Book Review: The Car by Bryan Appleyard

In this “entertainingly direct story,” Bryan Appleyard aims to document a way of life he believes is disappearing, Andrew Anthony said in The Observer. “Within a few years,” he writes, “owning a car could seem as eccentric as owning a train or a bus. Or maybe it’s just illegal.” But his book isn’t a lament or a eulogy. Instead, it’s a “recognition of the extraordinary cultural and environmental impact that the automobile has had on this planet over the past 135+ years.”

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

But his book is “sharpest” when he reflects on the “cultural impact of the car.” At one point he reflects on the “existential allure of road trips” and the “emotional appeal of imaginary travel destinations”; on the other hand, he dissects the illogicality of our attitude towards traffic jams, which we invariably “see as something imposed and not as a whole in which we actively participate”.

“Well known to Sunday Times readers as a thoughtful interpreter of our worries and fears,” Appleyard is an unusually generous chronicler of the automobile, Stephen Bayley said in The audience. “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 freed us also enslaved,” his narrative sometimes treads on pretty well-trodden terrain, such as when he describes car-related “disasters” that befell James Dean.

He also neglects the importance of politics, Stephen Bush said in financial times. “Sometimes it feels like Appleyard believes the reason the car dominates is because cars are cool.” But that overlooks the role that stakeholders like the US auto lobby play in shaping car obsession of the 20th century. “Quiet, The car fun while it lasts.”

Towards the end, Appleyard’s tone becomes “elegiac” as he envisions a future where cars as we know them are replaced by autonomous electric vehicles, James McConnachie said in The Sunday Times. He’s not enthusiastic about such a future, implying that it will be “liberty-destroying.” Like many men of his generation, Appleyard is a car obsessive who also “feels guilty” about being one. He acknowledges that cars are “disgustingly 20th-century,” but he has put his conflicted feelings to good use in this “immersive” and hugely entertaining study.

Orion 322 pages £22; The Bookstore of the Week £17.99

The car

The bookstore of the week

To order this title or any other printed book, please visit speak to a bookseller on 020-3176 3835. Opening hours: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm. Book Review: The Car by Bryan Appleyard

Fry Electronics Team

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