Consider the automobile’s influence on society – before the next influence takes over?

Bryan Appleyard has been three times Best Writer of the Year at the British Press Awards. In 2019 he was appointed Commander of the British Empire for services to the arts and journalism. He is the author of The car: the rise and fall of the machine that created the modern world (September 6, 2022).

Cars, as an influence on society and culture, are underestimated. Lists of these things usually include the caliper and the cell phone, but never the internal combustion engine (ICE). The car is so widespread, so commonplace, that we rarely notice how completely it has remade the world. But now the very existence of the ICE machine is threatened.

Successor to the horse and, for a very short time, to the bicycle, the car arrived, by mutual agreement, although often disputed, in 1885 when Karl Benz built his Patent-Motorwagen. The following year, he drove her through the streets of Mannheim, Germany. It was a sensation and a proof of principle – that a viable automobile could be made – but it took 23 years for the revolution to begin.

Of course, there were many signs of what was to come. Most gloriously and casually – he did it for a $50 wager – in 1903 Horatio Nelson Jackson rode his 20 horsepower 2-cylinder Winton from San Francisco to New York in less than 90 days specified by the bet. He did it in 63 days. It was the first sign of how the car could conquer the wilderness and transform our sense of time and distance.

But she was to remain a curiosity, a rich man’s toy. People, irritated, shouted “Get a horse!” passing clattering machines. Then in 1908 Henry Ford produced his Model T. Cheap and manufactured on a colossal scale at his factories in Detroit’s Highland Park, the T meant the car was no longer a toy, it was a usable tool at available to almost everyone. Ford had simultaneously perfected mass production – a development envied by both Hitler and Stalin – and a world market.

The worldwide success of the T and its production system signaled to both dictators and theorists like the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci that Ford had invented a new form of human organization. They were right.

Hitler, when he came to power, pursued the idea of ​​a “people’s car”. It turned out to be the Volkswagen Beetle, but war intervened and the German people were denied their personal transportation system. Having been conceived as a Nazi achievement, the post-war Beetle became an emblem of the youth rebellion against the power of Detroit.

But Hitler achieved something more than just a car, as he began construction of the motorway system – the forerunner of the American motorways and the British motorways. The Model T had been designed by Ford as a car that could go anywhere because in 1908 there were few decent roads in America. But Hitler saw that there were two sides to the transport of people – cars and roads.

This vast project was woven into Nazi magical thinking. The highways will become “the pyramids of the Third Reich” and will be rediscovered a thousand years later as testimony to a glorious civilization. And two of the great creators of the system – Fritz Todt and Alwin Seifert – adhered to curious magical beliefs. They both believed in dowsing and the latter claimed to be able to sense the geology of the earth beneath his feet.

The idea of ​​the limited or controlled access highway – the technical terms for these roads – transformed much of the planet’s surface and, by clearing an easy path for the car, they created a new way of life. . Since you could only get on or off these roads at specific locations, gas stations became small villages with shops and, often, motels.

This process by which the car fundamentally alters the landscape had begun much earlier. The first gas station with drive-thru—as opposed to curbside pumps—opened in 1905, 1907, or 1913, depending on who you believe. And the first motel opened in 1926 in San Luis Obispo, California. But the new roads have entrenched the needs and aspirations of the car in the public imagination. It had become a way of life.

After Ford’s practicality came the pursuit of Alfred Sloan’s desire. At General Motors, he led GM as chairman, CEO, and chairman between 1923 and 1956. A gray, secretive man of forbidden earnestness, he nevertheless produced some of the most flamboyant and ridiculously over-styled machines in the world. after war. It also introduced the Annual Model Change, a brilliant if cynical marketing tool that puts customers on the now-familiar treadmill of eternal upgrading.

Sloan, assisted by his chief designer Harley Earl, took the car to a dreamland of consumer aspiration. Engineering gave way to aesthetics as cars got lower, longer and wider and even sprouted fins. And, in the 1950s, as Joni Mitchell pointed out to me, the kids got the cars. Teenagers adopted the carnival floats rolling out of Detroit as emblems of post-war and primarily sexual freedom. The “youth quake” worked with rubber and steel and it had fins.

It’s all gone too far; there had to be accountability. There was. Ralph Nader sparked a consumer revolt by pointing out that these machines were “dangerous at any speed”. Sloan’s empire of desire was built on poor handling and cornering.

And then came the Japanese. Taiichi Ohno invented the Toyota Production System, a superb refinement of Ford’s mass production system, which reduced costs and improved quality. Consumers, made more discerning by the backlash against American cars, spotted the difference and Detroit was humbled.

There remained a wild automotive eccentricity. No one really needs an SUV, but everyone does. By suffocating cities and consuming gasoline, they were an act of suicide for industry – an argument for environmental action.

But the fact remains that the world is still made by the car. This tale of equal parts genius and madness is, in truth, an epic tale of the making of the modern world.

As the earth heats up, electric cars are now threatening the ICE machine and this, combined with ever-increasing self-driving capabilities, has shifted the focus of the industry from Detroit to Silicon Valley. There they only know information, not well-taken turns, not the glory of the open road, not the unfolding landscape, not freedom. A new world is on its way and it won’t be as good as the old one made by the car.

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