Fast Food & The Automobile

Car culture historian Michael Witzel notes in The American Drive-In that the automobile gave rise to a new way of eating. “People with cars are so lazy they don’t want to get of them to eat! ” said the founder of one of the earliest drive-in restaurant chains. (Witzel 24) When the car culture of southern California was at its height, it inspired a dizzying array of innovations such as drive in banks and motels, but perhaps the one cultural fixture of America which the automobile was crucial to, is fast food.

Engine powered indolence effectively led to the emergence of “curb service. ” (Schlosser 17) Simply put, the automobile is central to the history of fast food. Although its rise within southern Californian culture saw obvious impacts on cities which were rapidly transformed into low-density developments spawned by a love of the open road, the real transformation occurred in the alterations made to the American way of life, particularly with regards to food.

As such, indictments of fast food culture that have gained so much currency in recent years – resulting in such films as the fast food self-experiment “reality film” Super Size Me and Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation, a fictionalized re-telling of the investigative book by Eric Schlosser by the same name – are interesting in their tendency to gloss over the intimate relationship between automobile culture and fast food.

In Fast Food Nation, investigative journalist Eric Schlosser recognizes this link and notes that the developing cities of Southern California permitted an emergence in an automobile culture that was so crucial to early fast food developments. A major contrast exists between the well developed Eastern cities which had been built during the era of railway transport and the developing cities of the West Coast, primarily that without much of an open road there was significantly less room for the automobile lifestyle in the former. (Schlosser 15)

The decades between the 1920s and the 1940s saw the population in southern California tripled and such a tremendous growth in population coincided with a time when automobiles were more affordable. (McWilliams 14) As Schlosser notes: “The city was inundated with middle class arrivals from the Midwest, especially in the years leading up to the Great Depression. Invalids, retirees, and small businessmen were drawn to southern California by real estate ads promising a warm climate and a good life. It was the first large-scale migration conducted mainly by car. ” (Schlosser 15)

This, coupled with the automobile communities systematic dismantling of the trolley systems, resulted in a culture which was fast becoming firmly reconfigured around personal automobility. Jakle and Sculle observe that while quick service restaurants existed prior to the rise of the automobile, fast food did not really hit its stride until features of the quick service establishments were radically altered to accommodate automobile living. As such, the commercial landscape of southern California grew increasingly gaudy and unabashedly garish, whose architecture reeked of a “look-at-me” sensibility.

In the face of high speed automobility, the goal of the architect was to build a structure which would induce motorists to gape and pull over. Topped with pylons, towers and flashing signs or shaped like derby hats, adorned with canine-shaped frankfurter-dispensing statues or lined with psychedelic striping, one thing was certain: it was the end of subtle commercial design. Schlosser (17) also notes that the drive-ins were also staffed by attractively costumed waitresses known as “carhops,” who serviced the patrons in their parked cars and quickly became an attraction for young teenage boys in search of late night food and pretty girls.

Dressed in any respectable yet fetishistic garb ranging from Scottish kilts to rustic jean shorts, they were often denied any hourly wages and were expected to maintain the kind of friendly disposition that earns a good tip. Schlosser concluded that,“the drive-ins fit perfectly with the youth culture of Los Angeles,” and Jakle and Sculle note that “For the price of a hamburger, customers could enjoy a kind of beauty contest. ” Eventually carhops lost much of their appeal, and the fast food restaurant became the drive through.

The fast food restaurant was no longer a mere roadside attraction, but a part of the road itself ushering traffic through it. The fast food restaurant evolved the role of the automobile from that of a “parked table” into a high speed take away conduit. In any case, what can be gleaned from all this is that the automobile is not just a mere means of conveyance but a technology with transformative implications on cultural and societal norms, and should serve as a cautionary example on how we embrace future technologies regardless of how innocuous they may seem to be.

Like any technology, a paradigm shift occurred with the automobile: fast personal mobility, fast ways of living and of course, fast food.

Works Cited

Witzel, Michael. The American Drive-In: History and Folklore of the Drive-in Restaurant in American Car Culture. Location: Motorbooks International, 1994. Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. New York: Perennial/HarperCollins, 2002. Jakle, John A. & Sculle, Keith A. Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2002. McWilliams, Carey. Southern California Country. New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1946.