Review: Auto Mobile By Ruth Brandon Essay, Research Paper
Driving force Auto Mobile: How the Car Changed Life Ruth Brandon 468pp, Macmillan The view from the roof of Dearborn’s Ritz-Carlton hotel is infinitely melancholic, but magnificent. Bright ribbons of freeway unravel across the flat, dull midwestern landscape. Somewhere in the distance, the enormous River Rouge plant has been churning out the cars that now populate these roads in a mobile jam that is a derisive caricature of the production line. It was somewhere near here that Henry Ford invented what he called the gasoline buggy in order to escape the aching tedium of life on a Michigan farm. The universal appetite for freedom that Ford excited has brought pleasure and pain, wealth and pollution, desire, great beauty, destruction and death. For some people, the acqui sition of a new car is an experience as close to perfection as they might reasonably expect on earth. For others, cars are a filthy menace. The poignancy of watching traffic rests, as Eric Larrabee mused, on the contradictions of the automobile in use: you are liberated, but lonely; there is a sense of adventure, but also of sorrow; you are free, but trapped. The vision of escape is a cruel illusion, but the taste for it, once established, is ineradicable. The mixed blessing of the affordable car – Henry Ford’s gift to the world – is the subject of Ruth Brandon’s new book. Brandon is the author of a superb biography of Isaac Merritt Singer, the sewing-machine entrepreneur. It may have been this original curiosity about the heroes of early capitalism that interested her in Ford, whose person and works dominate the index of this portly book. Ford can seem a sinis ter figure, and Brandon does not resist the temptation to speculate about the motor industry’s incipient totalitarianism. As early as 1928 the New York Times called Ford an “industrial fascist”, and Hitler awarded him Germany’s highest honour in 1938. But Ford’s was a fundamentally democratic achievement – what Marx called “the power of knowledge objectified” and what Ford called a “whole new art”. We call it the Model T or, nowadays, the Mondeo. Porsche gets it too. The brilliant Bohemian design-engineer had come to Hitler’s notice just as the project to get the proles on the move was being formalised. Porsche’s independent studies for a technologically advanced small car were opportunistically coopted by the Führer to become the Kraft durch Freude Wagen (Strength Through Joy Car, in case you thought Xsara was a daft name). As the postwar Volkswagen, Porsche’s clever small car achieved in economic terms what the Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht had failed to do militarily. But while Porsche was culpable in being morally neutral – he also designed the V-1, and after 1945 was arrested by the French as a war criminal – he was, like Ford, a technocrat and visionary, not a politician. The small cars which changed our lives – Fiat 500, Citroen 2CV, Mini – were similarly the result of a benign intention by great engineers to give the gift of mobility to ordinary folk. And, as frustrated travellers throughout Europe know, the ordinary folk responded con brio. The paradox is clear: endearing and useful machines, created to set us free, enslave us. It is a compelling subject, but Brandon’s approach, which also covers 1950s styling and contemporary safety, environment and energy strategies, has difficulty coping with the technical complexity and semantic subtlety of the car. While she handles the early history with authority, she sometimes struggles with her material: I doubt that Volkswagen had the “marketing department” she claims for it in the 1930s. Equally, her analysis of symbolism is crude. She says that Rolls-Royce means “discreet” wealth as opposed to “brash” Ferrari; the issues are far more subtle and interesting. The car has had other critics: notably, Vance Packard, Ralph Nader, Jane Jacobs, Alisdair Aird and Heathcote Williams. But it has also had its poets: Le Corbusier, Marinetti, Tom Wolfe, J G Ballard and Roland Barthes. I know in which of those lobbies I think the majority of talent and literary interest are to be found. Brandon is neither virulent antagonist nor well-informed supporter, and this is neither an authoritative history nor a convincing polemic, though it is readable and thought-provoking. I sense that Brandon set out on a critique, but found herself warming to her subject, for she falls into the trap that has claimed millions. Starting with a disclaimer that she is not a great enthusiast, she goes on to explain, not without feeling, that she drives a Peugeot 205 Cabrio. Aha! We all, in the end, subscribe to what Ford called an “inevitable principle”. Stephen Bayley’s Cars Are Our Cathedrals is published by Orion next year.