The Atlantic

Where Has Teen Car Culture Gone?

Something is missing in the lives of today’s adolescents: that magical coming-of-age feeling when a whole world opened up.
Source: FPG / Getty

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 , thewas 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 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.  

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic24 min readPolitics
The 2020 U.S. Presidential Race: A Cheat Sheet
Jay Inslee didn’t get much traction as a candidate, but his pet issue, climate change, has become a major part of the Democratic campaign.
The Atlantic6 min readPolitics
How Britain Came to Accept a ‘No-Deal Brexit’
The debate over Britain leaving the European Union has polarized the country and normalized what was previously unthinkable.
The Atlantic4 min read
This Way Up Is a Bountiful Binge Watch
Hulu’s latest British import is a delightful, openhearted comedy about a woman recovering from a nervous breakdown.