Mechanic’s Tale: Let Freedom Beep

The automobile, thanks to the internal combustion engine, has contributed more to individual freedom and equality between the classes and, yes, diversity (ugh) than any other device in human history. That’s a big statement to make but I think it holds up.

I don’t have time or my editor’s indulgence to run through the history of civilization. Obviously lots of time and effort led up to the mass-produced internal combustion engine and the automobile. From the printing press and the spinning wheel to the early Newcomb engines in the coal mines of England that powered the Industrial Revolution — all things which improved the lot of humanity greatly.


But the rich were still rich, the poor were still poor, living on opposite sides of the tracks in different worlds. The automobile changed all that.


Rich man poor man


Of all societies on earth it is not an accident that ours is the least class conscience and the least stratified. And the fact that we are more or less a car-based society is largely responsible for it.


In America , people who make huge amounts of money by and large drive their own cars to run their own errands on the same roads and to the same places as people with far lower incomes. Anyone in America outside of a few urban areas can afford to own and operate some kind of car.


Think of the power and mobility millions of people have that never existed before in mankind’s history and does not exist anywhere else. In 24 hours’ time you can move a thousand miles in any direction. You don’t have to ask anyone’s permission, fill out any papers, or buy a ticket. Show me someone who got caught in a hurricane and I’ll show you someone who didn’t own a car.


And you know that no matter how much you spend buying a car, it really won’t do much more than a used clunker purchased for $2500.


How egalitarian can you get?


True freedom of religion


I am a moderately devout Jew. I try to be at service every Saturday morning. My son is in Sunday School every week. The synagogue is not that far from my house, about eight miles, 25 to 30 minutes in normal traffic.


Without the existence of the automobile I would have to live in a Jewish enclave in a major city as my forebears did to be within walking distance of a synagogue. The Catholics would live near their church, the Protestants would have their neighborhood, and a sort of natural segregation would take place as it has in much of the world.


Car beats the Klan


I listen to National Public Radio’s The Diane Rehm Show on a regular basis. Diane was talking to the Washington Post’s terrific auto writer, Warren Brown, about his career and cars and his life in general.


She tried to lead him into a condemnation of the evils of our car-dependent society. Instead he stated in no uncertain terms that as a black man growing up in the Deep South during the era of Jim Crow, the Klan, and a general ingrained racism, his car, more than anything else, served to keep him alive.


A black man walking on the roadside was fair game for insults, hurled bottles, and marauding gangs. But in his car he had anonymity. Who notices a properly dressed man wearing a fine hat behind the wheel of a car? And if anyone did take notice, he was gone before they could react.


I hope that car eventually carried him out of that world to a somewhat more hospitable one.


As compared to what?


A lot of people who lament the car-dependent society have a utopian vision, but their vision isn’t clearly outlined. It is unlikely that new sets of train or trolley tracks are going to crisscross America and my neighborhood to take me everywhere from the synagogue to the supermarket. Less dependence on cars means more dependence on sullen, overpaid, underworked public transportation workers who strike every chance they get.


Look at Europe . As they become more affluent they are buying more and more cars. They’ve had it with the inefficient public sector and waiting in endless lines for every 50-mile journey.


And I've got a sneaky feeling that if GM announced tomorrow that it had a car that took garbage in the front end and emitted only sparkling water out the tail pipe, the crowd on the Upper West Side of New York would be even more unhappy. You see, the dirty little secret is there is a tremendous amount of class snobbery in the anti-automobile crowd.


There are people truly concerned about lower emissions, better fuel efficiency, and safer cars. Most of them work in the auto industry. But there is a loud vocal minority who always seem to live in the most class-stratified parts of the country who just don’t like all those poor people being able to afford to go where they want, when they want, and irritate their betters. Those types don’t plan to ever give up their access to the automobile, but if they can fool the rest of the country into doing so, all the better.


In the meantime it’s up to us, those who work in and love the car business — whether building them, fixing them, or writing about them, to defend the freedom that the automobile has brought to America . To point out the hundreds of millions of lives made better by motor transport. And to call to task those who fly in private jets while trying to take away the poor man’s SUV.


Doug Flint owns and operates Tune-Up Technology, a garage in Alexandria, Va.



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