A fine romance
"Man does not live by bread alone!" He needs endless toys, gadgets, frills, and knick-knacks to adorn and improve the quality of his life. Topping his list of playthings is his automobile. As of 2002 there were 590 million passenger cars worldwide (one to every 11 people), and 140 million in the United States alone (one to two). Automobile is derived from the Greek "auto", meaning self, and the Latin "mobilis", moveable, meaning "it moves by itself". "Car" is presumed to be a more recent nomenclature derived from "carriage", but the word has its origin in English before 1300 AD as "carr" from an earlier Greek word for vehicle, applied to chariots, carts, and carriages. Discontent with all his means of transportation, man dreamed of creating his very own object of redesign. Borrowing a page from Greek mythology Pygmalion, King of Cyprus, unhappy with all women, decides to create his idol of perfection and falls in love with his creation. The gods give life to his statue, and he marries his "Galatea". In 1999 a Tennessee man tried to marry his car. In his application for a marriage licence, he listed his Mustang's birthplace as Detroit, father as Ford, and blood type as 10-W-40 (gasoline). His request was denied, but he vowed to keep trying. We shall report any further development in the fate of this romance.
How did it all start, this passionate romance between man and car?
Creative efforts started in Renaissance Italy, with the first recorded design by Guido da Vigevano (1320). Later Leonardo da Vinci designed his clockwork-driven tricycle.
History reports that Father Ferdinand Verbiest, a Catholic priest, built a steam powered vehicle for Chinese Emperor Chien Lieng in 1678. Frenchman Nicholas Joseph Cugnot had successfully created a three-wheeled steam powered vehicle by 1779, and by the 1830s steam powered vehicles provided regular passenger service in England. They frightened the horses, dirtied the air, scattered burning coals, and paralysed the city. Queen Victoria called them "a very shady and disagreeable conveyance", discouraging further development of the automobile. Across the channel however, Professor Jean Joseph Etienne Lenoir developed an internal combustion engine, fuelled by illuminating gas, and by 1865 Gottleib Daimler and Karl Benz of Germany, produced successful gasoline engines of the type used in today's cars.
Across the Atlantic, Americans had been busy building steam cars since 1805. William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa, popularised the electric car in 1890. It was easy to operate, ran quietly, and did not give off smelly fumes, but soon proved to be a nuisance, travelling only 30km an hour, with a battery that needed recharging every 80km. It soon lost popularity with the arrival of the gasoline car. The Duryea brothers take credit for the first successful gasoline automobile, followed by Henry Ford, Alexander Winston, and Ransom E Olds. Though Ford is considered "Father of the modern automobile" due to his Model-T, it was Ransom Olds who built 425 gasoline autos in 1901, starting the mass production of his Oldsmobile in the US. World War I demonstrated the value of the automobile. In France "the taxi-cab army" helped stop the Germans during the first Battle of the Marne.
The outcome of WWI hailed the automobile as hero, endearing it to the hearts of millions. Since then, love for the automobile has only grown. The US took the lead and still accounts for app. 25% of car production, but growth in the auto industry sprouted in several countries, in Europe, North and South America, not to mention Japan, China, and South Korea.
Our love affair has survived over a century, despite the staggering price we have to pay for this compelling romance. Car crashes are top killers, auto emissions cause global warming -- the congestion, the pollution, the noise, the cost, the headaches -- but man's obsession with his object of adoration has not diminished. Is it any wonder that we have now elevated cars to superstar status on the silver screen!
Tired of exorbitant salaries commanded by human stars, Hollywood has cast a number of animated cars in this summer's major blockbuster CARS. Second only to Pirates of the Caribbean II in revenues, Cars has amassed $240 million, Xmen, The Last Stand is third, Da Vinci Code, a disappointing fourth, and Superman Returns, rounds up the top five for this lustreless season.
Disney/Pixar triumphs again with a children's feature that pleases all, casting Paul Newman as Hudson Hornet (Doc Hudson), who teaches young racing car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) a thing or two about life, living, losing and winning. The brightest, lightest scenes are provided by Tony Shalhoub as car-as-tire- salesman, Michael Keaton is 'Chic Hicks', and Bonnie Hunt, a sexy Porsche. 'The Arnold' (Schwarzenegger) appears as a Hummer (Schwarzenegger's favourite car), while Corvettes, T-Birds, VW bugs, trucks and jeeps, play secondary roles. Its message of "the good old days" resonates with young and old.
In 2005, 63 million cars and light trucks were produced worldwide, over 11 million in the US, and 10 million in Japan -- the numbers rising year after year. Will this consuming love affair ever end? It seems unlikely. We continue to lavish attention and are co- dependent on their well-being. Cars provide us with too many cushy, comforting feelings, of status, independence, and privacy, not to mention speed and mobility. They have become our carapace, our protective shells, our moving miniature homes, furnished with radios, TVs, CDs, computers, telephones, air conditioners, mirrors, keeping us happy and entertained as we go from here to there.
Even as lovers do, cars stifle us. Men have become the tools of their own tools. They say "we can walk to anywhere, if we have the time!" But now, we have no time -- we have cars.
Not only are we lovers, but slaves to our cars. They have taken over our lives, and until we can replace this passion by another, that will give us more, and demand less, our attachment to our cars will remain, a fine romance.
Everything in life is somewhere else,
And you get there in a car!
-- E B White (1899-1985)