Ever wonder what it was like to drive a Model T?
The great prose stylist E. B. White, famed for his beloved children’s classic Charlotte’s Web, knew what it was like very well. He described it in a 1936 New Yorker essay entitled “Farewell, My Lovely” in which the recently phased-out Model T was the “lovely” of the title.
The car to which White was bidding reluctant adieu had dominated the automobile industry in its early decades, from 1908 to 1927, bringing the joys and travails of auto ownership to middle-class Americans of that era. White himself was born in 1899, which makes him a member of the generation before the so-called “greatest” generation; technically, White and his cohorts were known as the “lost” generation, coming of age during those transitional years of upheaval and cultural transformation represented by World War I and the Twenties.
White’s description of the Model T set me to musing on how much cars have changed since then, and then to thinking about how much life has changed—and about how the differences in products such as cars have been no small part of that change, because they affect us on a day-to-day basis and alter our perceptions of the world and our place in it.
Just think what it must have been like to have to go through the following process every time you wanted to take a drive somewhere. White writes:
During my association with the Model T, self-starters were not a prevalent accessory. They were expensive and under suspicion,. Your car came equipped with a serviceable crank, and the first thing you learned was how to Get Results. It was a special trick, and until you learned it (usually from another Ford owner, but sometimes by a period of appalling experimentation), you might as well have been winding up an awning. The trick was to leave the ignition switch off, proceed to the animal’s head, pull the choke (which was a little wire protruding through the radiator) and give the crank two or three nonchalant upward lifts. Then, whistling as though thinking about something else, you would saunter back to the driver’s cabin, turn the ignition on, return to the crank, and this time, catching it on the down stroke, give it a quick spin with plenty of That. If this procedure was followed, the engine almost always responded—first with a few scattered explosions, then with a tumultuous gunfire, which you checked by racing around to the driver’s seat and retarding the throttle. Often, if the emergency brake hadn’t been pulled all the way back, the car advanced on you the instant the first explosion occurred and you would hold it back by leaning your weight against it. I can still feel my old Ford nuzzling me at the curb, as though looking for an apple in my pocket.
Note the picture it gives of the effort and skill that was necessary to do the most ordinary things, compared to how it is now. Our cars not only start at the turn of a key (or perhaps the press of a button?) and provide shelter from the elements while they get us where we want to go, but they also remind us (with beeps and alarms and lights) of doors unlocked and seat belts unfastened. They save us the tremendous trouble of reaching across the seats to lock the passenger doors or to roll the windows up and down. They give us the temperature outside and in, and the compass direction in which we’re heading. They tell us when it’s time for servicing and even what might be wrong with the car (except for the singularly unhelpful and overly-sensitive “check engine” light). They give us directions to our destinations when we ask for them.
In short, they do just about everything but feed and burp and toilet us, and those may be coming next. Contrast that with this, from White’s description of the Model T:
The Ford driver flew blind. He didn’t know the temperature of his engine, the speed of his car, the amount of his fuel, or the pressure of his oil…A speedometer cost money and was an extra, like a windshield-wiper.
Now, I am old enough to remember the days when hand signals were sometimes necessary because not all cars had automatic ones. I first learned how to drive on a relatively archaic automobile that not only had a clutch, but located its shift on the right side of the steering wheel rather than down low in the car’s middle. A friend’s first car was a Volkswagon bug that didn’t come equipped with a gas gauge. For years I owned Volvos with manual chokes and that lacked power steering, requiring quite a bit of extra muscle to get in and out of parking spaces.
But still, I was relatively spoiled compared with White’s generation–and not just about cars, either. Our experiences were not just different from theirs about gadgets, our expectations of life itself must have been different as well. They expected to work hard for everything they got. We expected more from the world as a given, just for showing up.
And today’s generation? Consider the heated race among companies such as Google, Tesla, Damier, and Nissan to make cars that essentially drive themselves. If today’s cars and projections for future ones are any indication, this generation is expecting to lean back and let the world take care of them.