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