Car Culture and Rock and Roll in Postwar America

Essential Question

How did car culture intersect with and inspire Rock and Roll?


In 1949, General Motors introduced the Oldsmobile 88. Dubbed “Futuramic” and advertised as “the lowest-priced car with a ‘rocket’ engine,” the sleek new vehicle epitomized an American fascination with speed, exploration, and space travel in the early 1950s. The Oldsmobile’s appeal was so widespread, that in 1951, Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats (an alternate name for Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm, with whom Brenston played saxophone and occasionally sang) recorded the song “Rocket 88” — an ode to the fantasy of driving the stylish car. Many historians would argue that “Rocket 88” was the first Rock and Roll song, citing the tremendous raw energy the band brought to the music. Without question, it signaled a connection between car culture and Rock and Roll.

Cars had been part of the American experience since the early twentieth century. In 1908, Henry Ford debuted his assembly-line produced Model T. The car’s relatively low price and interchangeable parts enabled many middle- and working class Americans to own, and maintain, a car for the first time. The auto industry boomed through the 1920s, but with the onset of the Great Depression, sales began a sharp decline. In early 1942, America’s entry into World War II necessitated a complete halt in the production of domestic passenger vehicles while auto factories were reconfigured for wartime contracts. With no new models available for the duration of the war, car culture was effectively on hiatus.

After the Allied powers achieved victory in both the Pacific and European theaters, Americans were filled with a sense of confidence, optimism, and national pride at levels they had never before experienced. Additionally, because the battles of WWII had not been fought on American soil, the U.S. was in a unique position not to rebuild from the destruction caused by the war, but rather to expand. As soldiers returned home and began to buy houses and start families, suburban communities developed around cities, necessitating not only new roads, but an abundance of brand new cars to drive those roads. By the time civilian auto production resumed in 1946, many Americans had not owned a new car since before the Depression — if they had ever owned a car at all. With the postwar economy surging, car sales in the United States skyrocketed. The creation of an interstate highway system in 1956 further transformed where people lived, how they got around, who they socialized with, and how they spent their money. A rising population of teenagers, born after the war into a country enjoying an unprecedented surge of prosperity, soon forged an intense and energetic relationship with cars as they became old enough to receive their driver’s permits.

By the early 1960s, the intersection of car culture and Rock and Roll was well-established and vibrant. Transistor radios became a standard feature on many new car models, allowing increasing numbers of Americans to listen to music while on the road. Songs including Chuck Berry’s “No Money Down,” Jan & Dean’s “Surf City,” and the Beach Boys’ “Fun, Fun, Fun” emphasized the extent to which the automobile had captured the nation’s imagination. The very act of driving had come to symbolize a new-found freedom of movement, particularly for American teenagers.

Using a selection of songs, statistics, television spots, archival films, and magazine advertisements, students investigate how the postwar resurgence of the U.S. automotive industry coincided with the rise of the teenager, the two intersecting in Rock and Roll culture.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The role of the Ford Motor Company in establishing private automobile ownership as an essential component of the American experience
    • How the resurgence of automobile manufacturing after WWII coincided with the rise of teen culture
    • The impact of the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 on life in postwar America
    • How Rock and Roll acts including Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys brought together teenage interests in cars and Rock and Roll
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Interpret a variety of archival magazine advertisements produced by the Ford Motor Company and General Motors between 1903-1950
    • Discuss figurative and connotative meanings of Rock and Roll song lyrics portraying the confluence of teen and auto culture in the United States
    • Common Core: Integrate quantitative analysis (e.g. charts, research data) with qualitative analysis in print or digital text (CCSS Literacy in History/Social Studies 7)