Earlier this year it was widely reported that Toyota is soon likely to overtake General Motors as the world’s largest car manufacturer.

Toyota, which produced about 8.1 million vehicles in 2005, already has Ford in its rearview mirror, and while GM is projected to shed around 30,000 jobs by the end of 2008, Toyota has expansion plans. Meanwhile, although two of the three leading hybrid-fuel cars sold in the United States are Honda’s Civic and Insight, it is Toyota’s hybrid, the Prius, that has come to symbolize efficiency and fuel economy there; and a hybrid Camry will hit the U.S. market this year.

If the 20th century was, as it’s often said, “the American century,” then the most potent consumer symbol of that hegemony was the family car. When I was a kid in the 1950s, advertisers urged us to “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet.” Who would have thought back then that a half-century later you’d be “seeing North Dakota in your Toyota”?

Cars to us were not just a means of getting from A to B. They were prime symbols of style and status. Safety? Don’t be a nerd. In the 1960s, executives at Ford decided that safety was simply not a priority. They made the decision not to install seat belts in their cars for fear consumers would conclude that driving was dangerous.

Hybrid technology? If, as George W. Bush said in his State of the Union address in January, Americans now are “addicted to oil,” then it’s all the more regrettable that a homegrown pioneer of hybrid technology wasn’t taken seriously long ago.

Ticket to identity

Victor Wouk was an electrical engineer at the California Institute of Technology when he created a prototype hybrid in the 1970s — a system that doubled fuel efficiency when tested on a Buick Skylark. The government rejected his invention out of hand. It’s a shame this didn’t get a mention in “Syriana.”

To us in our late teens in 1960s Los Angeles, our car was our ticket to an identity. Before we went on dates, we Turtlewaxed our car until it shone like the full moon. How could you find the courage to go for that goodnight kiss at your girl’s front door if your “wheels” weren’t glowing hot under the lamppost by the curb?

Every item in your car defined you. Nobody wanted to be the kind of dork who worried about safety; everybody bragged about how few miles their car got to the gallon.

What was important in driving? The way you nonchalantly pushed the buttons on your radio, deftly going from hit song to hit song without stumbling on a commercial message that might spoil the mood in the car. What was important was not getting your girl safely to the party, but the dreamy way she gazed (with considerable difficulty through eyelashes laced with Maybelline mascara filched off her mother) at your padded dash.

Did we ever check the tread on our tires? Are you outta your gourd? Would you turn the corner where the party was being held without laying a bit of rubber on the road? Safe driving was “dullsville.” Your ability to hang a swift left was crucial, man, and your peers judged you by it! And there were no safe bucket seats then. The long front benchseat had to have a shine on it, proof that your unsuspecting date had been, many times, propelled laterally against you as you hung that turn without, however, denting her lino-like pageboy hairdo.

If you were young but didn’t think that all this was why God created the automobile, you certainly had no future — though in truth Los Angeles had foisted a pretty extreme paradigm on the world.

And it was by no means only us white boys who lived to drive. The car culture, more than anything else, united Gentile, Jew, Black, Hispanic and Asian. It was what made America America. The annual auto show at the Pan-Pacific Auditorium on West Beverly Blvd. was true entertainment for the whole city, right up there with Hollywood. If you missed seeing the latest models, your social life was a write-off.

Emblematic image

If for us white kids the emblematic image was the car in the driveway, for blacks it was the roving machine. Lightnin’ Hopkins sang . . . “I got me a Cadillac / Black Cadillac / With whitewall tires / I sit up there / With white teeth / And white eyes . . . “

The Hispanic drivers knew best of all what to do with their cars. They lowered their suspension so much that God only knows how they rode over bumps. Two-tone was out. Your car had to be one color, preferably metallic silver. You sat low in the seat — real low — so all that was visible from the street was the merest crest of greased spit curl and dovetail above the bottom of the window, while a wisp of cigarette smoke and deafening rock music totally identified the driver as a pachuko, a genuine macho L.A. Mexican dude, a class of male we white kids could only dream of aspiring to. A thin wrist resting casually over the steering wheel transformed the picture from a watercolor of manners into an icon of Southern California culture. And it was all thanks to the car.

We thought, in L.A. then, that we were living in the future, that people in the Midwest and East, not to mention everyone all around the world, would soon be imitating us; that American car culture was a global prototype. What was good for GM was good forever . . .

I once owned a Buick Skylark. Had I known I could have been driving one of the first hybrid cars, I might have begun to see my country’s car culture in a more sensible light. I might have “grown up” in terms of how I viewed the uses and values of my car. And GM might today have been streets ahead in defining the car culture of the future.

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