Since the Duryea brothers built the first successful gas-powered American car in 1894 in Springfield, Mass., the automobile has shaped much of America's economy and culture. More intimately, our cars often seem to move through our lives like close and important friends, remembered tenderly, even with their defects.

With rising prices and the energy crisis, cars are now making new, sometimes nightmarish demands on our daily lives and pocketbook. Most families now spend more on transportation than on food, and some are forced to choose between a new car and a new home. Growing numbers of Americans, enraged at high prices for garage work, have begun repairing their own cars - a particularly grimy form of intimacy with the mechanical age.

Incredibly, the slaughter on our highways, worse than in any war we ever fought, continues as an accepted part of life in this country. It is as if we still lived in some Dark Age, with no ability to contol this destruction rationally.

Nor does the auto phenomenon show signs of receding soon. As if nothing had changed for decades, American youths are still drawn in large numbers to the danger and passion of hot-rodding. In their affluent suburban preserves, the children of the upper middle class continue to expect cars for high school graduation presents as a kind of birthright.

No matter how much we may protest, cars are seldom "just transportation." They are often extensions of our personalities, our hopes, dreams and frustrations. Nowhere is this more evident that in the tremendous growth of interest in vans, campers, motorcycles, mopeds, new kinds of trucks and other special vehicles and the changes in our lifestyles that they represent.

In a series of articles beginning today and continuing each Sunday for seven weeks, The Washington Post steps back to examine some aspects of The Car - America's Driving Passion.