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> Safety, Speed or Styling?
 

The automobile industry contended that driver education, better traffic controls, and more law enforcement would prevent accidents. However, new car marketing emphasized horsepower and speed. Some industry officials insisted that powerful engines enhanced safety because motorists could escape dangerous situations quickly. But safety advocates questioned drivers’ ability to handle automobiles at higher speeds. The horsepower race remained a feature of new car marketing through the 1960s.

1938 Buick speedometer with SAFETY FIRST printed on the dial
1938 Buick speedometer with SAFETY FIRST printed on the dial
Ford V-8 engine, 1960s. Powerful V-8 engines were available on low-priced cars from the 1930s to the 1960s.
Built in 1940, the Arroyo Seco Parkway connected Los Angeles and Pasadena.
Built in 1940, the Arroyo Seco Parkway connected Los Angeles and Pasadena.
Opening day on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, October 1, 1940
Opening day on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, October 1, 1940

The automobile industry also advocated public funding of high-speed, dual lane highways with limited access and grade-separated crossings. In the 1930s, the industry-sponsored Automotive Safety Foundation called for 100,000 miles of superhighways at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $50 billion. Opening the first high-speed turnpikes and freeways in the 1940s made headlines and prompted some journalists to remark that highway engineering had caught up with fast, "perfectly designed" automobiles.

By the 1930s, automobile manufacturers had learned that modern styling attracted new car buyers more than mechanical performance. Streamlined bodies made cars appear to be the cutting edge of machine-age technology and symbols of modernity and speed. Annual model changes and art deco embellishments excited car shoppers with the prospect of owning the newest fashions in mechanical beauty and the latest gadgets. But streamlining often conflicted with safety. Oval windows and wide roof pillars reduced visibility from the driver's seat. Knobs and ornamentation on steel dashboards caused facial injuries in collisions. And far from being aerodynamic, cars of the 1930s swayed at high speed. As long as manufacturers remained focused on marketing, they emphasized cosmetic improvements to car bodies because that boosted sales. Safety enhancements, though sometimes mentioned in sales literature, typically took a back seat; auto makers preferred the sizzle of style and novelty.

1939 Plymouth coupe
1939 Plymouth coupe
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