The Joy of Motoring
In smog-free cities and traffic free landscapes, advertising sells us a vision of the car as a vehicle of limitless possibility. There is no traffic. The open road awaits. It is a vision of freedom, self-expression, and liberation. And it’s nonsense. For we all know that everyday reality is filled traffic jams, stop signs, road rage, and the impossibility of finding anywhere to park.
Presented by Tristram Hunt, this film is the story of how motoring destroyed itself; how the initial promise of liberation for all ended up with traffic jams for everyone. It’s a journey from heaven to hell in a hundred years, charting how we have travelled from the thrill and the wonder of the open road to the miserable grind of the daily commute.
In the early 1900s, the first great age of motoring, the car had nothing to do with getting to work. It was little more than a very expensive and sophisticated toy, the plaything of the aristocracy, the wealthy and the well to do. This was the age of London to Brighton runs, leisure and above all fun. The car offered owners a chance to express their social position and good taste, setting them apart symbolically and physically from non-owners. The car’s mobility and speed meant it contrasted sharply with the train and other forms of public and private transport. As Autocar pointed out in 1929: ‘public transport, no matter how fast and comfortable, inflicts a sensation of serfdom which is intolerable to a free Briton. It dictates the time of starting, the route, the speed, and the stoppages.’ The car liberated the traveller from any timetable and allowed people to travel wherever and whenever they wanted.
In the 1930’s, with falling prices and rising household incomes, the car rose in popularity to become the symbol of middle class life. It also allowed even more people the chance to visit rural villages, stately homes, quiet country pubs, and sites of historic interest. In 1901 Stonehenge was visited by fewer than 4,000 people; in 1929-30, the numbers reached 100,000. The British began to discover a renewed sense of the history of their own country. As H.V. Morton wrote in ‘In Search of England’:
Never before have so many people been searching for England. The remarkable system of motor-coach services which now penetrate every part of the country has thrown open to ordinary people regions which even after the coming of the railway were remote and inaccessible. The popularity of the cheap motor-car is also greatly responsible for this long-overdue interest in English history, antiquities, and topography. More people than in any previous generation are seeing the real country for the first time. Many hundreds of such explorers return home with a new enthusiasm, astonished that this wealth of historic, and other interest, any angle of which provides a man with an absorbing hobby for the rest of his life should, until now, have been neglected at their very doors.
After the Second World War the car entered the era of mass ownership. In the ‘never had it so good’ prosperity of the 1960’s the car, along with the fridge, the television, and the washing machine, became an essential item of commodity culture. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan wrote in his diary: “I usually drive down to Sussex on Saturday mornings and I find my car in a line of family cars, filled with fathers, mothers, children, uncles, aunts, all making their way to the seaside. Ten years ago, most of them would not have had cars, would have spent their week-ends in their backstreets, and would have seen the sea-side, if at all, only once a year. Now … I look forward to the time, not far away, when those cars will be a little larger, a little more comfortable, and all of them will be carrying on their roofs, boats which they may enjoy at the sea-side.”
Now the car began to take over; new roads, by-passes and motorways were constructed, city centres were re-modelled, and the needs of the automobile began to dominate the way in which people thought about both travel and the environment. The motorists’ early dream of England was steadily swamped by the actual demands of the motor car: clogged-up cities, traffic ruining historic sites. For every car or van on the roads of Britain in 1950 - 2.3. million of them - there were twice as many by the end of the decade and three times as many by the end of the sixties. By 1970 there were twelve million cars on the road and by the end of the century there were more than twenty-four million: ten times as many in half a century.
The demands of the car have made us rethink the way in which we live, work and holiday, and it has made us question what the balance might be between freedom and limitation, desire and responsibility. In fact, the speed of the car’s popularity has outpaced our thinking about its impact. Today our roads are full. Motorways, ring roads, and congestion charges dominate our lives. The heroic individualism demanded by the driver is incompatible in an era of mass ownership.
And yet, despite all the evidence before us, we continue to believe in the early myth of motoring; that driving can still be a pleasure and a delight, a symbol of freedom and liberation, and an opportunity to escape from everyday reality - if only it wasn’t for everyone else on the road. For within us all there still lurks something of the allure of speed, the elegance of the automobile, and a yearning for that past golden age when we had the roads to ourselves. The myth continues.