The Twilight of Autopia

The energy crisis of the 1970s destabilized American society and seemed to foretell the end of our auto-centric culture and oil-dependent politics. Back then we ignored the warnings.

Gas lines during the oil embargo of 1973-74.
Gas lines during the oil embargo of 1973. [Associated Press]

The scene captured in the Associated Press photograph is somewhere on Long Island, but it could have been anywhere in the United States during the oil crisis of 1973. Dozens of cars sit bumper to bumper at a gas station in four long lines, inching toward the pumps, just visible in the distance under butterfly lights. The cars are American, mostly late-model full-size sedans, gas-guzzlers with V-8 engines. The station is a Texaco, which then operated more than 30,000 such outlets across all 50 states, but the branding is oddly out of sync. The sign facing the highway is up-to-date, with the hexagon logo that was the company’s standard by 1968; but the building is an aging prewar model, a tired white box trimmed with green speed lines that long before had stopped heralding an optimistic future. 1 Once the station would have gleamed like a harbinger of modernity, dominating the low-rise landscape on the expanding urban periphery. But now, crowded by postwar strips and subdivisions, it is just one more stretch of one more mile of one more American roadside. With its leafless trees and overcast sky, the scene feels desolate. It’s the twilight of Autopia — of the United States of the Automobile that had been created from coast to coast and that had transformed the American landscape and the national culture.

Throughout 1973, as demand for fuel outstripped supply, Americans experienced with shock the nation’s first-ever peacetime gasoline shortage.

By the fall of 1973, scenes like this were commonplace. Already that spring, as demand for fuel gradually outstripped supply, American drivers everywhere experienced with shock the nation’s first-ever peacetime gasoline shortage. But given the realities of postwar energy production and consumption, it had to happen sometime. The United States was using more oil than it produced and relying on greater amounts (nearly 30 percent) of imported crude. Refinery capacity was insufficient to meet the country’s seemingly insatiable desire for gasoline (as well as fuel oil for electricity and heating). Back then there were more than 100 million cars on 3.8 million miles of U.S. roads and their gas mileage was lousy (about 13 miles per gallon). 2 But that was OK, because before 1973, gas was cheap and abundant — at least as dispensed at the nation’s 220,000 filling stations.

Gas station, Portland Oregon, in the fall of 1973, when customers were limited to five gallons per automobile.
Gas station, Portland Oregon, in the fall of 1973, when customers were limited to five gallons per automobile. [David Falconer/U.S. National Archives]

The motorists filling their tanks were just the most obvious manifestation of Autopia and its discontents. Underlying the situation were the monopolistic practices of the country’s largest oil companies, which, despite the breakup of Standard Oil way back in 1911, continued to own or control their own reserves, refineries, and retail outlets. In March 1973, the industry augmented its long-standing vertical integration with “conscious parallelism,” establishing quotas for crude oil processing and curtailing deliveries to independent refiners. This last action closed the spigot for the independent service stations that accounted for 45 percent of the retail gas market. Within months, 1,200 independents were out of business; thousands of others were operating on limited schedules. Name-brand retailers, meanwhile, were experiencing brisk business and high profits, whether they were Mobil stations in New Jersey or Conocos in Colorado. 3

The crisis allowed Exxon, Gulf, and Shell to stoke consumer fears through restricted business hours, ten-gallon limits at gas stations, and alarmist full-page newspaper ads.

In May, the Nixon White House announced a voluntary allocation system with a goal of forcing an even distribution of crude oil and gasoline throughout the market. In July, the Federal Trade Commission issued a damning report that blamed Big Oil for the expanding gas shortage. 4 The mounting crisis allowed Exxon, Gulf, and Shell to stoke consumer fears through restricted business hours, ten-gallon limits at stations on major roads (like the New York State Thruway and the New Jersey Turnpike), and alarmist full-page newspaper ads. At the height of the summer driving season, “no gas” signs were legion on roadsides coast-to-coast. 5 The final blow came in late October, with the oil embargo spurred by Saudi Arabia and supported by Arab OPEC members in retaliation for U.S. support of Israel. Since 1945, when President Franklin Roosevelt met secretly with King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud on his way home from the Yalta Conference, the United States and Saudi Arabia had enjoyed a special relationship predicated on economic exchange and security guarantees and founded on the common bond of oil — the Saudis had it, the Americans needed it. For both countries, oil was an essential ingredient of postwar prosperity and geopolitical power. With the embargo, and the artificial oil shortage it created, Saudi Arabia demonstrated its rising power. From October 1973 to March 1974, the price per barrel of crude quadrupled, from $3 to $12. Stateside, the embargo intensified existing shortages, and consumers felt the pinch as gas prices rose nearly 50 percent, from 38 cents to 55 cents per gallon. 6

At a gas station in Portland, Oregon, the yellow flag meant that gas was available only for regular customers and commercial vehicles.
At a gas station in Portland, Oregon, the yellow flag meant that gas was available only for regular customers and commercial vehicles. [David Falconer/U.S. National Archives]

Gas by appointment was a common practice during the oil embargo.
Gas by appointment was a common practice during the oil embargo. [David Falconer/U.S. National Archives]

On Interstate 5, a common scene in fall 1973, when stations often ran out of gas by midday.
On Interstate 5, a common scene in fall 1973, when stations often ran out of gas by midday. [David Falconer/U.S. National Archives]

“Panic at the pump” and “gasoline fever” set in. News reports described drivers waiting for hours in queues that stretched for miles. Aggravating the actual shortage was the psychological impact: not only the fear of running out of fuel, but also frustration with conservation measures like gasless Sundays and a new federal 55-mile-per-hour speed limit — the kind of limits Americans hadn’t experienced since the patriotic restrictions of World War II. Irate motorists turned violent; perceived line cutters, gas siphoners, and service station attendants were subjected to verbal and even physical abuse. Angry truckers were blockading interstates; deranged drivers were shooting up gas pumps; concerned citizens were installing locks on fuel caps. 7 These incidents underscored the impact of the energy crisis, but they also foretold deeper disturbances of the American status quo.

Irate motorists turned violent; perceived line cutters, gas siphoners, and service station attendants were subjected to verbal and even physical abuse.

There were predictable ripple effects, both literal and metaphorical, from a car with an empty tank. There were the gas station closures that threw thousands of small business owners and their employees out of work during the summer and fall; then, in winter, there were layoffs in the automobile industry, and in related manufacturing sectors. With roughly 20 percent of American jobs connected to Detroit, this was understood as the leading edge of the intransigent stagflation that would ultimately mark the decade. “If people drive less,” Time magazine observed in November 1973, “companies that rely on car-borne customers are likely to be hurt.” To underscore the gravity of the situation, the article named three companies likely to be affected: McDonald’s, Holiday Inn, and Walt Disney. 8 It wasn’t necessary to name any others because these purveyors of fast food, motor lodging, and family escapism were ubiquitous landmarks of the American roadside — emblems of the Autopian transformation of the midcentury landscape.

Holiday Inn, circa mid 1960s. McDonald's, circa mid 1970s.
Holiday Inn, ca. mid 1960s. McDonald’s, ca. mid 1970s.

Disneyland, Anaheim, California, ca. late 1950s
Disneyland, Anaheim, California, ca. late 1950s. [via Flickr]

In those years McDonald’s was in a period of hyper-expansion, with more than 2,600 franchises and a massive modernization campaign underway to replace its original hamburger stands with mansard-roofed eat-in restaurants. 9 The self-styled “Nation’s Innkeeper” was also enjoying record growth: some 200,000 driving travelers stayed every night at a Holiday Inn. By 1973, with more than 1,400 motels, each equipped with an iconic fifty-foot “Great Sign,” the chain had become “inescapable on American highways” — typically the nation’s older state and federal routes rather than newer interstates. With new franchises supposedly opening every three days, Holiday Inn was, as described by historians John Jakle and Keith Sculle, at once “a catalyst and a reflection of the age of mass travel.” 10 And two years earlier Disney World had opened on 27,000 acres of swampland outside Orlando and midway between Tampa and Daytona Beach on the recently completed I-4. As with the original Disneyland, in Southern California, the Florida theme park’s easy-on/easy-off location was critical to its success — and to the success of the hotels, restaurants, and resorts that surrounded the park.

The 1970s oil crisis was nothing less than a cultural crisis that destabilized the foundations of modern U.S. society.

But with the embargo, the outlook for car-dependent businesses had become increasingly gloomy. In November, McDonald’s, Holiday Inn, and Disney, along with other publicly traded companies that investors believed would be hurt by gas shortages, got caught in the sharpest Dow Jones plunge in more than a decade. 11 But if the economic impacts were grave, the cultural consequences were even more severe, as Americans began to grapple with the social consequences of driving less. Technology historian David Nye has described the 1970s energy crisis as nothing less than a “cultural crisis” that destabilized the foundations upon which modern U.S. society was built, and ultimately challenged the so-called “American way of life.” The crisis, Nye argued, had revealed the ugly face of human agency in creating, over a half century, and especially after World War II, social and spatial systems organized almost entirely around the car. 12

Nye’s analysis is not merely the result of hindsight; the degree of contemporary recognition of the situation is remarkable. “The phrase is misleading,” argued the syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop in April 1973, “not because there is no energy crisis but because the crisis involves so much more than mere high gas prices and rationing of automotive gasoline”; and what it involved was “just about every aspect of every American’s daily life.” 13 It was sobering to realize, as the media regularly reported, that from the spectacular to the quotidian, nothing would be untouched by the crisis. In Las Vegas, the lights of Glitter Gulch and the Strip were dimmed to save electricity, and with the signs turned off the sheds appeared considerably less decorated. To be sure, this was a largely symbolic gesture intended “merely to set an example”; but to many observers it seemed also a tacit acknowledgement that fewer cars were cruising Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard than before the gas shortage. 14

Southridge Mall in Greendale, Wisconsin, ca. 1970.
Southridge Mall in Greendale, Wisconsin, ca. 1970. [via Ken Mattison]

Fashion Square, Santa Ana, circa 1960.
Fashion Square, Santa Ana, circa 1960. [Orange County Archives]

Outside Chicago, suburban housewives — whose daily circuit of schools, sports, and shopping were made possible by the family station wagon — considered the impossibility of life without wheels. In December 1973, a reporter for the New York Times tracked one suburbanite, Bunny Orkin, on a round of several dozen errands over the course of a week, and concluded that Orkin’s “battered” old wagon — a 1966 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser — had become a “an accepted necessity of life, like a two-car garage and a color television set.” And more, the reporter continued, the station wagon had become “a virtual symbol of a highly mobile, sprawling suburbia where everyone drives everywhere … Station wagons clog the lots of the drive-in banks, the drive-in restaurants and, of course, that metropolitan center of motordom, the giant shopping center.” 15 In Los Angeles, this dependency was even more acute. The Los Angeles Times reported that the typical local housewife traveled more than 10,000 miles a year conducting the ordinary business of daily life, as did numerous laborers and office workers, all oriented to those “distinct and dependent forms of retailing, wholesaling, journey to work, recreational and industrial patterns” that had emerged in a city “built to the scale of the automobile.” 16

The typical housewife traveled more than 10,000 miles a year conducting the ordinary business of daily life, as did numerous laborers and office workers.

As daily papers, nightly newscasts, and weekly magazines made excruciatingly clear, the energy crisis confirmed that the increasingly dispersed patterns of postwar development had intensified the nation’s reliance on cars — and fueled its Autopian self-image. “Today, rambling suburbs have spread out of urban areas, and millions of Americans drive to work by car,” Time declared in November 1973; the magazine drove home this point at least once a month well into 1974. 17 Demographic data and geographic analyses back up the journalistic assertions. Writing in the March 1973 edition of the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, John Hudson noted that growth in the “suburban fringes [of] major metropolitan areas” had been so intense in the past few decades that new analytical models were required to understand existing patterns of settlement and density. 18 Indeed, in the postwar decades, the federal trifecta of mortgage insurance, accelerated depreciation, and highway subsidies, along with local efforts to dismantle streetcars and inter-urbans, had transformed the United States into Autopia with a capital A; or “Car Country,” as the environmental historian Christopher Wells put it. 19

Motorist during the oil shortages of fall 1973.
Motorist during the oil shortages of fall 1973. [David Falconer/U.S. National Archives]

Whatever the term, the impact of the energy crisis was unmistakable. As existing routines were disrupted, “sweeping changes … to the way people work, travel, and spend their leisure time” were inevitable, as Time predicted in a piece titled “A Time of Learning to Live with Less.” Even the newest roadside landmarks — businesses clustered at interstate exits — were threatened with obsolescence; one New York Times article wondered whether “diminishing gas supplies” would revive “the bus, the train, even the horse.” 20

There is a rueful tone to much of this coverage, an awareness that an era was coming to a close, even if commentators rarely agreed on what, specifically, was ending. To some, the import was grandly ideological; the energy shortage would surely delegitimate any latter-day versions of manifest destiny, any reflexive equating of growth with progress, no matter the cost. If the sheer expanse of the continent had prompted an American “doctrine of bigness” in the 19th century, then what the journalist Stefan Kanfer called Henry Ford’s “profligate invention” gave new life to an “ethic of unbounded growth” in the 20th century — until, that is, the energy crisis offered “a painful, overdue comeuppance.” 21

Gas station, Portland, Oregon, May 1974.
Gas station, Portland, Oregon, May 1974. [David Falconer/U.S. National Archives]

Out on the American roadside, local responses to the most obvious effect of the crisis — the wave of service station closures — varied sharply. Some worried about the visual and psychological effect of abandonment, claiming that blight had reached the suburbs for the first time since the Great Depression; from Long Island to Los Angeles, there were debates about ordinances to prohibit gas stations from operating within 1,000 feet of each other. 22 Others mourned the passing of the gas station as “a way of life” and an institution that not only serviced automobiles but also operated as a de facto community resource, a suburban counterpart to the urban shopkeepers celebrated by Jane Jacobs. A trade association spokesperson described the gas station operator as “the unpaid information center of the country, the lubricator of baby carriages and kids’ bicycles, the keeper of the nation’s toilets [and] the community Joe who sponsors Little League teams.” 23

Some argued that the energy crisis offered ‘a painful, overdue comeuppance’ to a car-dependent nation.

A year before the crisis, in an essay in The Atlantic titled “The Last Traffic Jam,” former Interior secretary Stewart Udall warned that the United States had reached a tipping point where the social costs of the car-oriented way of life were outweighing the benefits. Arguing for an ethos of “less is more,” and borrowing from the language of the campaign for population control, Udall made a case for putting “a limit on the automobile population” while at the same time supporting mass transit, denser communities, and preservation of open space. 24 Udall’s arguments were prescient, and at least some of his predictions seemed confirmed the following summer when Congress approved a compromise three-year extension to the Highway Trust Fund, the taxation mechanism that financed the construction of the interstates. Since its establishment in 1956, the Trust Fund had been used exclusively for automobile-oriented infrastructure; as a result, it had, in the words of a New York Times editorial, “more to do with determining the physical character and social style of American cities and suburbs than any other Government program.” The Trust Fund was rooted in the conviction that the automobile was, as another Times piece put it, “sacrosanct,” and so were its highways. Thus it was meaningful when the extension ratified in July 1973 permitted the states, for the first time, to use a small portion of their revenues to finance mass transit. 25

Hollywood Freeway, May 1972; the photograph is part of the EPA's State of the Environment project from the early 1970s.
Hollywood Freeway, May 1972; the photograph is part of the EPA’s State of the Environment project from the early 1970s. [Gene Daniels/U.S. National Archives via Wikimedia]

On December 31, 1973, Time published a cover story that seemed a kind of eulogy for Autopia. The article mistily recalled the pleasures of the automobile and dutifully catalogued its deleterious side effects. There was the exhilaration of barreling down a highway and the giddy sense of unbounded geographic mobility; but there was also air pollution, traffic congestion, tedious commutes, insidious debt, roadway fatalities. And most obviously there was “a blighted landscape of junkyards, filling stations and hotdog stands.” Yet even as the social and statistical negatives piled up, car dependency was assumed to be inevitable; it was never truly questioned. Challenges to the existing order that were already underway, like the freeway revolts in urban centers, especially in San Francisco, went unmentioned. For the popular magazine, there was a literally larger concern: the nation’s “gigantic geographic dispersion” was too great, its “drive-in economy” was too important, and too many citizens had no other means of transportation. It was perhaps possible to imagine “a movement of middle-class whites back to the city,” and to speculate that this might help “contain suburban sprawl”; but in those years this seemed at best a hazy dream. 26

Such was the nation’s conundrum as the energy crisis worsened. If America was unable or unwilling to give up automotive transportation, it was at least ready to acknowledge it had a problem with the car. More precisely, like the functioning addict it had become during the past half-century, the country was ready to acknowledge that the car had a problem. Which car? The “classic, distinctively American, roomy, powerful, glittering family car … built for an age when 50-m.p.h. speed limits, gasless Sundays and talk of rationing would have seemed like blasphemies,” in the words of the Time eulogy. The point was plain: America needn’t end its love affair with the car; only its love affair with the “big car.”

The smaller, fuel-efficient cars effectively enabled the continuation of American auto-dependence.

This distinction was not as inconsequential as it might seem. For the American public, there was, as the title of another Time article put it, “a painful change to thinking small,” as citizens were forced to reevaluate the vehicles that had become status symbols and objects of desire — to sacrifice the “two-ton eight-cylinder behemoth” on the altar of fuel efficiency. 27 The shift in market demand spurred by the gas shortages prompted Detroit to finally produce smaller, fuel-saving models to compete with the increasingly popular Japanese imports. 28 It didn’t really matter that the pre-crisis gas guzzler never quite died — millions continued to roam the highways for the rest of the decade, through the oil shortage of 1979 and even as the sun rose on Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America.” Fuel efficiency was the zero-sum game in the automotive landscape because the post-crisis car did nothing to lessen traffic congestion or environmental blight. In fact, the Honda Civic and the Chevy Chevette effectively enabled the continuation of American auto-dependence, of the dispersed settlement patterns and the drive-in cultural practices. The United States would remain Car Country for the foreseeable future; but still, something had definitely changed in the automobile utopia.

In the Rearview Mirror

As the oil crisis intensified, diverse commentators attempted to give a name to what many regarded as a distinct period that was receding into history. Stewart Udall argued that we were reaching “the end of automania,” an era characterized by the greedy consumption of land as well as oil. In Congress, a committee on atomic energy referred to “the deepening twilight of the fossil fuel age,” acknowledging the lingering social and economic effects of decades of cheap and abundant fuel. 29 John Jerome, a one-time editor for Car & Driver who’d renounced his ties to Detroit, went so far as to pronounce “the death of the automobile” — a demise hastened, in his view, by the excesses and overproduction of the big car, and by the “ancillary disasters” of pollution, congestion, and environmental degradation. Jerome saw the early 1970s as an inflection point: the moment when America finally began to “audit the books” on the “supercorporation” of the automobile industry. And he made an important historiographic prediction: “When the history of the automobile is written, scholars will necessarily focus careful attention on this crucial period.” 30

A common sight during the gas shortages of 1973.
A common sight during the gas shortages of 1973. [David Falconer/U.S. National Archives]

Yet scholars were already focusing on this crucial period. One of the first to recognize the end-stage significance of the oil crisis was the historian James J. Flink. Flink’s first book, America Adopts the Automobile, 1895–1910, was an early social history that studied the impact of the car on everyday life before World War I. When the book was published, in 1970, it marked a real departure from the typical automotive history, which tended to focus on the great men and their great machines (Henry Ford, the Model T, etc.). The following year, at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, in the first-ever session devoted to the automobile, Flink expanded his purview to study the broader and more ineffable cultural effects of the car; his particular interest was its collective image in the American psyche as this image evolved over the course of the 20th century.

Flink identified three stages of automobile consciousness. In the first, which ran roughly from the early turn-of-the-century experiments to the Ford assembly line at Highland Park, Americans enthusiastically embraced the car, or at least recognized that it would inevitably influence the country’s social structures and physical landscapes. In the second stage, from the consumerist twenties to the equally consumerist postwar decades, they came to idolize the car and thus readily transformed existing institutions and environments to accommodate the machine. In Flink’s final stage, starting in the late 1950s, Americans shift gears and decry the car as a major social, economic, and environmental problem. 31 But events were moving fast, and just a few years later, in The Car Culture, he extended the chronological scope to encompass the energy crisis and Richard Nixon’s resignation in August 1974. Flink recognized the perils of writing a history of the present; yet he dared to conclude that what we were then witnessing was truly “the ending of the age of automobility.” 32

American automobiles ready to be crushed and shipped to Japan, where recycled materials were used to make Toyotas and Datsuns
American automobiles ready to be crushed and shipped to Japan, where recycled materials were used to make Toyotas and Datsuns. [David Falconer/U.S. National Archives]

The Car Culture is at once a history and a polemic; indeed, 1973 and the oil crisis were, to Flink, what 1890 and the “closing of the frontier” had been to Frederick Jackson Turner. In “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” presented at the 1893 meeting of the American Historical Association, Turner famously argued that the continual march of westward settlement — of introducing “civilization” into the “wilderness” — was the decisive factor in shaping a distinctly American culture and character. And so, when the 1890 census showed that there remained no unsettled land in the continental United States, Turner concluded that the “first period in American history” had ended. 33 To Flink, the comparison was not over-dramatic; it was apt. The automobile, he insisted, as both a fact and an idea, had made a more profound impact on 20th-century America than the frontier had on 19th-century America. And by the mid 1970s it had become clear, he argued, that “the automobile culture and the values that sustained it are no longer tenable” 34; and that as a consequence the country was entering a new phase of historical development. Unsurprisingly, before long the historian would realize that reports of the car’s death, his own and others, were greatly exaggerated. By the end of the Reagan administration, he conceded what had become obvious; “there can be no doubt that the automobile will continue into the 21st century to be the dominant mode of personal transportation in the world.” 35

The Triumph of Nostalgia

Given Flink’s equation of the end of automobility with the closing of the frontier, it is intriguing to see a parallel dynamic in popular culture. Just as an earlier generation had mythologized the cowboy of the vanishing wilderness, so too did more contemporary storytellers sentimentalize the car culture of the mid-20th century. By the early 1970s, amidst the energy crisis — amidst the growing awareness of a new world of hard limits — Americans were increasingly nostalgic for a not-so-distant past that seemed somehow simpler and more innocent. This longing is epitomized by the popular and critical success of American Graffiti, George Lucas’s coming-of-age cinematic narrative, released in 1973 but set a decade earlier, in the late summer of 1962, in the Modesto, California, of the director’s youth.

Amidst the energy crisis — and a growing awareness of a new world of hard limits — Americans were increasingly nostalgic for a not-so-distant past.

In his influential 1983 essay, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” Fredric Jameson argues that American Graffiti inaugurated a new genre: “the nostalgia film.” What separated the nostalgia film from any other movie about the past, Jameson asserts, was the attempt to recapture “specific generational moments,” in this case “the atmosphere and stylistic peculiarities” of the Eisenhower era. To the movie critic of the Los Angeles Times, Lucas’s rendering of the recent past amounted to a kind of “collective spiritual autobiography.” 36 This is most evident in the film’s use of vintage cars and the culture those cars created. Over a twelve-hour period from sunset to sunrise, the movie follows a group of white middle-class teenagers as they cruise the strip, hang out at a drive-in, drag race on the edge of town, and talk tentatively about their future. In the film, cars are both subject and object, serving as mise-en-scène, as narrative device, and very nearly as dramatis personae: an elusive Thunderbird, a reliable Impala, an aging Deuce Coupe. 37 The streets, storefronts, and parking lots were real enough (the film was shot on location, with Petaluma providing a convincing stand-in for Modesto), but a decade’s remove seemed to distill them into an almost archetypal landscape. And while the cars, clothes, and music are essential to the film’s recreation of that distinct cultural moment, so too is its principal location. Mels Drive-In appears in the very first frame, behind the opening credits; as the sky darkens, at dusk, the main characters cruise by and pull in, park and converse. Throughout the film, they drive all around town; yet they always return to Mels.

Tellingly, Mels functions as a cultural landmark beyond the film. Though it was a real diner — the original opened in San Francisco in 1947, and there were several outlets in the Bay Area — it was rendered in American Graffiti as an iconic presence, transcending the particulars of place; in the words of film critic Stanley Kauffmann, as “an oval neon temple.” 38 Though drive-ins like Mels had been commonplace in the American landscape, and especially in California, since the 1930s, by midcentury they’d become a favorite hangout for teenagers with wheels. 39 In American Graffiti, against the backdrop of a blazing Technicolor sunset, the establishing shot of Mels seems an Autopian update of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, with a big sky and a parking lot instead of city buildings and sidewalks. In Mels, too, we see an expanse of plate glass revealing a curved counter. But at the drive-in, it was the curbside carhop service that was the draw.

The original Mels Drive-In, San Francisco, ca. mid 1960s.
The original Mels Drive-In, on South Van Ness in San Francisco, ca. mid 1960s. [via Mels Drive-In]

Mels Drive-In in American Graffiti, 1973.
Mels Drive-In, American Graffiti, 1973.

Jameson describes the film’s nostalgic milieu as “a desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past.” 40 And in fact, by the time American Graffiti began filming, Mels was already a relic. As the producer acknowledged at the time, “circular drive-ins … the favorite stomping grounds for teenagers and their hot rods in [the 1960s], had virtually disappeared.” 41 In truth, there was nothing remarkable about the original Mels, which occupied a workaday structure designed and built by the carpenter father of one of the restaurant’s founders. 42 But in American Graffiti, the drive-in, seen through the camera lens, functions as a historical marker of an idealized recent past; a past that had been, in the shrewd phrase of Jean Baudrillard, utterly “aestheticized by retro.” 43

Had George Lucas not immortalized it in celluloid, Mels Drive-In would have been forgotten long ago. The franchise was sold just before the San Francisco location, on South Van Ness, was scouted for American Graffiti; the new owners went bankrupt soon after the movie’s release; by the late 1970s, the site was vacant and remained so for the rest of the century. 44 Thus was the real Mels an insignificant casualty of the restlessness of real estate preferences and retail demographics. “The death knell has already sounded for another manifestation of the car-crazed society,” the New York Times observed in 1978, in an elegy for the drive-in restaurant. “I’m sorry to see them go. But maybe I’m just being nostalgic,” said an executive at Bob’s Big Boy. 45

Today’s enthusiasts are hailing electric and driverless vehicles, and car sharing and ride apps, as the fulfillment of an old promise: the infinite extension of the territories of the automobile.

A few years later, that nostalgia had intensified to the point where Steven Weiss, son of the eponymous Mel, relaunched what he hoped would be recognized as a beloved brand (or at least a registered trademark). In 1985 Weiss opened a new Mels, at a new location, in San Francisco; today he runs a chain of eight Mels Drive-Ins stretching from the Bay Area to Southern California. These are usually described as “replicas” of the drive-in that appeared in American Graffiti. Yet beyond the signature neon sign, they have little in common with the original, unprepossessing Mels, and the differences suggest the ways in which nostalgia for a golden age of Autopia has operated beyond cinematic space. For the Mels of today is less reproduction than representation. The restaurants are overloaded with the sort of “period” chrome and neon details that now seem enough to evoke an image of early ’60s car culture; more significantly, they feature indoor seating and, occasionally, outdoor tables. In other words, Mels Drive-In is no longer a drive-in. In the twilight of Autopia, nostalgia triumphs as simulacra.

But that is not all. While some roadside aficionados have fetishized a bygone age of automobility, seeing in its artifacts the evidence of a more innocent time, today’s enthusiasts are imagining Autopia anew, hailing electric and driverless vehicles, and car sharing and ride apps, as the fulfillment of a long-sought promise: the infinite extension of the territories of the automobile. But before we remake our metropolitan landscapes once more in the image of the car, we should take a good long look in the rearview mirror. We have been down this road before.

Editors' Note

“The Twilight of Autopia” is adapted from American Autopia: An Intellectual History of the American Roadside at Midcentury, which will be published this month by University of Virginia Press. It appears here with the permission of the author and the publisher.

  1. In 1934, Walter Dorwin Teague designed Texaco’s streamlined station prototype and “banjo” sign. In 1964, Peter Müller-Munk redesigned the sign and produced a new station prototype without a retrofit for existing buildings. John Jakle and Keith Sculle, The Gas Station in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 150–52.
  2. After 1970, when amendments to the Clean Air Act mandated anti-pollution devices, such as catalytic converters, U.S. cars burned even more fuel. See Federal Highway Administration, “Highway Finance Data: Numbers of Registered Vehicles – Automobiles, Trucks, and Buses, 1970–2006” (2008). Bureau of Transportation Statistics, U.S. Department of Transportation, “National Transportation Statistics: Public Road and Street Mileage in the United States by Type of Surface.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Report on Light-Duty Automotive Technology, Carbon Dioxide Emissions, and Fuel Economy Trends: 1975–2013” (December 2013).
  3. “Going after the Oilmen,” Time, 30 July 1973, 59. James P. Sterbas, “Gasoline Shortage Brings Prosperity to Many Name Brand Dealers,” New York Times, 14 July 1973, 27.
  4. Edward Cowan, “Nixon Sets Voluntary Curbs in Oil and Gas Shortage,” New York Times, 11 May 1973, 23.
  5. David Bird, “11 Amoco Stations Ration Gas Here,” New York Times, 11 May 1973, 23. David Bird, “A Mobil Dealer’s Sales Are Up 400% Despite Reports of Gasoline Shortage,” New York Times, 18 May 1973, 78. David Bird, “Gasoline Scarcity: Is It a Myth?,” New York Times, 30 May 1973, 32.
  6. “The Arab Oil Threat,” New York Times, 23 November 1973, 34.
  7. Andrew Malcolm, “A Wyoming Gas Station on a Busy Summer Day,” New York Times, 5 August 1973, 186. David Bird, “Drivers Unfazed by Gas Scarcity,” New York Times, 21 May 1973, 13. “Panic at the Pump,” Time, 14 January 1974, 15. Ben Franklin, “Curb on Driving under U.S. Study,” New York Times, 15 December 1973, 70. Bird, “Gas Scarcity: Is It a Myth?,” 32, and “Highways of Violence,” Time, February 11, 1974, 28. “The Fuel Crisis Begins to Hurt,” Time, 17 December 1973, 36.
  8. “Stepping on the Gas to Meet a Threat,” Time, 26 November 1973, 29.
  9. This was also a period of hyper profitability for the Golden Arches, with record sales through the spring of 1973 despite rising inflation. Ernest Holsendolph, “Keeping McDonald’s Out in Front,” New York Times, 30 December 1973, 83. Douglas E. Kneeland, “Garish Strips Stir Hostility, Coast to Coast,” New York Times, 28 November 1971, 1, 52.
  10. Figures cited in “Rapid Rise of the Host with the Most,” Time, 12 June 1972, 89–97. On the development of Holiday Inn see “The Nation’s Innkeeper,” chapter 9 in John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle, The Motel in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 261–85.
  11. Alexander R. Hammer, “Dow Stock Index Off by 28.67,” New York Times, 20 November 1973, 58. Fears of a “domino effect” seemed confirmed by what was called a “chilling” winter for the travel industry, when declining attendance caused Disney World to layoff 750 of its Florida employees and Holiday Inn and other motel chains endured lower occupancy rates and last-minute cancellations of group reservations. “The Rush to Stay Home,” Time, 25 February 1974, 36. Marilyn Bender, “The Hospitality Crusade,” New York Times, 26 August 1973, 133, 143.
  12. David Nye, “The Energy Crisis of the 1970s as a Cultural Crisis,” in Living with America, 1946–1996, ed. Rob Kroes and Cristina Giorcelli (Amsterdam: VU Press, 1997), 82–102.
  13. Joseph Alsop, “What Can We Do about Our Fading Age of Fossil Fuels?,” Los Angeles Times, 19 April 1973, C3.
  14. Robert Wright, “A Dim Las Vegas Wonders What Its Odds Are in the Fuel Crisis,” New York Times, 12 December 1973, 49, 94. “Strip Yields to Pressure: Lights Go Out in Las Vegas,” Los Angeles Times, 16 November 1973, A3.
  15. Andrew Malcolm, “Fuel Rationing Could Hobble That Work Horse of Suburbia,” New York Times, 17 December 1973, 42.
  16. Timothy G. Smith, “We’ll Save Some Fuel — But Consider the Costs: A Way of Life Will Disappear,” Los Angeles Times, 18 November 1973, G1.
  17. “The Arab’s New Oil Squeeze: Dimouts, Slowdowns, Chills,” Time, 19 November 1973, 110.
  18. John Hudson, “Density and Pattern in Suburban Fringes,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 63 (March 1973): 28.
  19. Christopher W. Wells, Car Country: An Environmental History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012). See also Thomas W. Hanchett, “U.S. Tax Policy and the Shopping-Center Boom of the 1950s and 1960s,” American Historical Review 101 (October 1996): 1082–110.
  20. “A Time of Learning to Live with Less,” Time, 3 December 1973, 53. “The Arab’s New Oil Squeeze,” 110. Robin Reisig, “The Gasoline Shortage Is Giving the Travel Industry the Chills,” New York Times, 2 December 1973, 645, 667.
  21. Stefan Kanfer, “The (Possible) Blessings of Doing Without,” Time, 12 December 1973), 60.
  22. Ernest Dickinson, “Abandonment of Service Stations Accelerates,” New York Times, 2 December 1973, section 8, 1, 6. New zoning rules were enacted in many places, but they were only minimally effective in controlling roadside development because, irrespective of quality, the strip malls that replaced the gas stations were so numerous they looked like one more form of wayside overbuilding.
  23. William D. Smith, “Gas Stations: A Way of Life is Changing,” New York Times, 27 May 1973, section 3, 1.
  24. Stewart Udall, “The Last Traffic Jam,The Atlantic, 1 October 1972.
  25. William V. Shannon, “The Untrustworthy Highway Fund,” New York Times Magazine, 15 October 1972, 31. “Highway Lobby Triumph,” New York Times, 29 July 1973, 195.
  26. “The Painful Change to Thinking Small,” Time 102, 31 December 1973, 20–21.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Edwin L. Dale Jr. “Auto-Suggestion: Time to End the Big Affair,” New York Times Magazine, 10 June 1973, 13, 92–93.
  29. Udall, “The Last Traffic Jam.” Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, quoted in Alsop, “What Can We Do about Our Fading Age of Fossil Fuels?,” C3.
  30. John Jerome, The Death of the Automobile: The Fatal Effect of the Golden Era, 1955–1970 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1972), 13, 103, 239.
  31. James J. Flink, “Three Stages of American Automobile Consciousness,” American Quarterly 24 (October 1972): 451–73.
  32. James J. Flink, The Car Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1975), 191, 233.
  33. Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” in Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1921), 1–38.
  34. Flink, The Car Culture, 233.
  35. James J. Flink, The Automobile Age (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988), 404, 377–78.
  36. Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” in The Anti-Aesthetic, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1983), 116. Charles Champlin, “A New Generation Looks Back in Graffiti,” Los Angeles Times, 29 July 1973, N1.
  37. For an analysis of the cars in relation to the characters, see Jack DeWitt, “Cars and Culture: The Cars of American Graffiti,” American Poetry Review, September/October 2010, 47–50.
  38. Stanley Kauffmann, “Films Worth Seeing: American Graffiti,” New Republic, 6 October 1973, 22.
  39. For an early definition of the drive-in, see Meyer Berger, “The Log of a Rolling Motorist,” New York Times, 13 June 1937, section 10, 4.
  40. Fredric Jameson, “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” (1984), reprinted in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991), 19.
  41. Jerry Beigel, “Growing Up in Early 1960s,” Los Angeles Times, 22 September 1972, D15.
  42. “H. Dobbs, Began Famed Drive-in Eatery,” San Francisco Chronicle, 18 August 1984.
  43. Jean Baudrillard, “History: A Retro Scenario,” in Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 1981; trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 44.
  44. Michael Karl Witzel, The American Drive-In (Osceola, Wisc.: MBI Publishing, 1994), 178–82. In 2002, high-rise luxury condominiums were built on the site.
  45. “Meanwhile, Drive-In Restaurants Fade Away,” New York Times, 8 August 1978, A12.
Gabrielle Esperdy, “The Twilight of Autopia,” Places Journal, October 2019. Accessed 22 Nov 2019.

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