The car is modernity’s emblem of freedom, the great mechanical steed that has brought us mobility and speed. In ideal conditions, with a full tank of fuel and the open road ahead, its windscreen is like the driver’s personal cinema screen, a film in which the person behind the steering wheel is the star. But its supremacy is under threat. Car sales across the world are down. China has just had its steepest monthly fall in six years. UK sales are on pace to fall for two years running for the first time since the depths of the financial crisis.
Choked by pollution and congestion, cities have started to treat cars like a pandemic of vast armour-plated rats, bringers of pestilence. Hamburg has banned older diesel vehicles, Luxembourg is about to make public transport free, the City of London aims to banish motorised traffic from half its roads. Uber can see which way the cleaner air is blowing: it wants to diversify into e-scooters and e-bikes.
The dream of car ownership, to use the favourite cliché of the automobile trade, has turned sour. Even France’s gilets jaunes protesters, ostensibly mobilised by a proposed fuel duty rise, have been angrily torching vehicles. Faced by self-driving cars, hostile politicians, and gridlocked roads, drivers are experiencing what a previous generation would recognise as an existential crisis.
Ford’s Model T turned driving into a mass activity in the 1910s, spreading outwards from the US to other parts of the world. Since then cars have become fused with images of ourselves at our most free. “Riding along in my automobile, my baby beside me at the wheel,” Chuck Berry sang in 1956, the year the US began building its interstate highway system. Germany’s autobahn network was celebrated by Kraftwerk in their 1974 hit “Autobahn” — a song that in turn echoes The Beach Boys’ anthem about Californian teenage driving, “Fun, Fun, Fun”.
Even when reality involves traffic jams and honking horns, driving has been made to seem liberating: “Beep, beep, beep, beep, yeah!” The Beatles chorused in “Drive My Car”. Grace Jones’s parking manoeuvres in “Pull Up to the Bumper” are among the countless erotic metaphors applied to cars. “Driving” drums and “turbo-charged” riffs have turned rock songs into rhetorical adjuncts of motoring. Even its destructiveness can be appealing. In Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”, a New Jersey commuter highway becomes a route to Valhalla, “jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive”.
Popular culture, and pop music in particular, have invested cars with a significance that goes beyond their function of getting us from A to B. Their hold over our imaginations is as powerful as their sovereignty over our roads. Removing them from physical spaces is one thing. Removing them from our minds is another.
Their predecessors, horses, provide an instructive comparison. Incidences of the term “gallop” — according to a Google search engine that measures word usage over time — peaked in 1897, the beginning of motorised transport, before declining 77 per cent by 1999.
Will car metaphors go the same way? The UK radio DJ Jeremy Vine, a prominent cyclist, wants to abolish the term “drive-time radio” because, he says, it celebrates “a form of transport that kills 1,700 people a year” on UK roads. Anti-car groups dispute the use of “dead end” for streets that cars cannot drive through. It is petrolhead thinking that causes a music critic like me — a person who walks, cycles and takes trains and buses more frequently than cars — to describe boring songs as “pedestrian” or “stuck in first gear”.
During the centuries that it dominated the road, the horse accrued kudos as the noblest domesticated beast. But the car has had an even more profound effect. It has become the vehicle for potent concepts of pleasure, speed and autonomy. These desires and demands will not disappear. The challenge lies in moving on from the machines but not the energies they have unleashed in us.
The writer is the FT’s pop music critic