Repost: The car has had a good run from the first ‘horseless carriage’ to the Automobile Age

A chance conversation revives one of the most popular blogs on the site
The 'horseless carriage' driven by Bertha Benz for the first long distance road trip by automobile. Photo by unknown author - Benz, Carl Friedrich: Lebensfahrt eines deutschen Erfinders. Die Erfindung des Automobils, Erinnerungen eines Achtzigjährigen. Leipzig 1936, S. 155-156., Public Domain

In his 2013 novel The Automobile Club of Egypt, Alaa Al Aswany portrays a famous author trying to find the right beginning for a new book.

First, he tries a sort of meta-beginning, in which a famous author (Mr Al Aswany?) is admonished by his characters for leaving out bits of their stories and handed an improved manuscript. End of story.

The second attempt at a beginning tells the story of the invention of the first car, the “horseless carriage,” by Karl Benz in Mannheim, Germany in 1885. His wife Bertha drives the car a hundred miles and the world is changed. End of story.

The third and final beginning starts as it means to go on. We are in 1940s Cairo, cars are a sign of wealth and the Automobile Club of Egypt is a seat of undisputed power. The country is on the verge of revolution against inequity, tyranny and misery. That the automobile symbolises the wretched status quo is pretty much implied, but the plot subsequently moves on and does nothing more with the idea of cars, power and glory. Benz doesn’t reappear. The drama in and around the Automobile Club takes centre-stage and the role of the car in changing a way of life, prospects, the metrics of status and our environment isn’t really explored.

If only. In measuring the middle class in developing countries, the number of passenger cars in circulation are generally taken as a clear indicator. In the global north, even households classified as poor own cars, but in the global south, car ownership is practically synonymous with quasi middle-class status. It separates those with the ability to purchase nonessentials from the wider population.

And so it has been but change may be in the air and it may be starting in the rich world. The Economist (paywall) says it has discerned a profound shift in attitudes to the car, with young people in the global north falling out of love with the automobile. One of the reasons is climate change. The newspaper quotes Donald Shoup, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has campaigned against the excessive provision of free parking in America. Climate change, he says, has spurred young activists to campaign against development focused on cars.

Originally published on March 6, 2023