100 years old and still driving us crazy

Once, we thought that cars might fly. Now, as the motor industry celebrates its centenary, we are gridlocked and wheezing and the car of the future looks remarkably like today's. Jonathan Glancey reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online
For some people, the car is not so much a form of transport as a religion. The captains of what remains of Britain's essentially foreign- owned motor industry are, as you would expect, true believers; to celebrate the official centenary of the British motor car tomorrow, they have organised a service in Coventry Cathedral during which two cars will be driven up the aisle.

For those who believe the marriage between man and car is one made in hell, this is nothing short of sacrilege. The anti-car lobby, led by Road Peace and Friends of the Earth, will keep a vigil outside the factory- like cathedral but, whether you side with their sentiments or not, their protest will be to little avail.

The car may have been responsible for millions of deaths over the past 100 years, but the British love affair with this air-fouling killer has endured and grown beyond expectation. In 1996, there are 21.3 million cars on Britain's crowded roads and the number shows no sign of shrinking.

In spite of this, there are relatively few Britons for whom the car is a necessity. Mostnative motorists would be better off, better tempered and much healthier if they swapped the family runabout for travel by bus, tram, bicycle and train. These alternatives, however, are not always readily available (certainly not since Dr Beeching took his mad axe to British Railways in the early Sixties); nor, for the most part, are they as easy to use or as glamorous a form of transport as the lovingly groomed private car.

If we could ditch our demon lover, our 21st-century towns and cities would be free of congestion. The incidence of asthma among children would fall and gum-chewing, laceless schoolchildren would learn to travel under their own steam again. The few surviving European forests would grow green once more as acid rain dried up, and there would be little or no rationale for the out-of-town shopping centres and superstores that have caused so much visual pollution in what remains of our road-ploughed countryside.

Yet, even if many motorists see the logic of such healthy and politically correct argument, who among us will be first to throw in the ignition key and bid a final farewell to the trusty Volvo? For better or worse, we have made the car an integral part of our lives, landscapes and dreams.Luckily for us, we can still put forward all sorts of nominally rational arguments in favour of the car. Its production, for example, has become an essential and ever-growing part of Britain's and the world's economy. The British industry (for new cars and their components) is worth approximately pounds 30bn, just under 5 per cent of Britain's gross domestic product - or a quarter of our manufacturing industry. It would be an act of economic suicide for Britain to give up making cars when the Chinese are about to start manufacturing, buying and, ultimately, exporting the things in their millions at budget prices.

If an unwillingness to ditch the car is understandable from a financial point of view, then perhaps we can still tame the beast, make it less obnoxious, dangerous and greedy. This has been a perennial dream of ecologists and the more progressive thinkers in the motor industry for the past 20 years, and a vague imperative since the worldwide "oil crisis" of 1973 when, in a knee-jerk reaction, the US government imposed a nationwide speed limit of just 55mph.

In these dreams, cities are free of all but slow-moving battery-powered cars, pooled at railway stations and bus terminals and rented by the hour. On freeways sleek, low-profile cars whizz along, silently fuelled by pollution- free liquid hydrogen. Already General Motors (GM) and Chrysler offer cars that burn compressed natural gas (CNG) that produces only a fraction of the carbon monoxide and nitrous oxides of conventional cars. BMW, the first European manufacturer to do so, follows suit with its 318g and 518g models in December. GM is also running a prototype of a particularly chic electric car, the EV1, capable of 80mph and accelerating from rest to 60mph as quickly as a VW Golf GTi.

Dreams are easily shattered and none more so than these. Major manufacturers may be researching new forms of fuel and, like Mercedes-Benz with its Swatchmobile (due in 1998), investing in tiny city cars, but at the beginning of this month the US government gave permission for individual states to set their own speed limits. Montana, for one, has already abolished speed limits altogether on the open road. The roads are so wide and empty, says the state legislature, that it doesn't matter how fast you go, so long as you are not under the influence and your Chevy is in good nick.

In California, environmental legislators have performed a U-turn on the road to zero exhaust emissions. The plan was for 2 per cent of new cars (about 20,000) to be pollution-free by 1998, rising to 5 per cent in 2001 and 10 per cent in 2010. Now the whole programme has been ditched. The customer, it seems, is simply not prepared to meet the extra cost. Cars in the US are notably cheap; the $5,000 extra Americans are expected to pay for a CNG-fuelled engine is quite something when a new compact can be had for little more than twice that.

What these legislative changes mean is that the car of the year 2000 (and of 2010) will, for the most part, be fast, slinky and not really very different from today's curvaceous, four-wheeled tin box. The European car is likely to become more toy-like than ever. This year alone will see seven new open-top sports cars scything along British roads: the Alfa Romeo Spider, BMW "Goldeneye" Z3, Caterham 21, Jaguar XJ8, Lotus Elise, Mercedes-Benz SLK and Porsche Boxter, all of them at the lingerie end of the motoring market. The proliferation of such adult toys is proof that the inessential car market is booming, while legislation to blunt performance and convert us to a nation of electric bubble-car faddists has had precious little effect.

"Prediction can only be a game," says Gavin Green, editor-in-chief of Car magazine. "What I think we can say about the future without much doubt is that people are not going to give up the freedom private transport offers, no matter how much we invest in public transport. My feeling is that we should be investing heavily in the finest forms of public transport, but that the private car will go on. Maybe it will be fuelled by hydrogen, perhaps it will be completely recyclable and no doubt its appearance will be very different, and immensely varied, in 50 years' time. But it won't go as easily as the anti-car lobby would like it to."

Nor is any government likely to curb the car to the extent that campaigning groups such as Road Peace, Friends of the Earth and Transport 2000 would like. What party is likely to be voted into office on an anti-car ticket? Privately, some politicians may agree that the car is overly protected; publicly they speak in favour of the right of the individual to drive anywhere at any time. Revenue from car tax, parking and speeding tickets is also very handsome.

Those who hope that researchers and engineers will overcome all obstacles to provide us with electric or CNG-fuelled cars may be over-optimistic. The motoring writer and historian Leonard Setright believes that the industry has been hindered at critical moments in its history. Thus the Locomotive and Highways Act of 1865, promoted by the railway lobby, held back the development of the car in favour of the railways. The act restricted Victorian "road locomotives" to a top speed of 2mph in town and 4mph on the open road. Even then, a man with a red flag had to precede the mercurial machine. Thirty years later, primitive cars were still chugging along at walking pace and less, while railway locomotives purred along smooth metal ways at 90mph and more.

As restrictions were lifted, Setright argues, so the car developed in matching leaps and bounds. When restrictions returned (in Britain with Barbara Castle's 70mph speed limit; in the US with the 55mph restriction of 1973), so engineering development slowed down to match them.

This, says Setright, is (along with inept management and stubborn unions) why the British motor industry all but collapsed in the Seventies. Unlike Germany, for example, with its ultra-fast autobahns or Japan, where the motor industry had to "export or die" (and, therefore, progress), in Britain there was neither a technological nor a political imperative to progress.

The idea that all would be well with the car if engineers were given a free hand is, however, a romantic one, according to Gavin Green. "The motor industry," says Gavin Green, "does need kicking by legislators from time to time. Even so, there is no doubt that with each new model the industry is producing cars that are cleaner in terms of exhaust emissions."

What no sane industry analyst will offer to prescribe or describe is the car of the future. Dan Dare's hovercar must have seemed extraordinarily futuristic when the Eagle comic was launched in 1950; now it looks quaint, a 1949 Austin Atlantic with space-rocket fins bluffing its way into a mythical 1999.

What we can be sure of is that there will be more tiny city-cars in the next 20 years (starting with the Swatchmobile); more curbs and even bans on the use of cars in city centres; new sources of fuel and a transfer of technololgy from other forms of transport to the car.

Will there be more radical changes? Ford's prototype of the Scorpio, a large family saloon, for 2010 is made of lightweight plastics and polymers and weighs 500kg less than the current model, but it still has four wheels and an internal combustion engine.

One thing then seems certain: the car, whatever its outward form and whatever its source of fuel, will be with us to celebrate its second century in 2096.

Start, stop, start: milestones from a century of motoring

1896 The first speeding ticket is issued to a motorist exceeding the 2mph limit.

1900 Sir David Salomons, founder of Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, predicts: "the engine of the future will be of the diesel type ... superior to the steam engine from every point of view". Sir David thought the petrol engine of no future consequence.

1910 Cadillac introduces the starter button, putting a stop to limp- wristed chauffeur misery and hailing the arrival of the owner-driver.

1920 For Henry Ford, the future is a black Model T, the only car that needed to be made. He was nearly right. The Model T is the best selling car until overtaken by the VW Beetle.

1930 20mph speed limit lifted in Britain: top speeds rise almost overnight. The Burney Streamline launched airship-style body. It is the most futuristic of all cars, but the R101 airship crashes killing 48; the Burney fails as a direct consequence.

1940 Military versions of the VW Beetle (Type 82) motor across Europe. British Army captures one; top Rootes engineers dismissed what was to become the most successful car of all time as "not an example of first rate modern design".

1950 Jet-1, first gas-turbine car from Rover, based on the staid 90-model. The gas-turbine is all the rage: the engine of the future, they say. Also in 1950, for a few months, Britain becomes world's No 1 car exporter.

1960 Traffic wardens, MOT tests, and the Beeching report mark the end of old bangers, the rise of the car as we know it and the destruction of the railways. 1970 Space-age Mercedes C111 supercar wows motoring public. Powered by rotary Wankel engine, the new "engine of the future". Development of supercar killed by oil crisis three years later: the Wankel gobbles fuel.

1980 The last spate of all-British designed, British-built cars: Mini Metro, Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit, Reliant Scimitar GTC, TVR Tasmin, Lotus Esprit and Aston-Martin Bulldog.

1990 Fall of the Berlin Wall sees VW take over Trabant and Skoda, Suzuki move into Hungary. In UK nostalgia rules the roost, as the future takes a back seat, with relaunch of Mini Cooper and AC Ace.

1996 Richard Noble, British record breaker, confirms that he will attempt to break the speed of sound on land.

Cover: Ronald Grant/Vintage Magazine Company

Comments