Ruth Brandon: 'The car brought freedom, but not quite as we know it now'

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Tried getting hold of anyone lately? They're not there. It's August, stupid. They're on their hols, driving down to the Mediterranean or round America, or motoring to that remote cottage they've rented in north Wales. Back in three weeks.

Naturally, people went away for holidays before the car. They took the steamer down the Thames to the coast, and got off at one of the south coast resorts, hence all those piers. Or they took the train to Skegness and were braced.

But what the car conferred was what, despite gridlock, people still cite as its main attraction: freedom. You could go where you wanted when you wanted, regardless of timetables. For the first time, everybody could enjoy the autonomy that had, physically and psychologically, been the preserve of the rich.

The first whisperings of this invasion came in the 1880s, with the bicycle. Cycle clubs invaded, en masse, quiet and hitherto unfrequented spots the rich had thought their own. Could there really be any pleasure left in boating if the river was filled with schoolteachers and shop assistants? wondered one Lady Jeune, a frequent contributor to the newspapers. The better-off, she said, would need to look elsewhere for their pleasures.

And, for a while, the car provided a ready answer. Temperamental, powerful, and blessedly expensive, it conferred seven-league boots on a select few. Seven league? Seventy; seven hundred, even. Bicycles couldn't compete. Then, in 1908, came the Ford Model T; and all at once everyone could afford a car.

The Model T came with all essentials. But one of its many attractions was the prospect of endless permutations and customisations. The Ford archives are full of letters from satisfied customers explaining, in detail, how they have modified their cars, often in the (invariably vain) hope that Mr Ford might seize on their particular invention and pay them a tidy sum.

And many of the modifications had to do with holidays. With a few springs and struts you could pull a mattress forward over the seat backs and sleep high up, out of the reach of snakes. A tent canopy might be stretched from your car's roof. You might even, transform your car into a little room on wheels, complete with bunks. And there you were, away from it all, waking to the blue sky and the birdsong with not another soul in sight.

Suddenly, everyone started going on motoring holidays, and a raft of associated industries sprang up: campsites, hotels, motels, tourist literature. The Automobile Club of California published a regular tourism magazine from 1910. Proper roads were built to popular beauty spots. And tourism as we know it was on its way.

What is on offer is all we dreamed of; what we actually get is not quite what we had in mind. The lonely beauty spot is suddenly full of other people and car-parks. Where once was a view, now stands a hotel. The countryside vanishes beneath the roads that take us there. The beaches are covered with oil shipped to meet our insatiable demand. The air is filled with fumes from our exhausts.

The fumes accumulate, and suddenly the world has become so hot all any sane person can hope to do is stay still in a darkened room and wait for it to cool. Happy holidays.

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