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The pros and cons of four wheels

Book>> The Life Of The Automobile: A New History Of The Motor Car •by Steven Parissien • Rs 550

By Arpan Bhaduri
Published: Saturday 15 February 2014

As a student in the 1980s in Kolkata—it was then called Calcutta—I looked forward to the Statesman Vintage and Classic Car Rally as a break from the tedium of school life. I was not much of a car buff and my parents did not have a car. But the Austins, Buick and Roll Royces at the show exerted an ineffable pull. It was fascinating to know that Stalin, one of the biggest critics of fascist Germany, used a Mercedes.

bookWith academic and sports taking up much of my time in the 1990s, the car rally almost went off my annual itinery. I must confess being wide-eyed, though, every time I saw an elegant car. Later as a student of sociology, I found that Roland Barthes had aptly described my fascination.

The French anthropologist described automobiles as “the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population.” Interaction with environmentalists and town planners provided me another side to the story. I came to know that car was not always an item of fascination. In fact as the Hindi classic, Naya Daur, showed, the automobile was a contested entity.

I relived my youthful fascination for cars while reading Steven Parissien’s The Life of the Automobile: A New History of the Motor Car. We are taken to the battlefronts of World War I where the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost was used to chauffeur generals.

During World War II, the Volkswagen Beetles were designed with a high clearance for the Russian front. Parissien delights with snippets of information such as Barbara Cartland organising a race for MG Midgets in 1931 to demonstrate the skilfulness of women drivers. He reminds us that US entrepreneur Henry Ford created not only the mass market in automobiles but also car accessories. He also tells us that Alfred P Sloan, the president of General Motors, introduced the notion of planned obsolescence of automobile models in the 1930s and 40s—something that is commonplace in the industry now, inescapable to every Indian who has seen the demise of the Maruti 800.

James Bond with his favourite Aston Martin car

The rapid growth of car owners after World War II, particularly in the US and Western Europe, demonstrated the population’s favour towards automobiles.

During the war, automobile motors, fuel, and tires were in short supply. There was an unsatisfied demand when the war ended and plenty of production capacity as factories turned off the war machine. Many people had saved money because there was little to buy, beyond necessities, in the war years.

Workers relied heavily on mass transportation during the war and longed for the freedom and flexibility of the automobile. So the 1950s and 1960s were the golden age of the car in Europe and the US when models such as the Rolls Royce, the 1959 Cadillac, the Jaguar E-Type and James Bond’s favourite Aston Martin DB5 combined beauty and functionality.

The automobile changed city life in a myriad ways.

In the US, it accelerated the expansion of population into the suburbs. As a consequence, industries moved outward to sites where land was cheaper, where access by car was easier than in congested cities.

From the 1970s, the car industry came to be criticised for causing congestion and pollution. By the 1980s, the middle class was finding its feet in many parts of Asia, giving the automobile industry new markets. Parissien points out that this was also the period when SUVs came into their own. But he does not explain this paradox.

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