Rocket 88: The Music and The Machine

Alan P. Loeb

This paper originates in a question:  why was there a surge in demand for high-compression-engined cars in the U.S. in the 1950s, the so-called "horsepower race"?  Finding the shift toward speed and power unexplained by conventional economic factors, this paper considers rock and roll's contribution as a cultural factor.  From its beginning rock and roll developed an iconography that glorified the fast car, serving as an important vehicle for conveying General Motors' strategic agenda to consumers.  With rapid success in promoting speed and power in the 1950s and plans for the muscle car in the works for the 1960s, GM's associated company, the Ethyl Corporation, sought federal permission for a large increase in the amount of lead in gasoline.  Once approved by the U.S. Surgeon General in 1959, the lead use in gasoline increased rapidly, accelerating lead's accumulation in the environment.  This came to be recognized in the mid-1960s, leading to Senate hearings and ultimately to the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970.  This paper concludes that the GM product policy of the 1950s and the resulting regulatory response cannot be fully accounted for without considering the impact of rock and roll.