History of the American Road Trip

Since the dawn of the automobile during the late 1800’s society has tirelessly made an effort to push the limits of long distance auto travel. It all started in 1888 when Bertha Benz, wife of automobile inventor Karl Benz, unbeknownst to her husband traveled 66 miles in one of Karl’s experimental motor cars – the prototype Benz had a top speed of 10 mph.

What Bertha claimed to be a casual drive to visit her mother, was in fact Mrs. Benz’s attempt at raising some publicity for her husband’s invention. Not only was Bertha Benz’s PR stunt a large success, ultimately skyrocketing her husband’s business into the automobile giant that it is today, she earned her place in history by completing the first ever road trip in an automobile.

Just over a decade later Karl Benz’s “motorwagen” had captured the imaginations of the world and people everywhere couldn’t stop talking about this motorized contraption.

Now let us skip forward to post-WWII era United States, commonly referred to as the Golden Era of road tripping. Following the conclusion of WWII, there were a number of factors that played a role in the increasing popularity of road travel. One of the largest being the actual manufacturing of automobiles. But first you must understand the impact the war had on production in the US.

To put things into perspective for you, in 1941 during the early stages of WWII there were over 3 million cars manufactured in the US – only 139 were manufactured in the years following the United States entry into the war. However the US automobile industry was quick to recover following the war and were in fact responsible for 76% of the world’s 10.5 million cars manufactured in 1950.

With the nation’s sons returning home from Europe and spirits high following a victory for the Allied forces, families were looking for ways in which they could spend time together. Coupled with the fact that, at the time, cars were the cheapest they had ever been, the stage was set for the American people to hit the road.

If I could put my figure on one specific event that had the greatest impact on rise in popularity of American road travel, it would have to be the signing of Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. On June 29th, 1956, President Eisenhower signed the bill that allocated $25 Billion towards the development of an improved road system, thus giving birth to the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways (commonly referred to as the Interstate Highway System). Since then, an estimated 42,795 miles of highway have been across the US, costing a total of around $128.9 Billion!

One cannot describe the history of American road travel without touching on it’s, how do I say, weirder days. When I say “weird”, of course I am referring to Jack Kerouac and his influences on the societal counterculture of the late 60’s and early 70’s. In Kerouac’s novel “On the Road” he depicts his adventures on the road during the late 40’s - complete with friends, music, literature, and drugs – and conveyed the strong message that one must live outside of the social norms.

To the youth the open road was not just a symbol of freedom; it gave them an escape from commonly strict households of post-WWII society. Young people everywhere were taking to the road in search of self-exploration and adventure. Kerouac’s novel is credited as a major inspiration by many prominent artists of the time such as Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, and Hunter S. Thompson, and would ultimately become the so-called “bible” of the counterculture movement.

Over the past 50 years we have witnessed the popularity of road tripping fluctuate significantly. With such events as the Oil Embargo in 1973, the tragic events of 9/11, and the steady increase in gas prices, who knows what the future holds for adventure that is road tripping. However one thing is for sure, it is hard to find something more American than a good old road trip.

Author Bio: Noel H Palacios is a travel freelancer who enjoys writing about his travels.