vroom, vroom! our romance with the car

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The Independent Culture
In its wake have come motorway madness, road rage, traffic jams, air pollution, joyriders, traffic wardens, ram-raiding and road protesters - a catalogue of death and pestilence. But what modern invention has inspired greater love and devotion than the car? Jonathan Glancey and John Benton- Harris, a curator of photography, pay homage to the automobile in its 100th year of existence

Recently, the Independent ran this obituary of Walter Hassan, a British automobile engineer: "Today's motoring enthusiasts remember him because of the V12 Jaguar engine," it claimed, "but his fame was just as great as a result of the Coventry-Climax Formula One racing engines and the Bentleys at Le Mans."

Only the true car buff could ever understand these apparently arcane references to legendary internal-combustion engines, but, to those who thrill to mechanical beauty, the engines Walter Hassan brought purring, spitting and snarling into life are as emotive as any line found in the canons of Dylan Thomas or WB Yeats. This is no exaggeration. The V12 engine Wally Hassan developed for Jaguar (and which, in fuel-injected, 5.3-litre, 295bhp form, powers my own car) is on a par with many of the great designs of our century, from the architecture of Lutyens and Le Corbusier to Tadao Ando and Norman Foster.

You will say, ridiculous: now that the car is a century old and its very existence is being called into question, how can anyone admit to a passion for noisy lumps of noxious iron? How can the aesthetics of a four-stroke internal-combustion be compared on any level with a Picasso canvas or a Giacometti bronze?

The answer is, although it might sound precious, because the finest engines are nothing less than mechanical sonnets, kinetic sculpture to be appreciated for their logic, beauty, refinement, sound and performance. It is possible to admire an engine designed by such automotive greats as Hassan, Royce, Jano, Bugatti, Duckworth or Porsche without even needing to see it move. If all the petrol in the world was used up and gone, enthusiasts would still steal admiring glances at a Hassan V12 - the aluminium motor, the blueprints for its design, archive film of its development and construction - because they know that here was one of those great moments in mechanical engineering, an engine assembled from pistons, cranks, cogs and eccentrics that delivered its considerable power as if it had no moving parts whatsoever.

The problem with the car, a century on, is that we have allowed Henry Ford rather than Henry Royce to triumph: for the most part, the car is a banal, ugly, land-gobbling and lethal form of transport rather than an exquisite toy or a work of engineering so intriguing and well-boned that we would never waste it on trips that could better be made by bus or bicycle. Mass-market cars may be democratic, but with a few shining exceptions - Alec Issagonis's Mini and Morris Minor, Dante Giacosa's Fiat 500, and Ferdinand Porsche's Volkswagen ("peoples' car") Beetle - has smothered the world with machines that make the heart beat faster, only when their drivers are about to crash into one another.

When asked by Roy Plomley what luxury item he would take with him to a desert island, Buddy Rich, the famously fast jazz drummer, called for his Pininfarina-designed Ferrari Daytona. No petrol on the island, retorted Plumley. Doesn't matter, Rich shot back - he'd get all the pleasure he needed by just looking at the thing.

Those who profess no interest in the car, and would despise the idea of its elevation into the realm of Art, are nevertheless its most loyal devotees. It is perfectly possible to admire a Ferrari Daytona or a Jaguar V12 whilst getting around town with a bus pass or whilst being a keen walker and cyclist. Many of the most passionate car enthusiasts believe that city centres are for walking in and not driving around. Most cannot abide motorways and find the sight of ugly company cars hurtling along the outside lane of triple-carriage roads as offensive as does the most ardent, snail-loving, Newbury by-pass activist.

Those who live by the car are very different from those who admire great automobile engineering and design. Mechanically speaking, today's cars, from Fiat Cinquecentos upwards, are nearly all pretty good - even the Skodas - unlike in the Sixties and Seventies (particularly the Seventies), when most models were built to rust or fall apart. But the vast majority are about as inspiring as a dishwasher. We take them for granted. They are just part of the shrink-wrapped package that constitutes our highly mobile lifestyle.

Here, to prove the point, is a snatch of real conversation from the entrance to the service station on the M25 at South Mimms in Hertfordshire. It involves an elderly couple (she in blue-rinse perm, he in grey, Velcro- strapped casual shoes, both in grey windcheaters) and a fan of Wally Hassan's V12 who shall be nameless.

"We like to come out, of a weekday to a different one of these service stations... We like a drive up the motorway."

"Yes, when the M25 opened we drove around it all the way - both directions, mind..."

"We live near Hassocks; it's just off the M23."

And what svelte car had they chosen for these gastronomic motorway sorties? A smooth and stable Bentley Flying Spur, perhaps? A lovely old Armstrong Siddeley Star-Sapphire, complete with chromed sphinx radiator grille mascot? An iron-fist-in-leather-glove Daimler Majestic Major? Nothing of the sort. These apparently sane octogenarians had opted for a Nissan something or the other (this conversation took place in 1986: the vast majority of Japanese cars looked as much alike then as now).

Now try to imagine this pair of veteran lunchers chugging along in the inside lane of the M25 on an overcast day, juggernauts hissing inches from their rear bumper, Transit vans and rackety school minibuses boxing them in on the middle lane, sales reps flashing past, bumper to bumper, at three-figure speeds on the outside. Was this old couple ga-ga?

No, simply part of a generation which has already forgotten long-distance travel by rail and for whom the car has thus become as indispensable as the microwave oven and cable TV. Not for them a stroll, arm-in-arm, for quiche and salad in some cathedral tea room - not when the nation's motorways and Trust House Fortes call. Such people don't like driving per se. They illustrate the yawning divide that has opened over the past century between those who see the car as a mechanical delight and those who have assimilated it into their everyday lives so completely that they would be lost without it.

In Britain, certainly until Dr Beeching made the first stab at destroying our railways (privatisation being the second), cars have never really been that much of a necessity. Although few car owners will admit it, they're an indulgence. They like to say in defence of their Ford or Nissan that it gives them freedom; but it's a freedom (they cannot or will not confess this) to drive on crowded roads, to develop the symptoms of fashionable road rage, to queue for superstore car parks, to develop high blood-pressure in motorway jams, to pay outlandish service and repair bills when they would shriek blue murder if the dentist or doctor charged them anything like as much, and to choose a house not on its architectural merits but because it has a double garage. Yet every car, no matter how dull, leads a fantasy life. Jammed along a featureless arterial road on the way to IKEA or Toys R Us, even the most indifferent driver will suddenly be assaulted by dreams of burning rubber on Mississippi farm roads, or of weaving a dodgy Mk2 Jag up an almost empty M1 - no seat belts, bottle of brandy in hand - with Jimi Hendrix blasting 'All Along the Watchtower' - and, suddenly, there are no Mothercare-swaddled tots in their garishly coloured safety seats in the back, squawking and being sick over the ciabatta and organic cous-cous.

For, however we might like to pretend it is no more than a utility like gas or running water, the car has got deeply under our skin. It is used in magazines or film to represent every passion, longing, fad and fashion. It has been studied by fashionable Parisian semiologists (in a famous essay of the mid-50s, Roland Barthes dissected the radical chic Citroen DS); it has been draped over by topless lovelies, at the automotive equivalent of cattle shows, in an attempt to equate internal combustion with copulation; and it has been a judge and executioner - as in the gruesome beheading of Jayne Mansfield, who stuck her head out of a car window at the wrong moment, or in the strangling to death of Isadora Duncan, her head scarf caught in the spoked and spinning wheel of a Bugatti.

It has also been a memorable prop in key historic events, identifiable with particular politicians or regimes: even now, it's hard to see a soft- top Mercedes-Benz go by without thinking of Adolf Hitler saluting from the passenger seat. And a cartoon in Mad magazine once showed a Mercedes- Benz limousine cruising past a row of shiny new Volkswagen Beetles, with the bubble coming from the roof of the VWs' reading "Sieg Heil!" Equally, it is hard to think of a magisterial '63 Lincoln Continental without footage of President Kennedy's death reeling past the mind's eye, or to hear the deep-throated rasp of a Mk2 Jaguar and not to expect a re-enactment of the Great Train Robbery to take place.

Cars and crime have gone together like Bonnie and Clyde. Ram-raiding, joy-riding, J-turning, drive-by shootings, from Al Capone to today's Rolex- snatching traffic-jam muggers, the car has been an aid and a symbol of crime.

Its greatest crime, in the eyes of the law around the world, is its speed. All modern cars are fast and speed is truly addictive, a release from the everyday, a breaking away from social restraint, a sense of letting go. The problem is that most drivers tend to speed in all the wrong places - on crowded motorways and suburban roads - thus ensuring the speed is legislated against. Enthusiastic drivers rarely speed in such situations, reserving the abilities of their cars for the last of the open roads - which, like the most secret beaches and most romantic hotels they speak of in hushed tones to keep mass transit and legal interference at bay.

Most driving in most cars is a chore, and yet

we have images of ourselves looking cool in shades driving a battered off-roader on African safari, of pipping Damon Hill to the chequered flag, or, with Chuck Berry, "riding along in my automobile/with no particular place to go", or of opening the boot of a vintage Rolls-Royce at Glyndebourne and removing a cold-box packed with chilled bubbly.

We fuel ourselves with such fantasies, for the reality of motoring and the car rarely lives up to expectations. Fantasies are given the high octane treatment in songs and films. How about this paean to the car from Bruce Springsteen?

"Gotta '69 Chevvie with a three-ninety-six/

Fuelie-head and a Hurst on the floor/

She's waiting tonight in the parking lot/ Outside the 7-11 store/

Me and my partner, Sonny, we built her straight out of scratch /

And he rides with me from town to town/

We only run for the money, got no strings attached/

We shut 'em up and then we shut them down..." This is the car as war- horse, its driver as jousting knight.

Or, think of any number of great car chases from The Italian Job to Dirty Harry. Wish fulfilment, all of them, utterly unreal.

Without such fantasies, compounded in wishful thinking advertising, the car reverts to being a box on wheels with less and less room to manoeuvres or stretches of road to let loose on.

Which is where Walter Hassan and his V12 engine re-enters the equation. An engineering masterpiece, when taken out on the road, is always a joy. Although it will never be used for supermarket runs (it might, however, be seen in the vicinity of a street market), it makes the most functional journeys a pleasure.

In Cuba, for example, keeping a pre-revolution car on the road is a labour of ingenuity because of the US trade embargo and consequent petrol rationing. There, 40-year-old Plymouths and Cadillacs are tinkered with far more than they can ever be driven. For all the wrong reasons, maybe, a whole island population has learned to use the car as sparingly and as lovingly as motoring enthusiasts do in lands of plenty.

A hundred years of the car might have produced the polished engineering skills of Walter Hassan, but it has also given us the curious need to drive a hundred miles or more along fiendishly dangerous roads to eat indifferent food in ugly surroundings. So it would be better if, in its second century, the car was put out of its misery and those of us with a passion for cogs and pistons, cams and eccentrics retired to desert islands with a Ferrari or V12 Jaguar in tow.

Automania Ten great car songs: 'Route 66' (Bobby Troup), 'Highway 61 Revisited' (Bob Dylan), 'Little Deuce Coupe' (Jan & Dean), 'Cars' (Gary Numan), 'No Particular Place To Go' (Chuck Berry), 'Cadillac Ranch' (Bruce Springsteen), 'Little Red Corvette' (Prince), 'B

aby, You Can Drive My Car' (The Beatles), 'Autobahn' (Kraftwerk), 'Crosstown Traffic' ( Jimi Hendrix) Twelve great car films: Duel (Steven Spielberg), The Driver (Walter Hill), Bullitt (Peter Yates), Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott), Genevieve (Henry Cornelius), The Italian Job (Peter Collinson), Christine (John Carpenter), Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman

), The Blues Brothers (John Landis), The Yellow Rolls Royce (Anthony Asquith), American Graffiti (George Lucas), Weekend (Jean Luc Godard) Car colours: Yellow, popular with Asians, is supposedly for intellectuals and the safety-conscious; black for sophisticates; red for extroverts; and green for comfort. Men aged between 18 and 34 prefer black, women prefer blue. Bank-robber Clyde Barrow (of Bonnie and Clyde fame) to car-maker Henry Ford:"I have drove Fords exclusivly when I could get away with one. [It] has got ever other car skinned and even if my business hasent been strickly legal it don't hurt enything to te

ll you what a fine car you got in the V-8." (1934) The Austin Mini would not have become such an instant success in Britain without the 1956 Suez crisis, which brought petrol rationing and a need for more economical vehicles. The prototypes, nicknamed Orange Boxes, had 10-inch wide wheels and could do 70

mph. "Can you do it in a Mini?" asked the columnist Jilly Cooper. The 1955 Dodge LaFemme was painted pink and white, with matching upholstery, luggage, umbrella and cosmetic bag, but only 500 were sold. These days, American research suggests that women influence up to 80 per cent of all car-buying decisions.

The car of the future will be powered by hydrogen, say Japanese car manufacturers, who lead the world in this research. It's efficient and pollution-free. The problem is storage. A prototype Daimler-Benz Mercedes 180 needs almost 1,800lb of apparatus in the back to convert hydrogen into electricity.

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