The Life of the Automobile by Steven Parissien and Auto Biography by Mark Wallington – reviews

Writing in the 1950s, the French cultural critic Roland Barthes argued that motors have been “nearly the precise equivalent of gothic cathedrals: I imply the perfect creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and fed on in image if no longer in usage through a whole populace which appropriates them only as a magical item.” The folks who congregate for the Pinnacle Equipment liturgy on abnormal Sundays have noticed that church attendance has diminished these days, but the car stays an object that invitations worship.

In addition to being loaded with the symbolic luggage of money, reputation, and sexual competitiveness, it is a pretext for grown guys (and on occasion girls) to interact inside the unembarrassed sharing of esoteric know-how and aesthetic pride. And but, like other religions, automobile worship increasingly provokes anger and resentment from non-believers. In his epic anti-car poem Autogeddon, Heathcote Williams described streets as “open sewers of the auto cult.” At Reclaim the Streets events within the Nineties, protesters carried mock avenue signs with the slogans “Fuck the automobile” and “automobiles Come Too Fast.” One way or another, people get worked up about vehicles.

Sign on to our Bookmarks newsletter

Study greater the auto is, as a result, an item ripe for cultural and historical analysis, and right here are two books that strive this in one of a kind way. Steven Parissien‘s The Lifestyles of the automobile is an international record of the motor automobile, from Benz to biofuels. It starts in earnest in 1891 with the French engineer Émile Levassor effectively inventing the modern-day automobile by transferring the engine to the front and including a front-hooked-up radiator, crankshaft, grasp pedal, and gearstick. The e-book reminds us that Henry Ford created not best the mass market in motors; however, the market in-car accessories, for his Version T was so missing in refinements that the Sears, Roebuck catalog covered over 5000 gadgets that could be attached to it.

It became Alfred P Sloan, the president of Trendy Vehicles, who added the perception of deliberate obsolescence and step by step trading up from access-stage Chevrolet to Pinnacle-of-the-range Cadillac. Parissien takes us via the golden age of the car inside the Fifties and 60s. At the same time, models include the Citroën DS, the 1959 Cadillac, the E-Kind Jaguar, and James Bond’s cherished Aston Martin DB5 blended splendor and functionality.

Then, as the car got here to be pilloried for inflicting congestion and pollutants, the automobile industry responded by forging new markets in southern Asia and China and experimenting with opportunity fuels and hybrids that usually sought to eke out the diminishing reserves of oil. But it also replied with the unmarried-fingered salute. This is the gasoline-guzzling SUV, the worldwide marketplace that keeps developing, undaunted via either austerity or ecopolitics.


Parissien‘s is mostly a painting of synthesis, culled from secondary sources. However, some overarching themes gift themselves. You find out how lots the car (like a lot else) depended on international wars as moms of technological invention and possibilities for international branding. The Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, for example, installed itself as the epitome of luxury within the first world war whilst it became used to chauffeur generals to the front, and TE Lawrence granted it ideal product placement in Seven Pillars of Understanding, describing it as “extra treasured than rubies”.

At some point in the second global conflict, the first Volkswagen Beetles had been designed with an excessive clearance to be deployed at the Russian front. Even though specifically an account of the auto industry, Parissien‘s book offers some thrilling sidelights in social history; we analyze that Vermont was a faraway backwater till its Bureau of Publicity started advertising the nation to pioneer motorists for leaf-peeping within the fall and snowboarding in wintering 1931 Barbara Cartland organized a race for MG Midgets at Brooklands to illustrate the skilfulness of girls drivers Planet Amend.

Parissien‘s heroes are the ingenious and lateral-questioning engineers – the typically unknown artists – who lay out those magical items. Whilst he offers the high-cease fashions their due, he seems similarly charmed through serviceable motors, which includes Flaminio Bertoni‘s Citroën 2CV, an “umbrella on 4 wheels” released in 1948 for France’s still in large part rural populace and designed to be pushed with the aid of a clog-carrying peasant across a plowed subject with our breaking the eggs on the again seat. No longer all the enterprise’s efforts at make-do-and-mend had been so reliable and adorable.

Parissien devotes tons area to the tragic merchandise of the British Leyland meeting line, inclusive of the Morris Marina, a “pass on wheels” which arrived at showrooms with the paintwork already stippled with rust, and the Austin Allegro, whose pointlessly futuristic square steerage wheel did not prevent it being nicknamed “the Flying Pig.” At a minimum, neither have been as terrible because the East German Trabant, made from Duroplast, an unrecyclable phenolic resin bolstered by Soviet cotton-wool waste and compressed brown paper, which released noxious fumes that made its meeting-line workers ill and killed pretty some of them.

The Lifestyles of the car leaves you with the feeling that the car is each a tremendously state-of-the-art object – made from tens of lots of aspect components, capable of delivering its occupant’s lengthy distances in severe comfort, and now outfitted with stop-begin engines, voice-activated controls, automated parking structures and radar technology to Examine street markings – and a notably primitive one. In the end, its basic era, the inner combustion engine, is a 19th-century invention, and it stays, as the Japanese say, “a third-class machine,” wanting a fairly professional human to paintings it well. Parissien sees the auto’s contradictions already encapsulated near the start of its Life inside the character of Henry Ford – “daringly innovative, but at the identical time intrinsically conservative; brashly competitive, but anxious and hesitant; socially progressive, yet politically reactionary.”

Mark Wallington’s The automobile Biography is greater private and idiosyncratic, his idea being to tell the tale of the last 60 years of British motoring thru his own encounters with cars. The ebook begins in 1953 together with his father’s purchase of a Ford Famous – a “biscuit tin on wheels,” which has handiest an unmarried windscreen wiper – to deliver his son back from the maternity ward. Wallington’s narrative runs from the excitements of the early dual carriageway age to the disenchantments of the prevailing, symbolized through his father turning road protester whilst a bypass is built in the back of his house. The book ends bathetically with the author’s purchase of a charcoal-grey Ford Recognition, “a car that specializes in no longer being noticed,” Although “perhaps it is got a touch greyer over the past years.”

This convivial e-book is tough to dislike, and there are some best vignettes. Wallington’s father, who plans journeys alongside the virgin motorways of the Nineteen Fifties and 60s with the same meticulousness he added to his function as an RAF navigator within the conflict, warms his car’s spark plugs within the oven on wintry weather mornings so that breakfast smells are “offset using the piquant aroma of engine oil.” In her first experience on the M6, his mother buys a postcard at a carrier station to ship to her hairdresser. For the duration of the suffocating summer of 1976, as lengthy queues of hitchhikers form at Staples Corner at the foot of the M1, the asphalt melts, and “you could peel it off the side of the roads.”


Writer. Pop culture buff. Certified alcohol trailblazer. Tv nerd. Music fanatic. Professional problem solver. Explorer. Uniquely-equipped for working on Easter candy in Las Vegas, NV. Uniquely-equipped for analyzing toy monkeys for the government. Spent a year testing the market for action figures in Minneapolis, MN. Spent high school summers donating walnuts in Phoenix, AZ. Earned praised for my work researching human brains in Orlando, FL. Spent college summers writing about pubic lice in Washington, DC.