The Car: The Rise and Fall of the Machine that Made the Modern World
Remember asian trays in cars? Soon cars will themselves become objects of wet-eyed nostalgic reverie. A thrilling era of propelling ourselves, while gassing others, via a series of explosions more or less constrained by gears, steering devices and friction materials, is coming to an end. Enjoy that very loud Porsche while you can. It will soon be illegal.
The great fascination of the car resides not in engineering or technology but in semantics and emotions. A friend hath a disgraceful anecdote from his untidy youth to explain the grip cold metal hath on hot hearts. A letter fling with a married woman whose husband traveled a lot found him one cold morning, late for a lecture, with a ratty old Citroen that would not start. She cheerfully said: ‘Take his Jaguar.’ His sense of property outraged, he replied: ‘What! Take his car without asking him?’
Bryan Appleyard is well known to Sunday Times readers as a thoughtful interpreter of our frets and anxieties, turning his wan eye on the Large Hadron Collider one minute and Kant’s antinomies of pure reason the next. No one has ever felt an Appleyard article to be too short. He is also adept at tech-related mumbo-jumbo, singularity and aliens. Although happy with pop culture, something in his spirit resists frivolity. His car banter is more Public Intellectual than Public House: a thinking man’s Clarkson.
Despite the enormous influence of cars on townscape, conceptions of liberty and style, the economy, environment, music and movies, the literature about them, and car culture, is only modest. There are prejudices to overcome. When my own book on Harley Earl, Detroit’s ineffable wizard of kitsch who all but invented chrome, was published nearly 40 years ago, WH Smith on Putney High Street put it on the same shelf as the workshop manuals for the Morris 1100 and Ford Cortina.
Appleyard, a closet car nut, has the pistonnage to correct this. As others have done, he recognizes the paradox that the same machine that liberated us has enslaved us. Meanwhile, ever so slowly, there came an acceptance that car design was, at least in the last century, an authentic proxy for ‘art’. But I am mystified by Appleyard saying painters ignored cars as soon as they became commonplace. Really? Don Eddy? Ed Ruscha?
Meanwhile, with his apocalyptic mien, Appleyard says that when our bellowing 911 is replaced by silent AI-powered pods in collective ownership ‘the unelected and unaccountable central control’ he sees as humanity’s dismal future will be the result. It won’t be your wife who beckons you into a parking space but Mark Zuckerberg and his tone-deaf goons.
The Car is not a formal history – perhaps because public intellectuals do not do formal history, since it requires a humbling descent from lofty observation to close study of primary sources. Instead, it is a ‘mosaic of stories and characters’. Inevitably, Appleyard’s mosaic contains few surprises. Exciting bumps in his narrative terrazzo are rare.
His schema is familiar: Benz invents the car. Henry Ford democratizes it. Harley Earl and General Motors tickle the consumer’s cupidity with tail fins. Hitler and Porsche politicise mobility. Italians treat car bodies as sculpture. Ralph Nader and his safety fetishes slam the brakes on dreams. Elon Musk manufactures heartless electric chairs, anxious witnesses to our collective guilt.
My Harley Earl book began with a quote from Dickens and so does Appleyard’s The Car. But Dickens is big enough to take it. Appleyard’s other sources are a bit of a muddle, although he has evidently been enriched by wide reading. However, he does not apparently know, or at least does not cite, Edson Armi’s standard work on American car design. Nor Cynthia Dettelbach’s valuable study of the automobile and literature. Although he has a thing about roads, he is not familiar with John Brinckerhoff Jackson, the influential pioneer of psychogeography, who rhapsodized about highways and parking lots. Nor does he refer to Karl Ludvigsen’s magisterial history of Porsche.
And on Porsche, I am not sure Appleyard is correct when he says: ‘For modernism the motto was the Porsche one of ‘form follows function’. I don’t think anyone at Porsche ever used quite those words. With Porsche, form actually followed fiction. The early aerodynamic bodies were not at all scientific, but very beautiful. In any case, they were supplied by external contractors.
We have a few crashes. The calamities of Albert Camus and James Dean give a little tremor of déjà vu because this is stuff I have read (or written) before. And Appleyard does get a bit carried off into the short-trousered, breathless yob mode when he discusses extreme supercars and hypercars. What would Kant have made of a Lamborghini Huracan? The opportunity to speculate mischievously has been missed.
The epilogue is Appleyard’s Judgment Day, and is both exciting and disturbing to read. The car gave us suburbs, pollution, congestion, carnage, debt. But it also gave us hitherto unimaginable personal freedom. Appleyard is pessimistic about the future, but sees no escape from it.
An era can be said to be over when its illusions are exhausted. As I write this, a man is under police investigation in Germany for driving his Bugatti Chiron at 417 km/h on the theoretically unrestricted A2 Berlin-Hannover autobahn. And, battling his demons, Appleyard has been spotted in his Bentley competing for road space with the Coastal Hopper bus on the cramped roads of north Norfolk. Cars prove le style est l’homme. At least for the moment.
The car gave us pollution, carnage and debt. But it also gave us unimaginable personal freedom