Auto Mobile: how the car changed life, by Ruth Brandon

Those slaughtering, stinking engines of iniquity
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The Independent Culture

"Villages skipped, towns and cities jumped – always somebody else's horizon!" boasted Mr Toad in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, toot-tooting his way through the countryside in a new motor-car. Reading Ruth Brandon's history of the automobile, it becomes easier to see how Grahame's character was shaped by malicious social satire. In the first years of the 20th century the car was a luxury good, the plaything of an emergent leisure class. During a Commons debate, one MP protested that "Harmless men, women and children, dogs and cattle, have all got to fly for their lives at the bidding of these slaughtering, stinking engines of iniquity."

It took the Americans to democratise car ownership. With its front-mounted engine and simple controls, Henry Ford's Model T of 1908 was the first recognisable modern car. The Model T gave way to slicker, more design-conscious automobiles from General Motors. The innovations GM introduced – more colours, streamlining, customisation and updated models every couple of years – have been the staple of manufacturers ever since.

As their products made their way into popular culture, cars became the roll in rock'n'roll; after Jack Kerouac, they found themselves equally at home in counter-culture. As the car established itself as an emblem of speed and risk, fast living followed by fast death became the most glamorous exit – taken by Grace Kelly, James Dean, Albert Camus and Princess Diana.

Through an automotive prism, Ruth Brandon reminds us, new light can be shed on our age. Hitler's Volkswagen was a triumph of Keynesian economics avant la lettre. By the 1980s, the car seemed to have become the captive of Margaret Thatcher's "great car economy", provoking a great deal of snobbish soul-searching about the values of Mondeo Man. In retrospect, the last gasp of the great British car economy might have been as early as 1982, when ex-GM executive John De Lorean's plans for a new car produced in Northern Ireland ended in ignominy. The last De Lorean car sits incongruously in the Ulster Transport Museum, begging an explanation.

All this is delivered at full-throttle, and Brandon is expert at finding fascinating byways. But the problem is how to justice to the car's enormous influence: material on the political economy of production jostles with insights from popular culture and meditative reflections on the psychology of industry players. There are also meandering joy-rides: into the political sympathies of the industry, the boredom of life as a suburban housewife, Disney's urban re-engineering.

Brandon is also oddly ambivalent about her subject. "Parked outside my door," she begins, "ready to roll, the stuff of dreams". By the end, the same car has become responsible for a litany of modern ills. "The air is foul, the weather deteriorating, the roads impassable, the future... uncertain. But we are true addicts: we know we imperatively shouldn't, but we can't, can not, resist."

Yet today's cars are infinitely more environmentally friendly than in the past. And as Brandon points out, three times more British children died in road accidents in 1922 than in any year during the 1990s – even though street traffic has risen exponentially. It is a curiosity of interest to sociologists why the increasing safety of technology has gone hand in hand with increasing anxiety about its harmful effects.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the car finds itself once more reviled as a slaughtering, stinking engine of iniquity. The era of cheap, universal car travel might even be drawing to a close. Not, as Brandon has it, because "mobility for all founders in gridlock", but because of a lack of political will to find imaginative solutions to the problem of getting from A to B.

Brandon gives a sense of alternative possibilities when she tells the fascinating story of the American designer Norman Bel Geddes, and his Futurama project. If cars were to be so central to the future of the city, he argued in 1938, then why not redesign the city around them? His ambitious plans for an ideal city tell of a project whose time has not yet come – that of integrating the car more creatively into the intestines of the city, rather than banishing it to the perimeter.