Why Ford’s target audience was weird Americans: from ineffable to shortsighted

Ford’s Model A, which featured in the new film A Hot Rod Before Its Time, was part of a brand era, ushered in by the Model T and the automobile in general, that pushed the American dream to the brink. The first roadster for mass consumption was Ford’s second offering, which targeted a younger, single generation: the Mustang was powered by a motor borrowed from a Model A. The fledgling American automobile industry, like one would expect from the early 1960s, set its sights on Europe and Japan; long before mass-market production came into being in Japan, Ford was already eyeing the country and exporting Bentleys to Tokyo. Its 30 years in the international market was short-lived. The company’s viability ran its course by 1967, after Ford went out of its way to alienate its biggest customer: the United Auto Workers union.

America, as shown in A Hot Rod Before Its Time, sought to redefine itself as a service-based economy, rather than a manufacturing-driven one. In 1963, Detroit not only launched the Model A but also introduced the Escape, a small, sleeker car with space for just two passengers. These were graces to a fleet of transport vessels engineered to help the US maintain a “cafeteria society” where people could travel around safely, knowing that they were covered by the high wages of the car workers that built them. Automakers came to boast that they were the “Queen of Cars”, to treat the American client as one of the fairer sex, providing transportation to whatever extent possible: in fact, there was a spin-off service with access to various characters in western movies, where small children and animals could ride in the backseat without the discomfort of riding on a child’s bicycle.

We tried to relate the Ford phenomenon to our experience as professional electricians; though we were a curious, calloused, and fatherless generation, we came of age as a generation of cheaply propelled electricians. All the important decisions revolved around power tools, while the previously most relevant purchases were tiny cameras, as the films helped us understand the difference between manual and auto-cameras, and let us understand how we could select the method we preferred. That cost of gas remained an open question from the time we were kids – our parents traded on its unfairness, even though the Ford solution was back then another option for our generation.

If we had an American Dream, it was, of course, to act like teenagers, shamelessly wasting all our spare time. We would roll in, jump in without security guards or parents checking our bags, let our clothes hang to the left and explore the fun and danger along the way. Not only did we respect the mechanics of building a hot rod, we loved listening to the 2-CC parts explaining the complexities of the “propellerbox” design, and we were eager to develop a system of “auto hacking” to bring all of the automotive intangibles we’d been exposed to into our cars: engine noises, the fact that if you turned the engine off, the vibrations in the car were quite fantastic. The rush we felt was more energizing than the drug we were just down the road, driving fast up and down, in a car most of us could barely afford. There was, however, an unspoken, universal injunction, in the spirit of Henry Ford, to bring all of this to our cars, to bring the myths of our youth with us into our new cars, as more considered versions of our past experiences.

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