Wheels of History

At the dawn of a new era of self-driving cars, it is intriguing to look back at the twentieth century’s automotive culture. What role did motoring play in people’s lives? How did it affect daily routines and urban infrastructure? What did personal motor vehicles mean for Lethbridgians?

The first car appeared in Lethbridge in 1903 and belonged to Elliot Galt (a 20-horsepower Wilton). By 1914, there were already hundreds of cars in the community: Fords, Regals, Studebakers, Chevrolets, Saxons, Elgins and more.

From the very beginning, a car was a status symbol. In the early twentieth century, with limited options in brands, materials and engines, ownership itself was a marker. The expressive potential grew in the 1950s and 1960s with the introduction of different classes of cars. The classes not only catered to different needs but also communicated different lifestyles and socio-economic ranks: family cars, sports cars, utility vehicles, etc. All these types of vehicles were represented in both budget and luxury segments.

In the 1950s, cars were increasingly used for leisure activities, such as cruising. A car became a social capsule for young people in which to socialize and seek new experiences. Popular culture, like Grease and many of James Dean’s characters, glorified and reinforced this trend. Popular fast-food restaurants styled themselves into drive-in facilities. In the 1960s, the community welcomed the Green Acres Drive-in Theatre. The drive-in theatre became a popular attraction for moviegoers.

Cars in southern Alberta, particularly vintage stock, became a popular hobby. Local automotive enthusiasts continue to restore, exhibit and drive their beloved engines. Many local cars now gain the status of family heirlooms and are passed from one generation to another. There are competitions, shows, clubs and social media groups built around old-time motoring.

Wheels of History is showing at the Galt Museum & Archives from NOV 06 to FEB 22.18.

Andrew Chernevych