Auto Park.

My wife and I watched It Happened One Night in the Criterion edition (a gift from my brother) and enjoyed it as much as we had when we saw it many years earlier — it fully deserved its sweep of the top Oscars and its reputation as one of the greatest of all rom-coms. But what brings it to LH is something I don’t remember noticing before. When the hero and heroine are making their leisurely way north, at one point they put up for the night at a sort of proto-motel called an “auto park.” I wasn’t familiar with this phrase, and it’s unknown to the OED (“No results found for ‘auto park’”), but it clearly had some currency — a Google Books search turned up ads using the term as well as this quote from Pamela J. Brink’s Only by the Grace of God, describing a road trip c. 1936: “The best thing about our trip was staying in new lodging called an auto park or motel.” Does anybody know anything about the history of this quaint expression?


  1. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I got curious about what the OED did have – ‘auto court’ and ‘motor park’ seem to have been (possibly more common) variants, along with ‘motor court’ and ‘motor lodge’.

    I didn’t know that a motel was a special kind of building – I thought it was just a (cheapish) hotel by the road, like you sometimes get at motorway services in the UK.

  2. Most NZ travelers’ accommodation is ‘motels’: typically on the edge of a city, low rise, the chief feature being you park your car immediately outside the room. ‘motor lodge’ is merely the fancy name.

    As opposed to city-centre ‘hotels’: high rise, put your car in the basement. (Or more likely you’re travelling on a coach tour.)

    There’s also ‘motor camps’: outside the city/in scenic areas; each vehicle in a small grassy area with electrical power supplied; your vehicle is probably a camper van or minibus adapted for sleeping in (or you could pitch a tent); communal ablutions.

    I’ve not seen/heard ‘auto park’ in NZ.

    UK ‘motels’ at motorway services (from what I remember of them) are a bit more substantial than NZ motels; maybe several stories/you can’t back your car up to the door.

    The first Google hit for ‘Autopark’ is in Florence — Free breakfast, 25% discount “grande parcheggio gratuito”. (What’s more it seems to be the only hit/or at least they’re paying so much to Google it’s not offering me other hits. darn it! now my browser history is banjaxed.)

  3. Also apparently called “auto court,” and “auto camp” (CA, 1931), for travelers, with cabins or tent spaces.

  4. A cursory newspaper search turns up the term at least as early as 1921. Earlier uses of auto park meant merely places to park a car.

  5. I did an ngram and the phrase shoots up out of nowhere in 1920-21, and then disappears a decade or two later. There seem to have been two meanings: either a municipal parking lot or a public campground with parking for each cabin or tent. If I recall IHON correctly, Gable and Colbert are forced to share a cabin in what I would call a motor court and presumably this was what was called an auto park.

    You can see a couple of photos of a campground-style autopark here:

  6. I think that an auto park is characterized by being a collection of small cabins, rather than a single building containing multiple rooms, as a motel. Another movie that I remember that had one was Bonnie and Clyde. It’s years since I saw that movie, so I don’t remember exactly what they called it.

    There are still places like that around the US, mostly in somewhat out-of-the-way places, but they were all built a long time ago. Quite a few of them have kitchens in each cabin, which is handy if you’re in a town that’s so small that it doesn’t have a restaurant.

    That place on old Route 66 that everyone takes photos of, where every cabin is like a fake stucco teepee, is an extreme example.

    When I think of “motel” as used 50 years ago, it meant that you could park your car right outside your room. That only allowed a single storey structure. I remember staying in one in Portland OR (long since demolished) that alternated room, carport, room, carport, … Very handy because you could access your car without getting wet if it’s raining.

    “Motor court” and “auto court” to me imply the same thing, that your car is right outside your room. But I expect them to be built in a U shape, with some green space in the middle where you can exercise your dog.

    When Howard Johnson’s got into accommodation, they built multi-storey buildings with a parking lot outside, and called them “motor lodges”. I think they were the pioneers here, but that model is the most common in more recent construction, even if they are called, e.g., “Motel Six”.

    I have the feeling that park-outside-your-room places were seen as a bit lower-class, even though you have to haul your luggage much further at a motor lodge. Of course they’re less efficient for land usage too, so they only appear where land is cheap. And the auto park uses even more land area per room.

    I don’t think the terms are as clear now as they once were, because the motor lodge model is ubiquitous, and the other types are decades-old structures found only in low-population areas.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    The google n-gram viewer has “motor lodge” peaking during my own childhood in the early ’70’s but “motor court” peaking in 1952. But I remember experiencing both of those “in the wild” (not necessarily in very recent decades …) whereas I have no such memory of “auto park” or “auto court.” That said, I think I remember experiencing them as parts of the names of particular specific “motels” and not necessarily thinking of either as identifying a specific category/genre of establishment versus just being a synonym that could be used for “elegant variation” in naming a particular establishment. That said, the contrast between architectural styles of motel maidhc describes does jibe with my childhood memories and I can see the utility of having different labels for those styles, with “motel” being a higher-level-of-generality lexeme that captures both.

    At least in the U.S., my impression is that most motel operators have come to refer to their establishments as “hotels,” because “motel” now sounds more low-class versus sounding innovative and up to date. The Motel 6 chain is presumably an exception. There’s a Yo La Tengo song called “From a Motel 6,” which is presumably an allusion to the Dylan song “From a Buick 6.”

  8. Thanks, everyone, for the very enlightening information and distinctions! I remember those “collections of small cabins” from cross-country trips with my parents in my youth, though that was as late as the ’50s.

  9. Those motels with collections of freestanding cabins still show up in places where they seem appropriate to the rustic scenery—for example, in the mountains. They have probably gotten significantly less common since my earliest memories of them in the 1980s though, including completely disappearing from beachfront areas, so far as I have observed. I also remember a couple of motor courts in which the individual buildings were duplexes, with two motel rooms in each structure.

  10. cuchuflete says

    If anyone would like to visit a fine collection of cabins and a motel, well away from road noise, have a look at The first three cabins were built in 1927. The diner is a landmark of sorts, with a parking lot full of out of state and even foreign license plates.

    My family stayed there in 1952. Now we are living nearby. When the nephews from Manchester (U.K., not N.H.) visited, they wanted to experience a “real American diner”.
    Yes, some of the waitresses have beehive hairdos, the wild blueberry pie is made on premises every morning, and is damned good. To make things more, ermmm, authentic, I bribed the staff to call the boys “Hun”, as in “Blueberry pie, you betcha, Hun.”. The Hun usage is authentic in Baltimore, but not here in Maine. A fine time was had by all.

    They call it Moody’s Motel and Cabins.

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