In Review

The Car by Bryan Appleyard: an ‘entertainingly forthright history’

Appleyard sets out to document a way of life that he believes is vanishing

In this “entertainingly forthright history”, Bryan Appleyard sets out to document a way of life that he believes is vanishing, said Andrew Anthony in The Observer. “Within a few years,” he writes, “owning a car might seem as eccentric as owning a train or a bus. Or perhaps it will simply be illegal.” Yet his book is no lament or eulogy. Instead, it’s an “acknowledgement of the extraordinary cultural and environmental impact the car has had on this planet in the last 135-plus years”.

Appleyard tells the story of the car via sharply drawn portraits of key manufacturers and designers: Henry Ford and Alfred Sloan (the founder of General Motors) in the US; Japan’s Soichiro Honda; Elon Musk, whose Tesla, he believes, marks the beginning of the end for the automobile.

But his book is at its “most acute” when he muses on the “cultural effects of the car”. At one point, he reflects on the “existential lure of the road trip” and the “emotional draw of imagined destinations”; at another, he dissects the illogicality of our attitude to traffic jams, which we invariably see “as something thrust upon us, rather than a whole of which we form an active part”.

“Well known to Sunday Times readers as a thoughtful interpreter of our frets and anxieties”, Appleyard is an unusually high-minded chronicler of the automobile, said Stephen Bayley in The Spectator. “His car banter is more Public Intellectual than Public House.” While he nicely illuminates the fundamental paradox of the car – “that the same machine that liberates has also enslaved us” – his narrative travels down rather well-trodden ground at times, as when, for instance, he describes the car-related “calamity” that befell James Dean.

He also neglects the importance of politics, said Stephen Bush in the Financial Times. “At times, it feels as if Appleyard believes that the reasons for the car’s dominance is solely that cars are cool.” But this overlooks the role played by interest groups such as the US automobile lobby in shaping the 20th century’s car obsession. “Still, The Car is a fun ride, while it lasts.”

Towards the end, Appleyard’s tone turns “elegiac”, as he envisages a future in which cars as we know them are replaced by autonomous electric vehicles, said James McConnachie in The Sunday Times. He isn’t enamoured of such a future, suggesting that it will be “freedom-destroying”. Like many men of his generation, Appleyard is a car obsessive who also “feels guilty” about being one. He recognises that cars are “disgustingly 20th century”, but he has put his conflicting feelings to good use in this “penetrating” and highly enjoyable study.

Orion 322pp £22; The Week bookshop £17.99

The Car
The Week Bookshop

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