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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

How the car created the modern world


THE CAR: The Rise and Fall of the Machine That Made the Modern World

Author: Bryan Appleyard

Publisher: Pegasus

Pages: 319

Price: $28.95

Ear-shredding noise, toxic air, interminable traffic jams, chaos and death — all the result of untrammelled population expansion. Is this a description of a contemporary urban nightmare? Not quite: We’re talking about 19th-century London, although the situation in Paris and other major cities wasn’t much better. And the cause of all this misery was … the horse.

As recounted by Bryan Appleyard in his compelling new book, by 1900 the 50,000 horses required to meet London’s transportation needs deposited 500 tonnes of excrement daily. Hooves and carriage wheels threw up curtains of fetid muck. Accidents caused by mechanical failures and spooked animals were often fatal to passengers, drivers and the horses themselves. New York City employed 130,000 horses and predictions were made that by 1930 that city’s streets would be piled three stories high with dung. Yet another dire prophecy fallen victim to the continuity fallacy — the belief that a current trend will endure forever.

Things change because when problems arise, people work at solving them. The answer to the psychosocial and physical degradation brought on by too many people employing too many horses in the burgeoning Industrial Age was, of course, the development of the motor vehicle. Specifically, one powered by the internal combustion engine.

As Mr Appleyard points out, the concept behind the ICE is ancient, dating back at least as far as 350 BC, when a fire piston was developed in Southeast Asia. But channelling that technology to create an efficient mover of people would have to wait. The question of who actually invented the automobile is open to debate, with the German engineer Karl Benz, inventor of the three-wheeled Motorwagen (patented in 1886), most frequently cited. But there are other credible candidates: Etienne Lenoir’s Hippomobile preceded Benz by over two decades, and the Austrian inventor Siegfried Marcus was lauded as the true originator until 1938, when the fact that he was Jewish put the kibosh on his claim.

Whoever invented it, by the advent of the 20th century, the automobile as we mostly know it was here to stay. Initially used for racing and other amusements by the same moneyed folks who’d luxuriated in the velvet and marquetry cabins of horse-drawn carriages, car travel, for those who could afford it, brought about an intoxicating new freedom.

When interest in the car crossed the Atlantic, the United States’s open roads and open markets made for a perfect match. The first American cars were made by small companies, like the one founded by Ransom Olds. A charming risk-taker named Billy Durant set about combining several of those concerns into the conglomerate that became General Motors. And when Durant managed to blow through a personal fortune of $100 million and die penniless, he was replaced by the gray-flannel-suit archetype Alfred Sloan, who grew GM into a dominant, international force.

The most important development in domestic and, ultimately, international motoring was that of Michigan-born Henry Ford: Ruthless businessman, self-styled progressive populist, reprehensible human being (his antisemitic ravings were cited by Hitler as a major influence) and organisational genius. Ford invented very little but he knew how to put things together. He abandoned the manufacturing model that had limited cars to the prosperous, in which customers purchased a chassis and engine from a carmaker then brought it to a coachbuilder, who fashioned a custom body. It was time, Ford reasoned, to bypass all that and create an inexpensive finished product that could bring the car to the masses. Utilising assembly line construction and cutting frills to a minimum, he created the boxy Model T, only available in black, in 1908. By the time that model was taken out of production in 1927, 15 million had been sold, bespoke vanquished by off-the-rack.

The rest is, of course, history, and one that is recounted colourfully and wittily in this volume. Mr Appleyard draws upon a vast knowledge of science, mechanics and cultural lore as he successfully supports his thesis that the car didn’t merely influence the modern world — it created it. Think of road construction, interstate commerce, the ability of emergency vehicles to reach critically injured victims, the advent of self-propelled travel and tourism for an unprecedented percentage of the population.

Mr Appleyard covers every conceivable automotive trend, from sleek Italian bullets honed on the racecourse, to meticulously engineered German land yachts, up to and including the Nazi dream car, the Volkswagen Beetle, ironically adopted decades after the fall of the Third Reich as a symbol of stick-it-to-the-man counterculture. Then there are the garishly chromed and murderously tail-finned mid-century behemoths conceived by American stylists like Virgil Exner and Harley Earl, who realised that selling sex appeal and self-esteem was a whole lot more important than pointing out mechanical excellence. The development of the high-quality Japanese compacts that eventually came to dominate automobile manufacturing is covered in fascinating detail.

Finally, the inevitable: The internal combustion era is likely over, to be replaced by the electric vehicle. Whether or not Elon Musk and those who emulate him will succeed in mitigating the car’s effects on the environment is an open question. Whatever the future has in store, Bryan Appleyard has written an important account of automotive history that avoids the frequent transgression committed by Those Who Know A Lot: Tossing everything in and creating an unwieldy hodgepodge. This book is beautifully restrained, yet manages to communicate a wealth of fascinating information. For all the carping at traditional automobiles — which Mr Appleyard acknowledges as valid — he is unabashed about his appreciation for the most important machine in human history. As he points out, “The car emancipated the masses far more effectively than any political ideology; that it did so at a cost should not obliterate the importance of that freedom.”

Well said. Vroom.


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