For Which It Stands: Wheels

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It flows through our music, rumbles through our movies,  permeates our  literature.

Nat King Cole crooned its promise in  "Route 66." From snarling hot rod to exotic Thunderbird, it was the star of the movie "American Grafitti,'' and a virtual weapon in the hands of Robert Mitchum in "Thunder Road.'' For Jack Kerouac, it was holy deliverance in "On the Road.'' And loaded with all the Joad family had left in this world, it was a beast of burden and hope in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath.

America has always been dangerously, tragically in love with its cars and with the road. In fact, it's a relationship that defines to the world who we as Americans are.

There's the disciplined industrial production of the Model T Ford, the optimism of all that chrome on a 1957 Cadillac, the sleek confidence of a 1965 Mustang, the ceaseless popularity of the Ford F-Series pickup trucks, and the menacing muscle of the SUV culture of the 1990s. And teetering on collapse, the American auto industry needs a new song, a new movie, a new book — and the automobiles to inspire them.

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel captured the hope and despair of the whole affair in 1968 with "America:"

             "Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
             "They've all gone to look for America
             "All gone to look for America......''

One American artist after the next is driving to document the unfettered exploration of a vast America, a ceaseless romantic revelation  that continues to fascinate the world. It's a love affair that is both menacing and tragic. Full of hope and threat.

It's certainly true America gave the world the mass-produced automobile and its rumbling, rambling hope of industry and utility. But the "mobile machine" itself was actually invented in Europe and though many share credit, the first gasoline powered auto as we know it was built in 1885/86 by Karl Frederick Benz.

In fact, America's hot rod culture was born out of the rubble of the war where American GIs caught a glimpse of British and Italian sports cars. When these World War II veterans returned home, they decided to build a genre of their own, using American cars stripped, stroked, chopped and channeled.

America's promise seemed so much more than what even sleek European design offered: a motorized metaphor for the dream of expansion, exploration, freedom and wanderlust.

But now where once America ruled, the industry has globalized. Consider that in 1955, General Motors Corp. built half the cars sold in the U.S., and 80 percent of the world's cars were built in America. Toyota has passed GM in U.S. market share and, according to Automotive Digest, only 25 percent of the world's auto fleet is now American made and that share is dropping.

We sold the world on the promise of the automobile, and now the world wants to drive it.

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I recall an amazing conversation with Hau Thai-Tang, who told me the first American car he ever saw was an American Jeep rolling through war-torn streets in his native Vietnam. But before his family escaped Saigon in 1975, this child of war also spotted, incongruously, a Ford Mustang.

He came to America, became an automotive designer, and led  the successful evolution and redesign of today's highly popular new Mustang.

I have always worshipped at the Church of the Automobile. And now its romance and  utilitarian appeal have spread to lands — China and India — where overwhelming masses have never driven. They want that American dream of freedom as much as we do. But the global expansion of that American love affair with the car poses global challenges. They are imminently and frighteningly economic. Who will build the cars of tomorrow? The answer to that question has everything to do with nationalism, pride, the environment, global warming and our fate on this planet.

So now the industry connects the entire globe.

Who would have thought a Ford, with veteran's plates and a Semper Fi sticker in the back window, might well have been built in Mexico on a Japanese platform?

Or that that big Tundra pickup truck was built at a factory where Toyota chose to plant its stake right in the heart of American truck culture — Texas?

Or that the BMW SUV hurtling along Germany's Autobahn may have been built in South Carolina?

Or that British flagships Jaguar and Land Rover will now be built by a company based in India, a former British colony?

(Update: Or that the North American Car of the Year would be made by a Korean company?)

Today, even in tough economic times, much of the world looks to recovery to build roads, build cars, find ways to fuel them and to protect their drivers — but frighteningly, too many times under very different standards of environmental protection and safety.

After multiple millions of new drivers hit the roads in the future, will the automobile lose its romance, its glamour?

According to the International Monetary Fund, there are 600 million cars today. By 2050, it predicts there will be 2.9 billion, driven heavily by rising middle classes in what are today poorer nations. In the U.S., there are 765 cars for every 1,000 people. In China, 10.

That alone is a huge gap to be filled.

Where will we find the means to power this massive fleet?

Can it be done in a way that will not further endanger the environment?

And what will tomorrow's vehicles be like: their style, their intent, their source of power, their accessibility?

We'll look for answers as we hit these highways where promise, redemption, and danger lurk.

It will be a wild global ride.