Reviewed by D. L. LeMahieu (Department of History, Lake Forest College)
Published on H-Albion (April, 2008)
This nicely illustrated monograph consists of twenty-one short essays organized around a few central themes. The author David Jeremiah, a historian of design, limits himself to the analysis of print images and divides his book into three parts, two of which cover the first forty years of the twentieth century. The period after 1940 receives less attention.
When automobiles first arrived on the scene, their promoters emphasized the modernity, speed, and personal freedom offered by this exciting new form of travel. Advertisers noted optimistically how motoring allowed individuals to travel quickly and safely throughout Britain. The automobile promised adventure and the motorist was a hero to all those who embraced new technologies. Organizations such as the Automobile Club organized public demonstrations and sponsored tours to demonstrate the superiority of mechanized vehicles that, as one early brochure put it, carried "supply sufficient for a road run of sixty miles without stopping" (p. 17). Even the Times acknowledged that whatever its disadvantages the motorcar was destined to transform social life.
One such disadvantage concerned safety. As early as 1905 newspapers detailed the story of a hit-and-run accident in which a small boy had been killed. It turned out that the automobile was owned by the brother of Lord Northcliffe, whose chauffeur first denied responsibility, then made other excuses for his behavior. By the 1930s motoring accidents reached alarming levels, prompting officials to demand driving tests and better car safety. But the carnage continued. Images of grieving mothers in a publication entitled Speed the Killer (p. 47) forced manufacturers to conduct promotional campaigns that reassured the public. Still, the representations of road dangers remained part of public discourse throughout the century. In 1946, the Ministry of Transport created a poster, "Keep Death Off the Road," with a widow staring directly at the viewer (p. 217). As late as 1996, an article entitled "Will You Kill a Child Today?" reminded British citizens of the constant perils of driving, even as deaths from highway accidents continued to decrease (p. 226).
Jeremiah devotes three of his most interesting chapters to questions of gender and motoring. Almost from the beginning British men referred to their automobiles as a "she" and associated their motorcars with temperamental behaviors perceived as feminine. Quite aside from such anthropomorphism, women played an important role in the early history of motoring. Dorothy Levitt drove her Gladiator in lengthy reliability trials and became a something of a celebrity to the general public. Women frequently acted as drivers during the First World War and later became the targets of advertising campaigns that portrayed them as independent and fashionable. Beautiful and sexy women always helped sell motorcars, often in Freudian ways. An advertisement for the MG Midget in 1970 portrayed a mini-skirted young woman caressing a push-button brake lever. Submissive women continued to appear in promotions long after second-wave feminism sought to counter the overt sexism of the industry. As Jeremiah notes, the automobile as a male fantasy remained a constant throughout the twentieth century.
British manufacturers of automobiles also invoked nationalism when it suited their purposes. During the 1920s Morris created the slogan "If for Any Reason You Do Not Buy a Morris--At Any Rate Buy a British Car." Ford, sensitive to its American origins, purchased a factory in England and advertised an "All-British Ford" that featured a "newly designed English body, finished in Empire grey" (p. 153). BP declared itself to be the "British Petrol" while Shell featured a poster that identified itself with the empire (p. 153). Few questioned the proposition that British workers made the best products and that Rolls, MG, Wolseley, and others embodied qualities of workmanship that foreigners could not match. By mid-century, such arguments became less insistent, though the introduction of the Mini prompted the questionable claim that it was "the most revolutionary small car in the world" (p. 171). Manufacturers embraced the notion of a younger, more hip Britain in their print advertising. As automobiles became increasingly affordable and prevalent, advertisers promoted the notion that Mini Coopers and Ford Escorts were high-performance vehicles available to all. Yet as reliability continued to decline, the industry faced new challenges. By the end of the century it was Toyota that bragged about qualities of workmanship and durability once claimed by the British.
Jeremiah has written a solid monograph based upon a careful examination of sources not often consulted by historians. His analysis of the early decades of the twentieth century proves especially impressive. At times he might have cast a wider net. For example, the automobile figures prominently in a number of Edwardian novels, such as E. M. Forster's Howards End (1910), where it offers resonance and nuance to some of the themes developed by Jeremiah in his analysis. In addition, the deliberate exclusion of television and cinema necessarily narrows the scope of the final chapters of the book. To cite but one example, the representation of the automobile in the James Bond films involves issues of social class, gender, and nation perhaps worth pondering. Still, this book addresses a neglected topic with a grace and sophistication not always found in such narratives.
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D. L. LeMahieu. Review of Jeremiah, David, Representations of British Motoring.
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