John Dales, Director.
A friend recently alerted me to the presence of a Freeview channel that I’d not come across before – Talking Pictures TV (Channel 81). I was attracted to it principally because its chief output is old British films that, for some reason, I’m rather partial to. However, as a genuine bonus, it also shows a lot of old documentaries and newsreels that show aspects of British life now long past. The synopsis of one of these particularly caught my eye – “A stunningly prophetic old news feature on the motor car and its place in the world” – so I recorded it.
It’s called ‘The Motor Car’ and is seemingly one episode from a series of ten-minute documentaries that went under the title ‘Echo’. Made in 1972, I’ve been able to find out precious little more about it other than that it’s now distributed Renown Films. I found what it had to say fascinating, and thought others might, too. So, I transcribed it, as follows.
Once upon a time, just one lifespan ago, the motor car was born [ Image 1]
At first, it was a mere toddler in a world full of horses. They even measured its potential in terms of horse-power, confident it could never outpace the quadruped. But it did. And, from that moment, the car was king of the road.
Intrepid men began racing them. Other reshaped them, built more powerful engines, and made them reliable. And the process continues.
Hypnotised by the most universally practical invention since the wheel, men still seek ways of making it go faster; not that it really matters anymore.
The car has already attained a position of importance almost grotesquely out of proportion to its original purpose.
In this issue, Echo examines the monster in our midst: The Motor Car.
[Title sequence – Image 2]
The ownership of a new, fast car is either the summit of a man’s ambition or a contribution to the world’s biggest singe disaster. It’s either a tangible piece of personal luxury or a potential killer. It depends whether you’re at the wheel or reading statistics about road accidents and the even greater menace of air pollution.
The motor car is the great status symbol, tied closely to individual masculinity and social prowess in the imagery of advertising. ‘Own a car like this and move up in the world’.
Or, rather, come to a grinding halt.
The 500 million cars on our roads have long since begun to strangle movement in the cities, to pollute the air, and to cost untold millions in money, time and ruined lives.
But the balance sheet of the motor car’s worth to mankind has always, until now anyway, come out on the profit side. After all, the making of cars is an important part of the national economies of many countries; the ownership of cars is a barometer of national wealth in nearly all nations; and the revenue from motor taxes and petrol duty provides a big percentage of government income in industrialised states.
In short, the motor car has, until now, been too valuable a property to question.
But scenes like these [Image 3] do raise questions. Can we afford a machine which annually kills and maims hundreds of thousands of people? Has the car become a bigger menace than we can handle?
In the face of pictures like this, the answers would, reasonably, be negative. It’s not worth dying prematurely in any circumstances. But the fact remains that the car is here to stay. The advantages of the car, the truck, the bus and other automotive as a method of transport for people and things are enormous. And they’re only as big a menace as the people who drive them.
The tragedy is that, as with so many other human inventions, they can become lethal in the wrong hands. That won’t change until human nature changes.
On the other hand, this [Image 4] is controllable.
The internal combustion engine hasn’t basically altered since it was first invented nearly a century ago. It still works by drawing a mix of air and petrol vapour into a cylinder, igniting it, and harnessing the explosive force. But the fallout from this simple device is this: a gigantic cloud of water vapour, carbon and lead.
If it is allowed to build up, as it does in every city in the world, it’s a killer. Plants die and trees won’t grow; and it’s a sorry reflection on the impact of the motor car on our lives, than the best we appear able to do is plant plastic substitutes for living things; and resort to gas masks in order to live with the automobile.
Now, 70 years after the motor car caught the popular imagination, people are beginning to protest about its effect on our lives. In Stockholm, Sweden, where the United Nations recently held a conference on the environment, pedestrians have taken to the road to draw attention to the pollution hazard.
Popular demonstrations in many countries [Image 5] have put pressure on governments and, in turn, have forced automobile makers to think again about the internal combustion engine.
A clean-up campaign has been launched in many countries, aimed at reducing the volume of poisonous effluent pumped into the atmosphere. Random tests are part of it. But, so far, only the United States has laid down hard and fast regulations about exhaust content, and they won’t be effective until 1975.
Foreseeing the coming of more international regulations, nearly all the world’s major car manufacturers are now engaged in urgent research to find ways of cutting down potentially lethal exhaust emissions.
American authorities have ruled that the toxic content of exhaust gases must be reduced by no less than 90% by the time the new law comes into force in 1975
One of the alternatives to the internal combustion engine is the electric battery. This Japanese bus [Image 6] is powered by electricity and has proved a viable commercial proposition.
But even though science and technology can produce all-electric cars like this, the idea is not popular. We all seem so committed to the petrol-driven automobile that electric cars and computerised robot transport systems like this [Image 7 of a model automated city] seem doomed to extinction before they get into production. This way, you can plug in a computer card and get driven home. But people prefer to take their own risks.
And that’s really the point. Whatever other forms of transport may have been devised by man, no-one has yet come up with a more mobile, convenient, effortless and simple method of getting from A to B than the motor car. And until someone does, the car seems likely to remain what it is: man’s magic carpet.
That being so, it is quite certain that even countries that still look like this [Image 8] will eventually modernise. Modernisation will mean mobility and mobility means the motor car. The question is not if, but how.
That will depend on those who invented a society of wheels finding a way for us all to live with its by-products. When we have controlled it and made it less poisonous, then the motor car will be what it was intended to be: the servant of the genius of man.