Graeme Davison with Sheryl Yelland

Car Wars: How the car won our hearts and conquered our cities

Allen & Unwin, $29.95.

After the first edition of Melways appeared in 1966, this driver’s directory became almost as essential among Melbourne motorists as oil had always been to their vehicles. Its omission from Car Wars is typical both of the author’s threadbare treatment of everyday motoring and of the book’s want of drive and direction. Similarly, Davison’s acknowledgement of urban theorists honoured for their moral and expressive clarity, such as Marshall Berman, Mike Davis, David Harvey and Hugh Stretton, has been no barrier against his presenting sub-urban thinking in pedestrian prose.

Davison presents Car Wars as “avowedly a study of the impact of the private car, not a comprehensive history of metropolitan transport”. The result is a collection of essays held together by a large ARC grant. The ten topics traversed begin with the vehicles as ‘Dream Machines’, watch as ‘Women take the Wheel’, and chug through sex, speed, regulation and crashes. The final four chapters survey the planning for freeways. The impress of oil and auto corporations on state decision-makers gets a one-line nod to Leonie Sandercock. Davison avoids apportioning responsibility by activating an object, so that “the car created congestion” as it “conquered our cities”. GM and BP played no part.

To understand what corporations are up to, an investigator should not bother with how their press releases are recycled in the daily newspapers, but must chase up what the managers are saying to each other in the trade press. In a step forward for Australian scholarship, Davison’s research assistants have trawled through publications such as Motor Manual. Penetrating into the related areas of marketing would have revealed, for example, how the car radio helped to segment the sales market, bringing relief to station budgets after the arrival of television. Davison has not pointed his helpers beyond the would-be queen of the humanities to examine the scholarly journals in economics, geography, sociology, industrial relations or psychology; not even the Journal of Transport History gets a footnote.

Davison draws a comparison between Car Wars and his other full-length publication, Marvellous Melbourne (1978), which, he says, developed “a general theme”, namely, “the evolution of a provincial city towards the competitive, bureaucratic structures of an authentic metropolis”; that transformation, he continues, marked “a new phase in the evolution of modern capitalism”. This statement is as close as Davison comes to explaining either what capitalism evolved from, or what it became. Still less does he ask how or why the evolution was achieved. He merely drops ‘capitalism’, ‘modernity’ and ‘Fordism’ into his narrative.

The romance that Davison recounts is chaste. No Melburnian appears to have rumbled in a back seat, still less sported a shaggin’ wagon. He reports how writers such as Jack Hibberd pictured the car as a sex object, but does not challenge the pop feminist complaint that curvaceous gals are strewn across automobile ads to attract male custom. Davison’s fondness for his first auto, an English racing-car green 1948 Triumph Roadster, is sedate when compared with James B. Twitchell’s confession in Lead Us Into Temptation (1999) of the ‘nostalgic onanism’ that led him to purchase a red Mazda 121, just so that he could sit in it in his garage.

Davison shows that the affixing of ‘dream’ to ‘girl’, ‘car’ and ‘home’ began in the 1940s as a fantasy to escape from the 1930s depression, followed by war-time rationing. Once the post-war boom got underway, ‘dream’ began to subvert the domestic realm of family and wife. In reflecting on ‘dream’ as a keyword, Davison bypasses the linguistic turn, even as negotiated by Raymond Williams.

The love affair with the car broke many a bloke’s heart as women welcomed the plastic paints that allowed cars to be other than black or olive without fading. The gender wars of the 1950s flickered around two-tone pastels, and ultimately over pink. Similarly, the significance of ‘family car’ drifted as mother at first chose the interior décor while dad picked the duco; he then lost that power around the same time as corporate engineers reduced his capacity to tinker under the bonnet. Next, the drive-through carwash at the remodeled petrol stations replaced the family’s working together to polish the vehicle.

Paid work is nowhere to be found Yet the dominance of the automobile restructured of the labour market. Manufacture, sales and servicing required hundreds of thousands of employees, even without counting the jobs dependent on those incomes. Car Wars knows nothing of the class struggle. The experience of the production line at Ford (Broadmeadows) did not win the hearts of immigrant workers, as the 1973 strike demonstrated.

Davison restricts ‘Fordism’ to the particularisation of labour rather than the subordination of that division to continuous flows. The latter is more relevant to traffic planners because delivery costs affect the turnover of capital, a point about time’s conquest of space which Davison failed to grasp in The Unforgiving Minute (1993).

A chapter on ‘The New Landscape’ bypasses the post-war zoning that separated more labourers from their workplaces. Travel expenses are among the socially necessary costs of reproducing labour power. Their containment through cheap public transport can advance the accumulation of total capital while limiting returns to car-makers and petroleum suppliers. Equally, petrol costs and parking fees are disincentives for an unemployed person in Clayton to take a low-paid job in Carlton.

Another gap in Davison’s account is the re-skilling of driving itself. Cranking gave way to self-starters, then clutches to automatic transmission and hand signals to indicators before almost every physical effort fell to power steering, power brakes and magic-eye roller doors.

Davison concedes that the car wars “both enriched and impoverished our lives”. The freedoms he associates with personal motor vehicles are real but, as with every commodity in capitalism, they must first satisfy the need that capital has to expand. Every increase in real income is packaged as an impulse to buy and borrow along the expressway to credit-card peonage.