The Golden Age of Motoring

Cross country travel made possible during the Golden Age of Motoring.

Modern America has a romantic vision of the mid-20th century road trip sleek automobiles, distinctive diners and motor hotels, kitschy roadside attractions. For the first time ever, motorists could go anywhere in the country and find adventure in comfort and on their own schedules.

But for all of that to come about, there had to be a national network of highways. That network got its start with the Good Roads movement that called for better thoroughfares as far back as the 1890s. In 1912, the National Old Trails Road was established as a named route stretching 3,100 miles from Baltimore, Maryland, to Los Angeles, California, with extensions to New York and San Francisco. It included the National Road and other pre-existing routes, and it drew attention to the possibilities of cross-country travel.

America’s romance with the automobile owes much to the genius marketing of Henry Ford, whose affordable Model T was introduced in 1908. Between 1914 and 1924, Ford and friends who included the inventor Thomas Edison undertook a series of Vagabond road trips. They toured places like the Everglades and the Catskills and the coast of California, and the press that followed them did much to inspire the classic American road trip.

In response to the proliferation of automobile travel, the federal government passed funding bills in 1916 and 1921 that got widespread road construction under way. And when the highway numbering system was created in 1926, the National Old Trails Road east of Colorado, including the old National Road, became part of U.S. 40.

The Golden Age of Motoring began in the ’20s and lasted well into the 1960s and ’70s, when motorists abandoned the leisurely two-lane roads where anything might be discovered in favor of high-speed interstate highways. Legacy highways like the old National Road let us visit the Golden Age thoroughfares once again.

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