Nocturnal Transmissions: The Automatic Decline of Western Morals

P.B. Wombat

Issue 1 * Fall 1999

When first struck with this notion, that the automatic transmission has caused the decline of Western morals, I was pumped-up and ready to go. I could've written the whole thing right then and there, sans research, sans forethought, sans plan. But then, what I thought to be the better angel of my nature kicked in and said that the responsible thing to do was to do research. Despite my future difficulties, I still think this to be the right course of action. What I wanted for the essay on automatic transmissions was automatic writing.

The problems began to set in when it came time to actually do that research. I didn't wanna. Days stretched into weeks. Weeks into more weeks. The bloom was off the rose; the research just seemed like too much work-too much work on top of teaching, on top of domestic responsibilities.

After many weeks, I realized that it was, in fact the automobile that I was at the time driving that influenced my attitude and created my lethargy. You see, due to a problem with my wife's car-an automatic-that made it difficult for her to drive, I was using it for my daily commute. After only a single week of driving her automatic-equipped car, I had lost all desire to do anything; I, like America, had become shiftless.

The trend actually started before Oldsmobile marketed the first automatic in 1940 ("Stick Shifts" 4A). An ad for the 1939 model Chevrolet promises a "Perfected Vacuum Gear-Shift" that "does 80% of the work of shifting gears," beginning the trend to automobiles that were increasingly easier to operate (General Motors 31). This ad is echoed by rival Plymouth in the same issue of Time magazine: "Perfected Remote Control Shifting. . . with Auto-Mesh Transmission. Much Easier" (Chrysler 1). The implications are clear: even before the debauchery we associate with the 1960s, American values were beginning to crack; the idea that one should do things for oneself were beginning to be questioned by Madison Avenue, and, within a decade-and-a-half, by America itself.

We don't, of course, associate the late 1930s with licentiousness, but our history-or our memories-deceive us. In the exact same issue of Time magazine that we find the telltale ads described above, we find a short report on the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939. What makes this fair, and the article describing it in a mainstream American newsmagazine, special is that it featured "Sally Rand's troupe of cowgirls" from the "Dnude Ranch" who performed their naked cowpunching behind a plate glass window, but for all the exhibition goers, young and old presumably, to see ("National" 16-7). The article itself features a rear shot of these fine young women, revealing bare buttocks: a sight not allowable on commercial television until the 1990s in ABC television's NYPD Blue.

This cannot be mere coincidence. The decline from a moralistic nation to one condoning bare buttocks in a news story in a mainstream magazine is paralleled exactly by the marketing of the precursors to automatic transmissions. The desire to see and not work for bare buttocks as represented in Sally Rand's Dnude Ranch is exactly like the desire to drive without shifting: it is the acceptance of the id-the desire to have now, without labor and without wait, the opposite of the Puritan work ethic that built our nation, the opposite of the delay of gratification so essential to living a moral life.

As I've pointed out, a fully automatic transmission would be available the next year. War intervened, however, to keep Americans focused on the hard work that at one time made them great. Rationing and sacrifice were the rule of the day. As always, war brought out the best and most moral in America.

But all good things must come to an end, and the post-war era showed a fall right back into moral decline. What we have of the era of the 1950s is "family values" and Leave It to Beaver, but, as always, this is wishful thinking, projection of current wishes on a bygone era. Hindsight may be 20/20, but it is tinted with a rose-colored lens. The 1950s represent uncontrolled licence in spending on defense, on housing, on highways. Ike and Mamie Eisenhower may have seemed like everybody's favorite uncle and aunt, but the America they presided over became obsessed with having. Like the tail-end of the Depression before it, the 1950s were a consumer age, an age id-driven. An ad from late 1953 promises the new Dodge to be "More Massive," with a "New Fully Automatic PowerFlite Drive," touting itself as the "newest, smoothest, most powerful of all automatic transmissions. No clutch-just press the accelerator for a smooth surging of velvet power" (Chrysler 1). Smooth? Powerful? Surgings of velvet power? This can only be described as automotive erotica, an attempt to associate the id with its desire, the desire with its easy acquisition.

The reference to size should also not be dismissed. The old adage that size doesn't matter when it comes to sex is simply not true for Americans, and this ad is aimed at women as much as men. In the same ad we find "New Full Time Power Steering" that promises to "[take] all the hard work out of driving" and leave in "all the pleasure." We have no other conclusion to draw than that we were becoming a nation driven by leisure and constantly fantasizing about quickly obtainable sex.

The February 1954 issue of Popular Mechanics shows the shift from manual to automatic quite dramatically. From its introduction 15 years earlier, the automatic had become a preference of fully half of the American car buying public. In their words, "[o]nly 50 percent reported that automatic transmissions are worth the extra cost. Yet Detroit is predicting that in a few years, all cars will have automatic transmissions" ("The New" 296). It would be more than a few years; but the 1950s were a time of prosperity, and morals have traditionally begun to decline in periods of great material wealth. More important, this era set the stage for the 1960s, viewed by some as a decade in which young people broke away from traditional values. I suggest, however, that the 1960s were the inevitable result of 1950s morals, influenced as they were by the automatic transmission.

It is not a very big leap to say that the focus in the 1960s on freedom of action and thought is merely an extension of the freedom from shifting. The hippies grew up in a mechanically actuated, consumerized, suburbanized America. What they wanted, they got. Just like their parents who demanded the option to go driving without shifting, the baby-boomers demanded to go through life without any responsibilities whatsoever. They wanted free love, free housing, free speech, free medicine, freedom from work, want, or care. The yippies wanted free concerts; the hippies free drugs. Indeed, it was as if they wanted a society in which they got everything automatically--entirely without thought or input on their part.

The saving grace of the late twentieth century's fall into moral decrepitude was the 1970s. Despite the polyester-clad, big-medallion-wearing image we have of this decade, it was a time of great shortage. Gas was short; money was short-in a word, people had to re-embrace some of their depression-era values just to get by. They started buying smaller cars, and cars with stick-shifts, in order to help conserve gasoline. The rhetoric of free love turned to the rhetoric of all-natural; the hippies began living cheap. Ironically, the 1980s, despite its conservative posturing, was also a decade in which divorce rates rose, crime rates rose, spending on the military went out of control, and cocaine began to make a comeback. It was also a period of great prosperity, or at least, pretended prosperity. But the effect is the same: we were becoming even fatter, lazier, more id than ever. Aside from a brief period of recession in the early 1990s, the concentration of wealth in the United States is greater than ever before. The divorce rates continue to be high, and the level and severity of crime among the young has steadily increased. In a word, we are worse than ever.

Not surprisingly, automatics now comprise almost 90% of all transmissions sold in all cars, 89.4% to be exact, for 1998 ("Stick Shifts" 4A). The same source indicates that the year before automatics made up 88.7% of car sales, showing, without a doubt, that this trend is on a steady rise (4A). Shockingly, the strong light truck market, which includes the popular sport-utility vehicles, shows an 87.2% leaning toward automatics ("Stick Shifts" 4A). This shows that even in our ostensible work vehicles we do not wish to work.

The evil doings of the automatic are hidden, of course. We do not know that our wills and desires are being taken away while we are driving. It is simply a matter, after all, of not thinking. We don't need to think about the differences between shifting and not shifting because the shifting happens for us. We don't think about being responsible for getting the car moving by any coordinated action of our own: it just happens. Slowly, this decline in personal responsibility creeps into other aspects of our lives: we don't want to be responsible for getting up and changing the channel, so we have a remote control; we don't want to do the right thing and do the dishes, so we have a dishwasher; we don't want to bother with actually raising our own children, so we give them their own T.V. Should we really be surprised when they shoot up the school on a lark? Of course not: they are just like us, not able to conceive of themselves as in any way responsible for their own actions. They, like us, have become shiftless.

The religious right is wrong, of course: America has not fallen into decline because it has fallen away from God. Indeed, the Founding Fathers would have scoffed at the idea that the Eternal Clockmaker could help his device now. No, the moral decline of America is on our own shoulders, or should I say, beneath our feet; it is the automatic. The moral decline of America has come to us not in the form of "secular humanism," but in the form of FluidDrive, PowerDyne, Cruise-o-Matic.

Works Cited

Chrysler Corporation. "Announcing '54 Dodge: Elegance in Action." Ad. Time October 1954: 1.

--- "You See Finer Quality In Every Single Detail." Ad. Time 9 January, 1939: 1.

General Motors. "Lightly Lady's Fingers..." Ad. Time 9 January 1939: 31.

"National Affairs: California: Western Wonderland." Time 27 February, 1939: 14-8.

"The New Cars for 1954" Special Issue. Popular Mechanics Feb. 1954.

"Stick Shifts Join Tailfins in Ranks of Automotive Relics." The Wichita Eagle 28 June, 1999, sec. 1A+.