August 17, 2012 at 1:00 am

Commentary: Muscle cars restored conservative masculinity

What did muscle cars like this ’61 Buick Invicta say about their owners? (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)

As mid-August approaches, I look forward to one of the most cherished events for many automotive enthusiasts, the Woodward Dream Cruise.

Started in 1995 as a charity fundraiser, the event is now the world's largest one-day automotive event that showcases a diversity of beautiful and awesome cars, from a variety of periods and places.

For me, the most appealing attraction is seeing the spectrum of muscle cars thundering down Woodward, a throwback to the time they would have raced each other for cash wagers, bragging rights and glory. Chevelle SS 454s, Mustang Boss 429s, 426 Hemi 'Cudas, Buick GSXs, Mercury Cyclones, and others competed against one another for horsepower supremacy.

From the mid-1960s until the early 1970s, American automotive manufacturers cranked out these excessively powerful cars, but for what purpose? What demographic bought these cars, and what did the cars say about their owners? These questions have long raced through my head; I am restoring (and modifying) a 1973 Ford Mustang fastback.

During the '60s and '70s, there arose a variety of liberal-minded socio-cultural movements that threatened conservative masculinity by repealing many of the methods for its expression. Women's liberation, the counterculture, the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements all combined to create a leftist challenge to the traditional patriarchal paradigm.

Women clamored to enter the workplace, political realm and places of higher education, which were all traditional spheres dominated by men. The anti-war movement trampled traditional military ideals by creating an atmosphere where service in the armed forces was no longer honored, but actually condemned by a large portion of society. The advances made by the civil rights movement drastically changed accepted notions of racial dominance and subordination in America. And the counterculture provided a liberal male model that was supportive of all these causes, and shunned traditional ideology.

It was this liberal rebelliousness that created an authentic crisis of masculinity for conservative-minded males, stripping them of many of the traditional methods for expressing conventional masculinity.

The "rise of the Sun Belt" is often used to characterize this development of conservative unification, as the reddening of America took place primarily in the Southern and Western portions of the country.

The development of the military-industrial complex under the theater of the Cold War, agricultural mechanization and a spike in oil prices all promoted a new level of profitable industrialization in the Sun Belt states. The mild climate also attracted the immigration of a leisure-oriented middle class and affluent retirees. It was this suburban, white, middle class that would fuel the conservative backlash against the revolutionary movements of the left.

It is within this societal faction that the muscle car demographic exists. For many like-minded men, muscle car ownership became a society-approved method of expressing this neo-conservative masculinity. The cultural products of the period highlight this trend, as automobile advertisements and the movies that featured the cars both screamed out a new prototype for conservative masculinity. Movies like "Bullitt" (1968) endorsed a new male figure who was cool and conservative, but slightly evolved in response to the changing times.

Muscle cars became a status symbol demonstrating attitudes about one's value system.

They were audible and visual rolling statements that oozed a modified conservative masculinity.

Evan Suntres is a master’s student in the University of Windsor’s Department of History.