The Henry Ford museum, in Dearborn, Michigan, is a tribute to America’s obsession with the motor vehicle.
The sprawling complex, set across 12 acres, is home to early examples of the Ford Model T, the mass-produced, affordable vehicle that set the US on the path of a car-dominant culture, as well as other era-defining vehicles right up to today.
Walking past these cars, it is possible to trace the history of the car in the US. With the occasional exception, that history has been: let’s make more cars, and let’s make them gigantic. The tiny Model T – early versions were about 11ft long – was replaced by cars like the Chevrolet Bel Air in the 1950s, and the Cadillac Coupe deVille of the 1960s, leading to the gigantic trucks and SUVs that are bestsellers in the US today.
With gas prices recently soaring, however, many Americans are now suffering as a result of that thirst for size. It’s a problem for people across the country, and with key midterm elections looming next month, the historic spike in the cost of fuel will be one of the issues that determines how the US votes.
Republicans have hammered Joe Biden and the Democratic party over the increase, despite the cost being tied to issues, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that are largely outside the government’s control. Prices have slowly declined in recent months, but news that Opec+, the global oil production cartel, will reduce daily production by 2m barrels, has rocked the Biden administration, weeks before the vote.
That has provided Republicans with another opening to attack Democrats over gas prices, inflation and general cost of living. But outside the Henry Ford museum, the more than $120m the party has spent on ads related to inflation mostly didn’t seem to have had an impact – so far.
“I truly believe that some of the higher prices that we’re paying right now is the price of freedom. I mean, you know, you don’t want to give in to all the dictators all over the world and you want to live in a free world, you have to make some compromises,” said Louis Sommer.
“I’m willing to pay $6 a gallon or $10 a gallon if that’s what it takes to live in a free world.”
Sommer, 39, drives a Ford Edge, which averages 22mpg, and also has an old Ford pickup truck, which guzzles about 14mpg. With prices hovering at just over $4 a gallon in this part of Michigan, those cars cost a lot of money to run.
Despite not classifying himself as a Democrat – “If I would vote right now, I would probably vote Libertarian,” Sommer said – he supports Biden’s efforts on foreign policy, and had not been swayed by the Republican rhetoric. As for driving, Sommer, who works in the auto industry, said he had considered buying an electric car, but believes they are too expensive.
“An electric car, as a second car, would make a lot of sense,” he said.
“But right now, the electric cars are $50,000-$60,000. For a second car, it should be more like, you know, $20,000-$30,000. And you know, the infrastructure is not there in the neighborhood that I’m living in.”
Gas prices in the US peaked, according to the Energy Information Administration, in June 2022, at an average of about $5 a gallon, compared with $2.42 in January 2021. Costs surged first as people returned to the roads post-Covid, and then again after Russia invaded Ukraine in February. By this September, prices had dropped to an average nationwide of $3.77, but the Opec+ news has not been kind: in the past two weeks prices have risen again to almost $4 a gallon.
In a country where, outside a handful of cities, there is hardly a thriving public transit system, the cost of gas has always been a key issue, and a uniquely visible one: with prices displayed in neon letters at every gas station, to go for a drive is to witness multiple adverts for inflation.
The increases are also more noticeable than the parallel spikes the country is experiencing with groceries as most people pay for gas on its own, rather than bundling it with other items.
In Ohio, south of Michigan, the higher prices are being keenly felt, particularly in smaller, rural towns where grocery stores and doctor’s offices are frequently a long drive away.
Ohio’s economy boomed through coal, oil and iron ore mining before the state switched to manufacturing cars, rubber and steel in the mid-1900s. By the 1980s those trades had moved abroad, and like much of the midwest, Ohio has suffered from a lack of well-paying jobs.
In the town of Bucryus, which is home to the annual Bucyrus bratwurst festival, and calls itself the bratwurst capital of America, gas was selling at $3.95 a gallon in early October, and local people are being forced to adapt.
“I’ve been doing less traveling and just generally doing less stuff,” said Ned Ohl, who works at the Crazy Fox Saloon. “Everything just takes a little more money than I would have normally spent.”
Ohl, 33, is a history buff, and had planned a trip this summer to the Waverly Hills sanatorium, a Tudor gothic former tuberculosis hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. He postponed the trip indefinitely as he couldn’t afford the gas.
As for who is to blame, Ohl said: “I try not to get into the politics of it.”
Kim King, who was in the bar celebrating the finalization of her divorce, said she had also been affected.
“Nobody’s traveling,” King said. “I drive my daughter to volleyball and softball, but I don’t do anything outside of that. I’m not about to take a road trip anywhere.”
Bucryus was among the towns to benefit from the rise of the motor vehicle. For decades Route 30, which runs across the US from New York City to San Francisco, ran right through the center of Bucyrus, and the town had a boom period during the prohibition era, when bootleggers used underground tunnels to hide and transport their wares. A speakeasy bar underneath the Crazy Fox Saloon, allegedly frequented by Al Capone, still exists today, but only as a little-visited tourist attraction.
There was no sign of mob activity in the Crazy Fox, where bar patron Mike, who declined to give his last name, was more than happy to link gas prices to politics.
“It went up right after that dumb-ass president stopped the pipeline,” Mike said. He was referring to Biden, and the planned Keystone XL pipeline, which would have carried oil from Canada to Texas. Biden revoked the permit for the pipeline on his first day in office. Politifact and other factcheckers have found no connection between the cancellation of the pipeline and the increase in gas prices.
Nevertheless, Mike, who manages a hotel next to the Crazy Fox Saloon, was set in his opinion: “I think we could have put a puppet in and done a better job,”
Mike said his car use had been affected.
“I don’t go anywhere other than to the grocery store,” he said.
“I go to Marion [a town 20 miles south of Bucyrus] once every other week to pick up my son; other than that it costs too damn much to run a vehicle right now.”
Mike said his son stays with him every other weekend. They used to take trips out to Lake Erie, but: “You can’t do that any more.”
Americans tend to drive larger cars than people in other countries do. So far in 2022 the three top-selling vehicles in the US are all pickup trucks – the Ford F-Series takes top spot – and the majority of the rest are SUVs. The bestselling car in the UK is the Vauxhall Corsa, a compact car that is four feet shorter than the smallest of Ford’s F-Series vehicles. The bestselling cars in France, Italy and Germany are all tiny compared with American vehicles.
Bigger cars need bigger engines, and more fuel. The Corsa, according to its stats, will average 45.6mpg in the city. The most economical of the Ford F-Series vehicles will burn through 25mpg.
It wasn’t always the case. The Henry Ford museum documents a move in the US toward smaller cars in the 1970s, triggered in part by spikes in gas prices, while the New York Times reported in 1973 that the rush “toward smaller, less extravagant cars” had left Ford, Chrysler and GM scrambling to switch up assembly lines.
The museum also offers a glimpse into a time when the government was more willing to clamp down on car use.
In 1974 Richard Nixon signed into law a 55mph speed limit on all national highways, after Opec caused a gas price spike when it stopped shipping oil to the US. The new speed limit was designed to conserve gas. Thirty years earlier, during the second world war, the US had introduced another effort to encourage people to carpool to save fuel for the war effort, with one public awareness poster in the Henry Ford museum telling Americans: “When you ride ALONE you ride with Hitler!”
Driving south-east into Ohio – and not with Hitler – the flat, open landscape gave way to thick woods and rolling hills, marking the beginnings of the Appalachian mountains. This part of the state is not doing well financially. The small rural towns that dot Morgan county are pockmarked by closed storefronts and buildings with flaking paint. After decades of decline, as industry left, frequently the only businesses still active are car-related: repair shops, gas stations and the occasional car dealership.
That the auto industry is the only thriving trade speaks to the reliance people here have on their cars. There’s no public transport, and frequently people have to drive miles to stores like Family Dollar, Dollar General or Kroger for groceries or essentials.
In Stockport, a town of about 500 people on the Muskingum River, CJ’s Family Restaurant is one of the most popular eateries. Carolyn Schramm, 78, has owned the restaurant, which offers diner-style breakfasts and coffee, and more substantial dinner options such as an $8.25 sirloin steak and $6.80 spaghetti with meat sauce, for 35 years.
The price of food has gone up this year, and with the rise in gas prices so has the price of traveling to buy supplies.
“I need to put prices up,” Schramm said. “But I haven’t done it yet.”
It’s difficult in a restaurant where Schramm said “customers become your family”. Some people come to CJ’s two or three times a day to eat, and in a town where the median household income is $34,338 – that figure for the US as a whole is $67,521 – many people are not flush with cash.
“There’s one couple I know they say they have to be careful how much they come.”
Schramm was wearing a T-shirt that said “Proud grandma of a 2020 senior”, in recognition of her granddaughter, who graduated from Morgan high school two years ago. She said gas prices had “made a big difference” for her children and grandchildren, who all live an hour’s drive away.
“So far they haven’t had to come less; fortunately my kids have pretty good jobs, but you never know from one day to the next,” she said.
Despite the spike, it won’t affect how, or whether, Schramm votes in November. She doesn’t blame the government for the increase, but said: “I don’t get in much on politics because frankly I think they’re all crooks.”
The road from Stockport to the Pennsylvania border is quite wiggly, the rapid ascending and descending placing stress on both vehicle and stomach. Washington, a town of 13,000 people that lies 10 miles across the border, had the cheapest gas prices yet, with Sam’s Club offering it at $3.71 a gallon.
On one of Washington’s main streets Tyler Weller, 21, had just finished work. He works as a traffic controller at a construction site, and is able to walk to work, but he knows a lot of people who have struggled more to cope with gas prices.
“We don’t have a lot of public transport in this town, it’s kinda small. So some of my friends have been borrowing money just to drive to work,” he said. “The grocery store, you can push it off or whatever, but you have to get to work.”
Weller said he is thankful he gets paid weekly – he earns $15 an hour – as he hasn’t had to worry as much about filling up his car. But he has still had to make sacrifices.
“Usually I just like driving around, like a decompression ride,” he said. “I’ve had to drop those.”
Others, like Weller, drive to relax, and it could be that there are impacts on people’s mental health as they are unable to turn to traditional forms of release. Weller said while he had noticed prices had gone down, they weren’t low enough for him to run his car the way he used to. And at the Luxury Box restaurant in Washington, a woman who gave her name as Kath said people celebrating cheaper gas have a short memory.
“I think people are naive when they see the prices drop – they get excited, and that’s not exactly where they should be – even though it’s a little better on our wallets,” Kath said.
“They notice the prices are better, they think they’re saving money, but in actuality we’re not, compared to where we were when it used to be $2.50-something.”
Kath believed Biden and the Democrats could have done more to prevent the increase in prices, although she didn’t have specifics.
“I think there’s a lot behind the scenes that we don’t know,” she said.
As for how she was faring financially, Kath echoed a sense of hopelessness that others had exhibited across Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“It’s just not the gas prices. At this point it’s the whole economy. Our food prices are outrageous. There are increases on everything – other than how much you get paid,” Kath said.
“I make very decent money for myself, but I feel like I’m now making minimum wage, and I haven’t felt like that in years.”