Ride the Highway

Imogen Hawgood

‘Americans were seduced into accepting the automobile as the embodiment of modern dreams, urges, and passions’   

Stephen Heller, co-author of ‘Automobile Design Graphics’ 

Space-age tailfins, coloured chrome and excessive size are some of the features Americans came to expect from their cars. Beginning with the 1949 Cadillac’s tailfins, from the Chevrolet Corvette to the Ford Thunderbird, car manufactures continually tried to out-do each other with their bizarre and outlandish styles and features. In the post-war years, cars became aerodynamic works of art, but also representative of a less tangible ideal; owning a car became an indispensable element of the American Dream. The car symbolised wealth, individuality and freedom, and was sold to Americans through advertising which was more about lifestyle and status than the car itself.  

Looking back at this period now, it’s clear that what was being sold through advertising was merely a delusion. Whilst using romanticising colours and lighting to mirror the tone of advertising at the time, this series, ‘Ride the Highway’, depicts the unnecessary components of the ‘dream’ cars, highlighting their deluding extravagance. The space-age cars, along with every other symbol of the American Dream, mask beneath their sleek façade a reality of social fragmentation and disconnection that was brought about by the age of mass consumption. The once idealised dream had turned sour, and with this, the golden age of American automobiles started to rust. 

Even so, the romance of the automobile lives on as iconic classic cars continue to drive narratives of Hollywood cinema. For every sky-blue 1966 T-Bird Convertible (‘Thelma and Louise’, Ridley Scott, 1991) that ends its days in a ball of flame at the bottom of a Badlands canyon, there’s a quietly heroic bottle-green 1972 Gran Torino Sport (Clint Eastwood’s ‘Gran Torino’, 2009), waiting to save the day. 

Words: Imogen Hawgood, Illustration, @imogenzoe_illustration

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