:

The automobile, a metaphor as well as a machine, meant more to Americans than just another transportation mode, a tool to reach the suburbs. . . . The automobile symbolized wealth and psychic liberation for an enormous number of groups within American society. It also played a role in changing American patterns of gender identity. One must examine the ways in which Americans discovered the car, and dreamed about its potential…by looking at some of the cultural milieux which described it: newspaper stories, magazine articles, spectator events, advertisements, songs, photographs, films and children’s literature (McShane 125).

Indeed, at the beginning of the 20th century the automobile had already become a significant and inseparable part of American culture. American cities were designed to accommodate heavy traffic contrary to most of the major cities in Europe, where the old city structure was to be altered by sacrificing buildings to give way to new roads. As the number of cars grew in European cities, governments had to look for alternative ways of transportation. Today, in many Western European cities cars are not welcomed by residents. In Amsterdam, Oslo and Copenhagen, just to name a few, the majority of people choose bicycle and public transportation instead of the car to get around the city. In London, cars entering the downtown area of the city must pay a high entrance fee, which tends to work as a retarding force for many to ride their cars .

In the United States, during the 1950s and 1960s drive-in restaurants, drive-in movie theaters, gas stations and carwashes spread throughout the continent, changing the urban scenery once and for all. Today, due to the penurious services of public transportation and the car prone urban structure, Americans are forced to ride their cars if they want to get around. As gas prices rise, more and more people start to wonder whether the automobile is still a legitimate symbol of freedom.

Motorized Personality

As soon as the first cars started whiffing on the roads with their proud owners, a new status symbol was about to be born, a symbol that would give onlookers more and more information about the passengers as decades went by. At the beginning, this symbol was quite obvious and simple. Automobiles represented wealth, power and class, as only the richest could afford such luxurious gadgets. However, as Ford came out with the affordable Model T, higher middle class people would also have the chance to buy their own cars. Carmakers therefore increasingly sought to please the affluent who wanted to distinguish themselves from all the sundry people in their Model Ts. It was this moment when the automobile truly became not only a mere vehicle of transport, but a mediator for the message about one’s class and personality. The most advanced technological features and the greatest luxury have always been provided to those capable of affording the most expensive vehicles. However, soon it became a trend that every next model was to provide a little more new features in order to be economically successful on the widening market. Design, performance and the degree of comfort were all adjusted to the needs and expectations of the given target group.

Today many people all over the world feel that it is necessary to make a statement about themselves to the public through their cars. What is meant here can easily be understood if we take the example of a person who lives in an apartment building in the downtown area of a large city, and every day he needs to drive to the bank where he works. The most logical decision this person could make when buying a car is to end up with an economy-size vehicle which is easy to park and drive and has a low air pollution-emission rate. Because of the constant pressure from the media and society, this person, however, will also consider the image his car will reflect of him. If all of his friends drive SUVs (sports utility vehicles), he will feel that he needs to meet certain expectations in order to become an equal member within his social group. Therefore, it can be said that by making the decision of buying an SUV, a sports car or a luxury class car, one is often influenced by trends and hierarchic social patterns rather than by real needs.

MTV’s reality show series “Pimp My Ride” is a good example of manipulating viewers. In the show a college age Southern Californian is given the chance to have experts fix up her sleazy car. Then within a couple of days the mechanics and design experts completely reconstruct and customize the old vehicle into a shiny new car. However, not only do they repaint the car, and fix the interior, they also add loads of seemingly completely useless things, such as the LCD screens on the outside and inside of the car, or the Playstation in the trunk. For the bowling maniac they put a built-in motorized ball cleaner in the trunk, and for the yoga-instructor they build a tiny waterfall next to the driver’s seat. The car becomes a bulletin-board of the owners personality. The point is always to give the car a truly outstanding look that matches the owner’s personality and interests. Indeed, all those new features built into the car suggest that the owner spends practically all of her time in the automobile. And if it was not clear enough, at the end of the show the proud “pimpmobile” owner tells the viewers how her life will change after the first ride in the remodeled car. An economics student, for example, told the viewers after his car had been fixed, that he was sure his partners would look at him as a serious, and reliable person.

Similar shows are aired nowadays in almost every country, including Hungary, though the tone of these “Pimp My Ride” clones is somewhat different from the original program. In the German division of MTV, for instance, they even went as far as to mock at the show. In the so called “Pimp My Fahrrad,” they kept the original elements of the American show but instead of customizing a car, they fixed up old, beat-up bicycles. Not only does this show parodize the exaggerated manners of the American show but it also calls attention to the fact that a person riding a bicycle can as well be “cool,” especially when riding a “pimped” bike.

Two Wheels For Four and More

Nowadays it seems as if America’s obsession with the so called “gas-guzzlers”—cars that have highly uneconomical oil-consumption—was ended, due to the rapid rise of oil prices. Compared to the 1970s, oil-prices were relatively low until the beginning of the 21st century: a barrel of oil in 1978 cost $13.55 in contrast to the $58 per barrel in December 2005 and a record high $78 in July 2006. The global oil-crisis, and the damage on oil-wells made by the hurricanes in the Gulf region made many Americans reconsider their choice for a transportation device. To some it might seem as if the Bush administration is much devoted to appease America’s increasing hunger for oil by publicly calling on carmakers to build and design cars with better gas mileage, and by encouraging costumers to buy hybrid or more energy efficient vehicles. Unfortunately however, most of the time these statements and soon-to-be actions prove to be hypocritical, as one can see just by simply examining the country’s laws and guidelines that remain unchanged, hence promoting further energy waste and the pollution of the environment. The Bush administration also proves to be quite sensitive when it comes to public criticism, and is ready to muzzle environmentalists and self-appointed critics by any means necessary. For instance in August 2004 – at the time of the Republican National Convention- hundreds of peaceful bicycle riders were arrested in New York simply for taking part in the monthly Critical Mass protest, and allegedly disturbing traffic (Wald). Fortunately however, there are also some promising signs of the ongoing change in attitude as well. The popular European made mini-car, the Smart, began selling its energy efficient models in America this year, and although the car will probably be a laughingstock for many Americans for a while, the company is expecting rapid sales in many large cities. Matt Moore also points out in an article, that many Americans prefer to buy smaller cars now that filling the tank of a Chevrolet Suburban could truly mean one less present under the Christmas tree for many:

They’re becoming more attractive and that’s definitely part of the appeal . . . while there will always be a demand for SUVs and big sedans . . . fuel economy is playing a bigger role in purchasing decisions. . . U.S. automakers traditionally haven’t warmed to small cars, which are less profitable than large sedans and trucks. But that’s changing. Power Information Network expects the number of compacts and sub-compacts on the U.S. market to grow from 33 this year to 40 in 2010 (Moore).

In contrast to the United States, smaller and more energy efficient cars have always been on great demand in Europe—if for nothing else but for the fact that some of the highest oil prices in the world are in Europe, with as much as $7 a gallon in Denmark, compared to $3.50 in the United States. In Hungary owning and actually riding a car on a daily basis is once again considered a somewhat privileged thing to do. In Budapest, both civil and state organized campaigns try to promote alternative ways of transportation, as there is an increasing need for people to switch from their cars to the bus or the bicycle. But bicycle sales started to boom even in the US after the sudden rises in oil prices:

More bicycles than cars have been sold in the United States over the past 12 months, with rising gas prices prompting commuters to opt for two wheels instead of four . . . . In a country where most of the population still relies heavily on cars, some 87 million people have climbed on a bike in the past 12 months… The US government has also done its part to promote a more bicycle-friendly environment. Some 3.5 million dollars in federal money has been set aside to create cycling trails over the next four years (AFP).

As is obvious from the above, a growing number of Americans are no longer able to pay for gas even overseas. However, there is perhaps more to this than just financial reasons. In Western Europe, an alternative way of transportation was manifested in the trend of bicycle riding in many major cities. As more people became conscious and concerned about the problem of air-pollution, the rising gas prices and the stress that is brought along when one is to find a parking lot in the city, many people turn to a forgotten device, the bicycle. As Wolfgang Sachs states in his book, For Love of the Automobile:

Suddenly, with the bicycle, age-old motivations return: taking off when you want; making little detours and stops along the way; not having to sit around with masses in irritating traffic jams—in the age of commuters and passengers, the idea of independence looks to the bicycle (Sachs 200).

Indeed, there is a graspable change in attitudes towards bicycle riding in Hungary as well. The originally North American movement, Critical Mass, counted as many as 30.000 people in Budapest riding their bikes on Car Free Day September 2005. Bike sales in Hungary are on the rise as well. In the spring and summer time, the pitiful bike roads of Budapest are filled with happy young and old people sitting on the saddles of their two-wheelers. The message is to reconsider and rationalize car use in everyday life. It is now in the hands of the media, politicians and the citizens of each country to act against irrational car use, and promote alternative and an environment conscious lifestyle for the youth. Interestingly enough, both Hungary and the United States proposed a new bicycle road construction project for the next year, which brings new hope for cities overcrowded by cars.

But American and Hungarian TV shows, music videos and movies are still concerned with car-tuning, muscle cars and car racing promotions. Whether or not this outdated ideal will disappear one day depends on a common agreement between citizens and those in power. Whatever might be the way of the future, one thing is for sure: we have to rationalize our needs, as the days of irresponsible gas wasting are numbered.

Note: This paper has been submitted to Dr. Eva Federmayer as a requirement for completing the course “Cultural Studies Research Seminar: Americanization of Hungarian Culture,” AMN-300.50. See syllabus under Eva Federmayer’s “course material” at http://seas3.elte.hu.

Works Cited

  • McShane, Clay. Down the Asphalt Pat. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
  • Miller, Daniel. Materializing Culture—Car Cultures. New York: Oxford International Publisher, 2001.
  • Sachs, Wolfgang. For Love of the Automobile. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.


  • KSH (Központi Statisztikai Hivatal); http://www.ksh.hu
  • Magyar Autóklub; http://www.autoklub.hu/tortenet.php
  • Gazdasági és Közlekedési Minisztérium; http://www.gkm.gov.hu
  • “Fast Facts – Wheels”; http://www.bfcu.org/community/hffo/junfacts.htm
  • The Washington Times – January 17, 2005; http://www.washingtontimes.com/upi-breaking/20050117-074959-9878r.htm
  • “Oil Price History and Analysis”; http://www.wtrg.com/prices.htm
  • AFP – “Bicycle sales boom in US amid rising gas prices” – October 1, 2005; http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20051001/ts_alt_afp/usstormenergyenvironmentbicycles_051001131528
  • Moore, Matt. “Small Cars in Focus As Gas Prices Rise”; http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20050913/ap_on_bi_ge/germany_auto_show_selling_small
  • Wald, Jonathan. “264 arrested in NYC bicycle protest”; http://www.cnn.com/2004/ALLPOLITICS/08/28/rnc.bike.protest