R. Crumb, A Short History of America
You can buy a print of this too

We purchased Cars at the end of September for my son’s third birthday. It’s not one of Pixar’s greatest efforts but, not only did I like it a lot more than I expected to, I’ve found that I’ve been liking it more and more with each viewing. Of course, I’m liking it for reasons that neither I, nor anyone else, expected. The movie idealizes a specific time period in American history which is easy to idealize. Meanwhile, I’ve found myself thinking about the way the US has developed and the distinctly-American way of relating to the land by the way we travel through it.

I say distinctly-American because our* history has been marked by travel movements and migrations across the country. Gohlke touches on this a bit when he talks about experiencing the landscape by car but it’s more than just cars we’re talking about. This is about covered wagons, trains, country roads, highways, interstates, and airplanes. It’s about the views of the land we get from each of those and the way each of those has been influenced by the land. And it’s about the way our settlements and transportation react and respond to each other.

*In this case, and for most of this post, “our,” “we,” etc. refers to white American males and their families. Women and minorities have obviously not had the same liberty to travel throughout the country without issue. The particular myths that Cars draws upon are distinctly not the minority experience. That’s a whole different blogpost for a whole different blog. I’m just flagging it here since it’s another reaction I had to the movie.

On the topic of whole different blogpost for a whole different blog, I also find myself wondering about the Cars universe and Dharma. And that a Cars version of the Gita would be an interesting approach.

Evolution of Strip Patterns
Grady Clay, Close-Up: How to Read the American City

The transition from Highways to Interstates which Cars covers is only a small slice of the evolution of our experience traveling through the land. Each generation of transport is faster and increasingly detached from the land. Roads get wider and straighter as they level and cut through more and more terrain. Instead of connecting homes they connect towns. Instead of connecting towns they connect urban sprawl.

As we travel faster, the destination increases in importance over the journey and we stop seeing things as we travel. We still look but we don’t really see anymore. The landscape speeds by faster and faster and the roads avoid more and more of the truly interesting things. Interesting things cause people to slow down and look. And we can’t have that. All the slow spots are ironed out by bypassing them.

Granted, there’s still beauty to be seen. It takes someone talented like Sarah Windels to point out and remind us what we’re blasting through at 70+ miles per hour. We’re still interacting with the land but instead of following its contours, we’re cutting straight through. Our interactions are now at arm’s length and viewed with an always-moving, always changing perspective. The landscape is always in motion and we have to freeze interesting things in our mind as we driver by. Assuming that we’re still even aware of them.

Sarah Windels, Speeding Through Here

We see a lot of these things when we’re young and getting yelled at for rolling the windows down and sticking our hands out into the wind. Trips take forever at that age and the perspective from the car is a new experience. Windels captures and reminds us of the experience.

Cars gets a bit of this correct too in the sequence on the Interstate although it never quite gets the cars-eye view right. It hints at the way overpasses and underpasses shoot by; the way the angle of the sun changes over the course of the drive and how the corresponding shadow of the car changes and chases the side of the road; and the way the landscape is always rolling by in the distance. But it doesn’t really care about or pull us into this experience. Pixar (correctly) lavishes a ton of attention on it and proceeds  to leave it in the background since none of the characters are paying attention to it.

Pixar is more interested in the golden age of the US Highway—in particular, Route 66—and presents it with the only context that our preoccupation with speed has caused us to lose all the character that the towns along the Highway used to have. Each time I watch Cars, I find myself thinking about the entire timeline of the evolution of the road. Radiator Springs is only concerned with travelers and no longer has any local economy of its own. The buildings along the road are all tourist-oriented and it becomes apparent that we’re looking at a road which bypasses, and may have killed, the original town. The Interstate is just a further generation of the bypass.

Natural History of the Strip
Grady Clay, Close-Up: How to Read the American City

Alternatively, Radiator Springs is a town set up expressly for travelers, in which case it was always going to be subject to the whims of technological change. I have a harder time feeling sympathy for the mid-century equivalent of Buttonwillow or Harris Ranch. Settlements which pop up where roads cross or other logical places to pause are temporary at best. They’re useful until they get too big, at which point the road has to bypass it in order to maintain any speed. Their success causes their demise.

Now, what I find most interesting about the golden age of the US Highway and the way of life which Cars glorifies is how it predates the homogenization of America. Lightning McQueen’s—and our—world is all about big sponsors and universal products. Radiator Springs has none of that. As someone who grew up in a world where every town I drive through has the same restaurants, gas stations, and convenience stores, it’s fascinating to be reminded of a world where we didn’t have McDonald’s, 7-11, etc.

When I read Kerouac, I was excited by the same phenomenon. For me, On the Road was a time capsule from a time when America was truly different all over but we could actually travel everywhere. Each town and city he traveled through was distinct and unique. Together they form a sense of Americana. And yes, I’m fully aware that the irony here. For many people, On the Road is about the search for self/meaning in an age of conformity yet my strongest reaction to it was in how different every place was.

The America which Cars is reminiscing for is the same America which On the Road was rebelling against.

Corporate monoculture has pretty much destroyed that America.* When we travel now, if we can be bothered to even stop someplace, we look for our chain-restaurant of choice and blow through the drive-through as we look to get back on the road ASAP. If Radiator Springs had managed to stay closer to the Interstate, it would have a Firestone outlet, Sonic, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Chevron, Union 76, and Motel 6. Just like every other town now. The bypass dooms the town, but also maroons it as a time capsule. A ruin of a previous age.

*This is the same phenomenon to my complaints about sporting monoculture making the world smaller.

On this thought, it’s also been interesting to be watching and rewatching Cars at the same time I’ve been digesting my Robert Adams and Trevor Paglen books. The concepts of development, ruin, and preservation are common currents through all three works. The way we develop and settle the land—especially the West—and the ruinenwert of our efforts are worth critiquing. Cars suggests that things would be better if we slowed down and embraced the past. Adams looks forward and asks what we’ll do next. Paglen just opens the door and forces us to think about our legacy—both in the past and in the future.

Paglen’s thoughts on time are also relevant here. The concept of speed has come up a lot. And since this is all about travel, distance is implied as well. Which means that in many ways, we can really look at the transportation evolution as how it relates to time.* The more I think about the romantic draw of the US Highway system, the more I realize that it really is a function of time.

*Basic physics here: distance = rate × time

Car trips used to involve getting in the car and just going. When it was time to stop for the night, you’d pick a motel wherever you were and spend the night. We don’t do that anymore. We don’t even like traveling more than a day. Cars is almost explicit about this point too with its treatment of the Wheel Well Motel as the ideal, especially given how the Interstate version of it is the truck stop Mack drives past earlier in the film.

John Schott, Route 66 Motels

One of my favorite series of images in the New Topographics was John Schott’s Route 66 Motels. The most memorable buildings and signs from the US Highway era are these motels and Schott’s photos capture exactly why they’re so wonderful. He took the photos in the early 1970s after the Interstate age had begun but before these had become relics of the past. He also managed to capitalize on the fact that these are all low-brow architecture yet still completely worth preserving.

Highway motels had to appeal to the traveler/family looking for a place to stay as the day wound down. Luxury wasn’t the name of the game then, convenience and novelty was. There’s a definite sense of “Oh, let’s stay THERE” going on.

And, to a certain extent, that sense remains. Of all the wonderful neon and tackarama buildings which distinguished the US Highway era, the motels have managed to hang in there.

Monterey Motel

Route 66 has managed to keep that particular spirit alive as the whole highway has turned itself into a bit of a time capsule. Barely. When I was in Albuquerque, it seemed like these motels were only just hanging in there. I stayed at a Best Western across the street from a bunch of cool neon. I enjoyed photographing the neon. I felt a lot safer at the Best Western. From what I can tell, when you get out of the big city and into the small towns, these hotels are still doing better.

I see them locally too. The only old neon around here are motels and those motels are still sitting on what was once* the highway through town. They’re definitely a bit run down now and they’re certainly the cheaper options in the area, but they appear to still be in operation.

*Or, in the case of 101 through San Francisco, what is still the highway through town.

City Center Motelwestern motelmotel capri

It’s kind of a surprise to me that, in the age of Johnny Rockets and diner-styled Denny’s, no one has bothered to retro-style a hotel chain yet. There is a romance to traveling at this time scale and many of America’s National Parks are still only accessible via the US Highway System. That things like tunnel view and horseshoe bend are basically ON the highway only adds to this point.

At a deep-seated level, one of the most American things to do is to go out for a drive with no timetable to keep to and just pull the car over whenever something strikes your fancy. The Interstate is great for getting places by a certain time but it bypasses almost everything you’d want to stop and see.

I don’t agree with the way Cars fetishizes the past. But I do think that the reminder to take the slow road and forget about making good-time is warranted. It’s also especially good to keep in mind as the parent of a 3-year-old who always takes the slow road—unless of course there’s a possibility of watching Cars again if he goes quickly.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

12 thoughts on “Cars”

  1. Arjuna: I just want to have a picnic.
    Krishna: A car’s gotta do what a car’s gotta do.
    Arjuna: OK, it’s the road, not the route.

  2. Pingback: Pixar | n j w v

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