A Revvlection on Cars

March 25, 2024 Aleksandar Aleksandrov
A Revvlection on Cars

This essay was originally submitted as a written assignment for ENG 1001 with Professor Olga Nikolova in the Fall semester of 2023.

Cars are quite the thing. At just the twist of a key, or the push of a button, as is quite common nowadays, you command one of the wonders of the modern world – the internal combustion engine – to wake up and begins a cycle. A flight of sparks, in combination with carefully administered sprays of fuel, initiates a sequence of hundreds of explosions each second, thus causing hundreds of kilograms of metal to begin a synchronized dance. The energy created by these processes goes through an even more complicated system of components, which then propels roughly one to two tons of more metal in a direction of our choosing, most commonly that of our workplace. This has been the concept of automobiles since their inception. And while this idea has, in many regards, remained the same for more than a century, there have been variations in its execution. Both modern and older cars have significant numbers of devotees, with there being little overlap between the two groups, thus priming a decades-old feud. So, let us explore the cases made by the two sides in this conflict, in which “a consensus” is seemingly outside the realm of possible outcomes.

Most of us find it difficult to resist judging the proverbial book by its cover. The appearance of a given thing inevitably plays a part in our perception, so that shall be the start of our comparison – looks. If one were to take two cars, one modern and the other a handful of decades less modern, one would likely be able to tell that they were built with the same concept in mind – which is, at least according to my drawings from first grade, a metal parallelepiped with four wheels. What has changed, however, is the way in which we sculpt that metal. When the first cars came about, their looks were not too important to most folks, too busy marveling at the idea of a method of transportation that combined the speed of a train with the mobility of a horse. A little later, just like my third-grade self, manufacturers found out that cars could also be curvy – and curvy we made them. Many people believe that the best-looking cars were produced in this era – when lines were drawn to please the eyes of common people, rather than just those of aerodynamicists. Nowadays, however, it would seem that brands and customers alike have abandoned this idea in favor of a peculiar obsession with numbers – acceleration, maximum speed, cargo space, fuel economy, etc. The charming shapes of the past have fallen behind in this chase for perfection, with the designs of different brands becoming more and more similar as we converge on a hypothetical design equilibrium.

As long as we are human, appearances will always be subjective. There is one thing, however, which is as objective as it gets – safety. Today, not only are cars more numerous than ever before, but they are also much more capable in terms of speed than their ancestors, with the gap increasing with each passing year. Because of these developments, driving has become much more dangerous than before, which has prompted accelerated innovation in safety features. Many notable inventions have resulted from this, such as the seatbelt and the airbag. It is also interesting to note what is happening underneath the metal. You see, modern cars are designed to “crumble” in the event of a crash, meaning that manufacturers intentionally sacrifice some structural integrity so that in the event of an impact the car absorbs part of the acting forces, which would otherwise have been directed straight into the cabin and those within it. Nowadays, with the wide availability of vehicles and the emergence of services such as insurance, the decision is quite simple – sacrifice your car to save your own life. On the other hand, back when the automotive industry was in its infancy, one has to imagine that driving was not seen as something terribly dangerous – not only were there very few other cars for you to crash into, but the speed at which this could happen would at worst leave you feeling sore. Additionally, back then automobiles were not the commodity we know them as today. Getting hold of an automobile was difficult in multiple senses of the word – even if you could muster the high sum to cover the all too familiar costs, you would still have to deal with the issue of availability. Given this, I am not certain that advertising your product, which is already facing a fair deal of skepticism, as “designed to break” would have been a valid marketing strategy.

It is true that if you compare two cars, one from the 50’s of the last century, and one which was designed in the last 50 months, you will surely notice a difference in their looks, their features, perhaps both, never neither. But they are not only different in terms of appearance – no, it is the entire underpinning philosophy that has warped throughout the years. Today, we have a handful of car brands advertised as “luxurious” – but not even a hundred years ago, every self-propelled vehicle was a luxury. As mentioned above, in the early days of the automotive industry common folk were impressed with the concept of the automobile; however, they did not see how it would contribute do their everyday existence. For generations people had been living their lives confined to an area of a couple of hundreds of square kilometers, which most of the time was all they needed. The car was essentially a faster and more durable alternative to the horse – only, it required petrol instead of carrots and produced only polluting gasses instead of… other outputs. It was perhaps similar to how we view private jets today – an extravagant privilege, reserved for those with an abundance of wealth but a lack of other, more spiritual resources. These days, however, it is seemingly expected of us to own a vehicle. As our society is becoming more car-dependent, ownership of an automobile has become the norm, and anyone not adhering to this new norm is looked down upon. These developments have led the general public to see cars as yet another mundane cog in the machine of everyday life, rather than the engineering marvel that they are.

Comparing cars is a difficult task. Older models have a sort of character that almost no modern brand has been able to replicate. On the other hand, modern cars are objectively better – compared to their predecessors they are faster, safer, more comfortable, more practical, and more efficient. However, while automobiles themselves have been improving through the years, the idea of their existence has stagnated. Owning a vehicle has gone from one extreme to another – from being a luxury to being a necessity. The spirit of cars has been fading as more and more people perceive them as a mere means to commute. The constant rise in the demand for cars has allowed manufacturers to indulge in unpunished complacency, leading to a deceleration of innovation. These and other analogous developments perhaps signal that our society is close to depleting the fuel tank and extinguishing the spark of the otherwise magnificent concept of the automobile.