Car design has always been a passion of mine. The idea that you can begin with just a drawing, blend a series of mechanical components, and derive an object not only suitable for functional transport, but also something exciting to look at and experience, is an enormously compelling endeavor for an imaginative mind. But as much as I enjoy cars and their obvious beauty, power, and performance, there is another equally compelling aspect to the automobile that delivers a multi-layered view into our culture and serves as a guide into our potential future.
The automobile is perhaps the single most consistently recognized cultural artifact of modern civilization. And while the cell phone or television might give the car a run for its money, the depth of passion and engagement with the automobile is far more universal and emotional, with a greater impact on our culture and geography, particularly over the past 100 years. Prior to the automobile, most citizens remained within 25 miles of their home as traveling was generally limited to daylong journeys by horseback. This not only limited our scope of personal adventure, education, and cultural expansion, it limited the genetic diversity needed to build a stronger and healthier humanity outside of small close-knit familial communities. As the car grew cheaper and readily available for use, families not only expanded, businesses expanded dramatically, small businesses including grocery stores, fuel stations, and repair shops all catered to both institutional and commercial interest in the automobile.
Although Cadillac had offered an electric starter for their cars as early as 1912, it was not until 1919, when Ford offered it in the Model T that electric starters significantly changed widespread use of the car. Concurrent with the women’s suffrage movement, the automobile—previously needing a strong arm for hand cranking—could now be started by women and driven independently to and from multiple destinations.
The electric starter not only offered emancipation to women, it offered adolescent men and women a chance to take the wheel and help with deliveries from rural farm communities into cities. The advent of the electric starter for gasoline powered vehicles also allowed for medical doctors to travel further than the limited local range of their electric car. Most doctors purchased the electric car (often referred to as the “Doctors Coupe”) because they could not risk losing a surgeon’s arm on a rapid recoil from a starter iron kicking back. If you’ve ever tried to start a hand-crank car, you’ll surely appreciate that it takes both skill and strength to avoid getting hurt.
But it wasn’t just the ability to move around, the new-found durability and social value of the automobile soon replaced the bonds we once had with our horses. Formerly our animal partners, we would return home after a long ride, bathe the horse, groom them, check their hooves and shoes, inspect their muscles for any swelling or signs of stress, leave them safely overnight to rest, and then tend to our personal needs. Nearly all of these behaviors translated to our social interactions with the car, including bathing (car wash), checking the hooves (tire wear and pressure), inspecting the musculature (checking the body and paint), and stabling them overnight (parking in the garage). Our former relationship with an animal was now transferred into a non-animate object. Other than the horse to car relationship, I’m unaware of any other sustained animal relationship that has happened within the duration of our species. We’ve seen robotic dogs, but certainly not by the millions. No wonder there is so much universal affinity for the car and little emotional attachment to a toaster, blender, or lawn mower.