Cambridge-educated journalist and author – and Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) – Brian Appleard has covered the arts and sciences primarily in his books and articles, so in some ways it seems unlikely that he was a writer of a new treatise. Vehicle history. However, his new book, The Car: The Rise and Fall of the Machine That Made the Modern World Not out of ordinary history. Instead, it’s an exhilarating winding journey through the major milestones in the car’s development, and the repercussions they have had – both astounding and horrific.
This simultaneous duality is fundamental to the book’s versatility and appeal. “I didn’t really realize what the book’s thesis was until several months after I wrote it,” said Appleyard grandfather. “That’s because there’s some kind of thesis lurking in the book, which wasn’t just about cars. It’s about things in general. It’s the idea that people should be able to keep two thoughts and two ideas in their minds. In this case, one is good carsand one bad cars. And it’s not that one cancels out the other.”
In other words, while the car has spurred profound and often problematic changes to our lives and our natural and built environments, that shouldn’t make us ignore the sense of freedom, the landscape of design, innovation, cultural influence, and the ability for speed and wonder that cars have offered.
However, it does raise the larger question of how to incorporate this warring and divergent knowledge into planning for the future. “The most specific thesis in the book is that cars, as we know them, are likely to turn into something else,” Appleyard said.
And so it’s the end of an era that began in 1885, and I thought that was worth recording.”
Appleyard has a long history with cars, from his familiar childhood experience of “recognizing every car I’ve seen pass” to a life full of problematic or eccentric vehicles. This list included the Triumph Spitfire, where the passenger seat was a big cushion, and a pair of Minis, and then to his current stable, which includes, Appleyard said, “two relatively expensive cars—the Bentley Continental GT, and the Porsche Boxster, which stands on its last legs.” I think “.
In his deep research into the vast history of the automobile, Appleard was more than surprised by two things. First, he was shocked by the weakness with which the innovations that led to the car had accumulated. “I mean, I think the steam piston was invented like the first century, or something,” he said. “And it took nearly 2,000 years to go from there to the internal combustion engine.”
Second, and relatedly, it was taken up by the immediate social precursor to the automobile, which was not so much the wagon or the train as it was another wheeled means of transportation. “It was also a surprise to me the degree to which the bicycle is a dangerous precedent for the car, because the bicycle provided people with the idea of individual freedom of movement, for relatively long distances, and at much higher speeds,” he said, noting that the contemporary two-wheeled bicycle with similar wheels was not invented until the mid-19The tenth century.
Appleyard’s choice of stories or historical figures to focus on—Bertha Benz, Billy Durant, Ferdinand Porsche, Sochero Honda, and Ralph Nader, to name a few—was also a challenge, primarily in terms of improving and editing their tales into something expendable. “I have this morbid desire to expand on details that I find fascinating, far beyond what anyone else would find fascinating,” he said. “So I had to struggle to get to the perfectly focused pieces.”
The book loses steam a bit at its end, in discussions of electrification and autonomy, a fact that perhaps reflects Abelyard’s uncertainty about the future. When asked if he could replace his sweetheart, Boxster, if he’s self-destructing, for an EV, he rips off. “Electricity is interesting,” he said. “At the moment I could not imagine buying an electric car as my primary vehicle because the charging network is not as good as it should be. There are clearly slots of chargers, all of them have been taken or some of them are broken.”
However, like many of us, he does walk around. “I couldn’t get it on long trips. But for a car only in London we would definitely consider an electric car,” he said. “So, we might get an electric car after that, I think.”
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