Gavin Foster
Gavin Foster

Give your car a hug

So here we are, little more than a century later, and the car is as welcome in every home as the chamber pot was before inside toilets arrived. It wasn’t always so, though. When the first adventurers took to the roads in steam and electric and clockwork and petrol-engined cars in the 1890s only the stinking rich could afford cars, and the working classes, who’d only recently started enjoying the personal freedom of travelling independently on the new-fangled bicycle, were less than pleased. In America and Europe there were countless stories of road-hogs, as they were called, being stoned, flogged and shot at by disgruntled farmers and peasants, who objected to the dust and the noise and the numbers of livestock they slaughtered.

There were few road traffic laws in those days, and no need for drivers’ licences, which was a dangerous state of affairs when you consider that the best of these primitive vehicles with their dreadfully inadequate brakes, tyres and suspension were capable of reaching 130 km/h as far back as 1903. Countess Frochot, an early automobilist who was born in 1882, was quoted in the splendid 1984 book Automania as saying that in her native France, country folk thought the car was the devil. “Everybody hid when a car appeared. Just remember that the hens were being killed and the dogs were being squashed … no one knew what to do … when the cars came … the horses were terrified and used to bolt. So of course the peasants were all against the car.” Across the Atlantic American president Woodrow Wilson complained that nothing had spread socialism more than the automobile. “Automobilists are a picture of arrogance and wealth, with all its independence and carelessness,” he railed.

The English, of course, weren’t as unrestrained as their European and American cousins when it came to demonstrating their loathing for cars and those who drove them. The Times, on 15 December 15 1900 ran a leader in response to vitriolic letters from readers about cars and drivers, saying that “it is a fact than in some parts of the country the motor car is an object of hatred … it is not surprising because there are a number of drivers who are a curse to the neighbourhoods in which they drive. Drivers who seem, when they mount their cars, to put from them altogether the instincts of gentlemen”.

Governments’ responses were, as usual, limited to passing hundreds of laws, many of them ill thought out and ineffectual because the car had in a few short years inevitably changed the way the world worked. In Italy, motorists were required by law to apply in writing for permits to use their cars, giving dates, times, and proposed routes, before being allowed to travel. Speed limits were set at ridiculously low figures, and in England traffic cops hid in hedges with stop-watches to catch those doing more than a walking pace. When motoring clubs sent out scouts armed with bicycles, binoculars and arm bands to look for speed traps and warn oncoming motorists, the police arrested them for defeating the ends of justice. In response the Automobile Association issued a decree that its scouts should in future salute all oncoming cars unless there was a speed trap ahead. And so it went.

Anyway, those days are thankfully gone, and the car is accepted as a necessity in most civilised societies today. We should be grateful, because it has literally kept us out of the poo. To be specific, horse poo. According to the well-researched Automania in the late 1800s New York was home to 175 000 working horses, and there were no emission-control regulations back then. Each quadruped delivered 23kg of manure out of its exhaust each day, more than 4 million kilograms of manure were deposited in the streets daily. In the 1880s New York also had to uplift 15 000 dead horses from its streets annually, and, as we know, horse manure and dead animals attract flies that in turn spread disease. All the major cities worldwide had sweepers employed at pedestrian crossings to help pedestrians keep their boots clean, and the stench must have been overwhelming. And then there was the noise – all that clippety-clop stuff accompanied by rumbling steel wagon wheels, cracking of buggy whips and cursing wagon drivers would drive us scatty today.

Now go outside and give your car a hug!

Tags: ,

  • We will ask questions about CAR
  • The dogs of war
  • African Union, useful or useless?