Jukebox on Wheels

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This week on The Atlantic Technology Channel, we've been running posts from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History's "O Say Can You See?" blog, highlighting the museum's large collection of automobiles. The earlier models -- like the Balzer automobile and the Oldsmobile Curved-Dash Runabout -- are remarkable based on their sheer mechanical simplicity, but as the technical specifications of consumer automobiles became more consistent, manufacturers focused more on design.

In an April 1955 issue of The Atlantic, Raymond Loewy pondered the advent of the "jukebox on wheels," writing that "Studebaker's designer and stylist expresses his irrepressible opinion of the American automobile today, and of what it may be fifty years hence."

Designers today are briefed to "give the public what it wants," and "what the public wants" is being translated into the flashy, the gadgety, the spectacular. I refuse to believe that today's automobiles represent, stylewise, "what the public wants" any more than they reflect what we in the automotive industry want. But the result of this mistaken opinion is vulgarity and blatancy. Instead of the automobile's expressing advancement, the story is now one of external bric-a-brac. This reflects a distorted notion of what is competitive.

I think that vulgarity is dangerous for many reasons. The American automobile has changed the habits of every member of modern society. In the past fifty years it has become the symbol, all over the world, of American industrial genius and enterprise. It has become so potent a force that it is very nearly the symbol of American thought and morals to people who don't know us. It is more than an object to be sold for money. The automobile is an American cultural symbol.

But beyond sheer aesthetics, Loewy pondered the future of automobile design and automation in America. "What will cars in 2005 look like?" Some of his predictions:

1. Highways will be able to carry more traffic at greater average speeds. (We shall need better streamlining, smooth undercarriage, higher speeds, better deceleration.)

2. There will be more automobiles everywhere. (Automobiles must be made easier to maneuver in all directions.)

3. Automobiles will increase productivity in all industries. There will be more leisure, more family travel for longer distances. (Increased luggage space is indicated for the family car.)

4. Semiautomatic driving will become the rule. Driving will be easier--therefore more relaxing; therefore more dangerous. (Interior design must take into account that the occupants must be protected more carefully if the driver lapses in attention and dozes. Devices may become standard equipment to prevent this from happening.)

Read the rest of Loewy's "Jukebox on Wheels."

Revisit more pieces from The Atlantic's archives with the Technology Channel.

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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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