Something is missing in the lives of today’s adolescents: that magical coming-of-age feeling when a whole world opened up.
May 27, 2018
For nearly a century, coming of age in America meant getting behind the wheel. A driver’s license marked the transition from childhood and dependence to adult responsibility and freedom. To many, it was a far more important milestone than voting or legal drinking. It was the beginning of a new world—of cruising down Main Street to meet with friends and compete with rivals; the ritual of being picked up for a date and making out while “parking”; and of the pleasures and frustrations of repairing, souping up, customizing, or racing a car.
This world, familiar to anyone who has seen American Graffiti, the 1973 paean to teen driving, was unique to the U.S. No teens in any other country in the world shared American teens’ level of enthusiasm for all things automotive. This was in part because in the mid-20th century there was a wealth of available cars—cheap used ones from the late 1920s—as well as the fact that by 1940, American teenagers were more likely to be attending high school than working. Elsewhere, 16-year-olds rode bikes or buses and had jobs. Practically nowhere else on earth did teens have the means—and, as high-school students and not full-time workers, the time—to join the adult world of automobility. And they did so on their own terms, partially emulating their elders who had cars, but also by using cars to craft their own personal styles and escape their parents’ control.