Auto Mechanics: Technology and Expertise in Twentieth-Century America.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Franz, Kathleen
Pub Date: 03/22/2010
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Spring, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 3
Topic: NamedWork: Auto Mechanics: Technology and Expertise in Twentieth-Century America (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Borg, Kevin L.
Accession Number: 223732180
Full Text: Auto Mechanics: Technology and Expertise in Twentieth-Century America. By Kevin Borg (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. viii plus 242 pp. $36.00).

Kevin Borg begins his history of auto mechanics with the important truth that cars break down. Along with the adoption of the automobile, repair became a fact of life for American drivers. Borg asserts that the unreliability of automobiles tempered the libratory potential of the new technology, cultivated anxiety among users, and created a new occupation, that of the auto mechanic. Although much recent scholarship on the automobile has focused on consumption, Borg defines a new avenue of inquiry, the "middle ground" of repair, which proved to be an undefined space between production and consumption. Borg plumbs the ambiguities of this middle-ground and mechanics' identity over the twentieth century, using public debates, census data, and institutional records to explore the intersections of social status and technological knowledge.

In this study, Borg poses critical questions about co-evolution of expertise and status that rework our understanding of social hierarchies in the Machine Age. He asks: "How can we understand the occupation's ambiguous social status - between stigmatized, dirty service work and technological expertise - as both servants and savants?" (5). Examining the social construction of mechanics, Borg argues that "mechanics' relationship to the automobile a technology strongly associated with freedom, power, and progress - both challenged and reinforced evolving American hierarchies of gender, class and race" (6). What we learn is not only how this category of work was created, narrowly defined, and maintained but also how mechanics' identity, although predicated on technological knowledge, became, paradoxically, distrusted and devalued even as Americans increased their dependence on the automobile.

Borg traces these questions through seven chronological chapters that span the twentieth century. After defining the concept of the "middle ground," the author uses a case study of chauffeur-mechanics to interrogate struggles over authority between owners and mechanics. Early automobiles needed constant repair and this gave rise to a new group of laborers drawn from the ranks of native born, white, young men who were mechanically skilled and who both drove and cared for the automobiles of wealthy owners. The "chauffeur problem" described the tension between a new class of worker and their employers. Because of their skill, mechanics found themselves in high demand, however their relative position of authority did not last long as patrons, motoring interests, and garage owners initiated "legal, educational and bureaucratic changes" that curbed the mechanic's power (24). By World War I, mechanics' control of the technology shifted to a new venue, the independent and dealer-owned repair shops.

The subsequent three chapters explore the production and reproduction of the trade through education. Chapter Two discusses the diverse antecedents and occupations that contributed to car repair as a sideline business. In the 1910s a wide range of craftsmen, from blacksmiths to bicycle repairmen, and a host of others became "ad hoc" mechanics. Chapter Three explains the institutionalization of mechanical training in the Army and in courses hosted by civic organizations such as the YMCA. These classes turned the previously haphazard process of acquiring automotive knowledge into a system that created, defined, and reproduced mechanics (53). Chapter Four follows the evolution of training in the 1920s from nonprofit organizations to public schools. Borg argues that shop classes "narrowed and ossified the already strong gender and class construction of the trade," sharpening social and technological hierarchies along class, gender and racial lines. For instance female students were regularly discouraged from taking shop class. In addition, the author considers the overlapping categories of race and class in a discussion of segregated schools and the limited access of African Americans to well-funded shop classes. If schools defined who could become a mechanic, it did not ease the anxious relationship between consumers and repairmen, and the sixth chapter considers the efforts of the automotive industry to alleviate motorists' mistrust of mechanics. Initiatives included licensing mechanics, redesigning automobiles to make minor repairs easier, instituting flat rates for service (which did not sit well with mechanics), and recasting the image of mechanics as laboratory technicians. These efforts, however, did not result in reworking the social structures that defined and devalued auto repair in the interwar period (114).

The final two chapters focus on the landscape of post-war automobility. Although marked by unprecedented car ownership, enthusiasm for the car in this period did not improve the social status of mechanics. Although a few mechanics became celebrities, the daily repair of automobiles became more complex and less rewarding with a diversification of models and the eventual incorporation of onboard computer systems that challenged the tacit knowledge of seasoned mechanics. Consumers still harbored suspicions about unscrupulous repairmen. In the final chapter, Borg weaves together a complex set of social movements from consumer rights and nascent environmentalism to government regulation to frame technologies of distrust (check engine lights) that produced new ways of understanding the car. The establishment of diagnostic testing centers and eventually On-Board Diagnostics, or computers, by the 1980s made diagnosing problems more difficult for both mechanics and motorists. On the other hand, they merged mechanical and electronic knowledge in new ways and "began to force open the formerly closed sociotechnical ensemble that had grown up around the mechanic's occupation" to include the white-collar knowledge of electronics (168).

Borg makes a convincing case for studying repair as a way to understand the interconnectedness of social status and skill. His work provides a needed analysis of technological expertise in American society, especially as it overlapped with race, class, and gender to form sociotechnical hierarchies in the twentieth century. Some readers might want mote discussion of ethnicity here, and Borg might have taken more time to tease out of the social consequences of devaluing mechanics' work. However, these are small criticisms of an innovative and well-researched project. Borg's careful attention to issues of race and gender, and his ability to draw connections between larger social movements and technological change makes Auto Mechanics a valuable contribution to a new generation of scholarship on the automobile, one that marries social history and the history of technology.

Kathleen Franz

American University
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