THE CAR AND ITS PROPHETS

September 1 1967

THE CAR AND ITS PROPHETS

September 1 1967

THE CAR AND ITS PROPHETS

McLUHAN: THE GAR AS A TOY

WHAT’S GOING to happen to the car in the future? We asked Marshall McLuhan, Canada’s communications oracle, and he came up with a pretty pessimistic answer. “The car's future isn’t rosy, it’s not rosy at all,” he told us.

Physical movement of people and goods may be totally replaced by “information movement,” he believes. “Already you can send almost anything anywhere by telegraph. Why have personal transportation when we have the videophone?”

The future, McLuhan says, “belongs to decentralization. The wheel created the road — yet the airplane puts its wheels away when it takes off. It doesn’t need them. The wheel’s becoming redundant even in physical transportation.”

McLuhan sees the car’s future primarily as a toy — “a fun-and-games thing.” He posed for our cover picture with a psychedelic-colored Mercury Cyclone, his idea of a “fun” car. “It’s like getting into a Jello,” he said.

“Kids today know that cars are for fun —they’ve got completely different sensory and spatial preferences from their predecessors; they want to get deeply involved in situations such as driving. Sports cars are involvement — kids are crazy about them because they can be involved in the power and the energy of the machine. The ultimate of this is the Honda: your legs are right on the wheel, the road—you become almost part of the road. This delights the TV generation.

“The American is proud of his car because of its visual effect — the way it looks. The European tends to be prouder of the way it feels. It’s like a miniskirt: exposure equals involvement. Everything’s unexpected, adventure, surprises, dialogues, encounter. The British car is like a pet. The Volkswagen is the German’s ideal image of space: it’s a wraparound, secure little thing —its special form is a little pavilion of German culture. Expo-style.

“Car designers have been aware of all these things in various ways, but I don’t think they’ve been too ingenious in solving the problem. All this stuff about the car as mistress, as wife, as companion ... I think people like Dichter are, as usual, missing any available bus whatsoever. Sex is taking on new meanings in the electronic age: the old movie-era meaning of sex is hot; today everything's cool. Reading sex

into cars is all a rather desperate effort by the Dichters to find some structures for their meditations — and perhaps for their clients, too. The Edsel! It was just hopeless; everything about it was hopeless, in-‘ eluding the radiator which was designed to look like a toilet seat. How could all these things have happened under the watchful gaze of experts?

“Dichter and the rest talk about cars having personalities—this is a little too abstract for me, too ethereal. From my point of*1 view, I want to know: what are the senses played up by this or that type of car? That’s where the answer is.

“Remember all those old images of those guys sitting at the wheel of a car with their caps turned back-to-front? This was real turned on, real hot. But the modern driver* puts on his cool rather than his cap. You wouldn’t expect a modern sports-car driver to have something lyrical to say about driving. He’s so involved he gets fulfillment right in the act. That’s why the car’s great for fun, a plaything. You're an enormously increased human being, several times larger, when you get behind a wheel . . . you’re packing a mighty big wallop . . « this is the fun-and-games aspect. But as serious transportation — who’d want to drive for pleasure in New York? I’d take a cab, anything but drive.

“What do I drive? A Toronado. It’s my wife’s choice — she likes the tremendous feeling of power. She’s very happy witfv it. Personally, I don't like driving much. I’d rather walk.”

DALLEGRET: THE CAR AS POP ART

TO FRANÇOIS DALLEGRET, the 29-year-old -Montreal artist seen with his “special super dragster” cutout drawing (above), cars are more than an obsession. To him they symbolize the new art: the discovery of beauty in everyday mechanical objects and structures — such as cars and superhighways. “A parking lot can be more beautiful than a park,” he says. "Why bother saying that the car is eating us, that highways stink? We’re living in cities, so we might as well get along with them. If you look hard enough you'll sec beauty in them. That's what I'm trying to show people.” Dallegret’s words are echoed by an increasing number of artists and writers today. Lawrence Alloway, a British Pop critic, has coined the phrase “Hi-Way Kulchur” — according to him, cars, crashes, chrome and all are the thing. What we need, says Alloway, are bigger, beastlier, brasher highways smashing right through our city cores. "Those terrific sequences out of the side windows of cars!” he says. “A city becomes an instant structure, like flipping a station control on TV.”

Artists didn’t always feel this way about cars and highways. Until the wild men of Pop came along, it was only a handful of aficionados — and rather suspect ones at that — who rhapsodized over the roar of a Hollywood muffler, the sculptural soar of a superhighway overpass. But then, in the past couple of years, the artists and intellectuals discovered the car. They'd been

sneering at it, wishing it would go away, for decades. But suddenly they decided cars are great. Gas stations are strangely beautiful, giant hamburgers delicious, the ticking of the tappets a tone poem.

What’s happening? Simply this: like today's planners, the artists have cottoned onto the fact that the car is here to stay. They've taken it one logical step further. They say, “Why change it? It’s real, as it is, with its own power and dynamism. Learn to reorganize your concepts of what's beautiful.”

Montreal artist Dallegret has studied architecture, is a graduate mathematician and a designer of the unusual. He delights in a description of himself as "a vivid caricature of the mad professor — a positive distillation of Dr. Mabuse and Dr. No.” He says, “We all grew up being told a flower is beautiful, and that highways are ugly. But we live in a city with highways, and there aren't many flowers about. So we look for beauty in the city, and in city things like cars. Now 1 find that nature oppresses me — it's static. But the highway — it's motion, color, excitement. Its function is communication. And that’s beautiful.”

In the U.S. highway art is now well established — artist George Segal has built a complete life-size Pop Art gas station and diner. Claes Oldenburg caused a sensation earlier this year when he sold his 84-inchdiameter giant hamburger to the Art Gallery of Ontario. “What people like Oldenburg are trying to do,” says Toronto artist and teacher Tom Hodgson, “is make something like a hamburger so big that you'll remember it whenever you go and eat a hamburger. That way they hope you'll get a new perspective on the hamburger — you won't just take it for granted. The same thing goes for people like Dallegret and his cars — he’s saying. ‘Look, it's beautiful after all!’ ”

Canadian Pop artist Greg Curnoe agrees: “People tend to dismiss everyday things like cars; but if you try. you can see them in a way you'd never imagined before. The highway itself is as much to look at as any work of art — all those terrific overpasses are more than any work of sculpture.”

Alloway. Dallegret and the rest may yet, according to Toronto Star critic Robert Fulford, bring about another taste revolution. After all, says Fulford. if we can learn to love Campbell’s Soup cans, why not cars and highways?

WELCH: THE CAR AS APPLIANCE

DAVID WELCH, his wife Elaine and their three children typify tens of thousands of affluent Canadian suburbanites whose life style •fs inextricably geared to the automobile. With the rapidly spreading decentralization of our cities, more and more families like the Welches find themselves living—and working — in sprawling suburbs where public transit is sparse and, all too often, simply nonexistent. For most suburban families a trip to the central-city area is a rare event: their working and pleasure lives arc centred in the suburbs where their only way of getting around is the car.

Welch is merchandising manager for the Ford Motor Company at Oakville, Ont. He drives 16 miles daily to work from the Toronto suburb of Markland Woods in Etobicoke. His wife. Elaine, finds herself spending a good deal of her day chauffeuring their three children, Tony. 14, Heather, 13, and Nicholas, five.

"I guess they're about 90 percent two-car families where we live." says Welch. "A few years ago I would have said having two cars was a luxury, but today it's simply an essential part of our existence.”

Mrs. Welch says, “I don’t really enjoy driving — but then what can you do? I've got to go shopping, take Heather to the Girl Guides, doctors’ and dentists’ appointments . . . it seems to be a never-ending round of things like that.” David Welch says he. too, neither really enjoys nor dislikes driving. “It’s just a state of being, 1 guess.”

This view of the car as “a state of being"’ sums up the suburbanite’s attitude. For him it is merely an appliance — like the washing machine, an essential tool of suburban living, devoid of glamour or excitement.

DICHTER: THE MOTIVATOR

The car as symbol: sly, sexy and subliminal

MOTIVATIONAL RESEARCHER Dr. Ernest Dichter could have shown the mass-transit boosters the futility of their crusade years ago. It will never be possible to get us out of our cars and into trains and subways, says Dichter, for the simple reason that most of us subconsciously need the automobile. It is more than a means of transportation: it's an extension of our personalities, the vehicle with which ordinary people are able to feel that they’re conquering the world. "By surrounding ourselves with the heavy steel hull of a car, we climb into a womb.” says Dichter. “By attaining mastery of its technical instruments, we can use the car to master the elemental world.”

Dichter, perhaps North America's best-known motivational researcher, is president of the Institute for Motivational Research at Croton-on-Hudson. New York. Among the dozens of giant companies which have been Dichter’s clients is the British Motor Corporation, which hired Dichter to see how it could improve its Canadian sales. Dichter found that Canadians have a deep-seated desire to express their feelings of nationhood. He concluded that we no longer want to buy cars named after British places and heroes — cars such as BMC’s Cambridge, Westminster, and so forth. He advised BMC to use Canadian names for its cars; this way. Canadians would be able to show the world that they’ve cast off ties with the “old country.” As it happened, BMC ignored his advice; the company felt its sales volume didn’t warrant production-line changes.

Dichter: The high priest of M.R.

According to Dichter, the world’s countries break down into four main groups when it comes to autos. First come the “contented” countries, such as the Scandinavian nations. Here is a vast middle class with few extremes of wealth or poverty. Competitive pressures are small, so the car becomes a sensible, rational tool. Hence the frillfree Scandinavian cars, such as the Volvo.

Next comes the “affluent” countries — the U.S. and Canada. Here there are substantial layers of wealth and poverty at each end of the social scale. In the 1950s and early 1960s the car was a status symbol. But today, as poverty and excessive wealth tend to be eliminated, the car is becoming an appliance. People seeking status spend money on swimming pools or travel. Increasingly too, there’s a market for “special-function” cars—station wagons and Jeeps. These are used as appliances,

rather than status symbols. They’re just expected to do the job without pampering or fuss.

Next come “countries in transition” — France, Britain, South Africa. There, cars are regarded very much as status symbols, and they’re pampered and cleaned to ludicrous degrees. People give them pet names and talk to them as if they're human. The super-status car — the Rolls-Royce, for instance — is developed there because of the existence of a wealthy upper crust.

Lower down on Dichter’s scale come the "revolutionary” nations — China. India, Spain, many South American countries. There, cars are only for the tiny minority who make up the wealthy upper class; ostentatious American cars are the ideal. For the great mass of the population the chances of ever even driving a car are virtually nil.

Canadians, Dichter feels, may be moving more rapidly than Americans toward the Scandinavian ideal of the “contented’’ country. We have no pressing

social problems, no large-scale urban poverty, no explosive racial tensions.

Dichter’s probings have extended to the necessities that go along with the automobile — the service station, for instance. Motivational research has shown that people can be broken down into psychological groups according to how they react when the attendant puts the gas nozzle into the tank. Some people instinctively leap out of the car, some sit and fidget uncomfortably. others just look contented. The motivation men claim the act of inserting the nozzle is sexually symbolic; we react according to our subconscious sexual attitudes.

What kind of car does Dichter drive? He has a Rambler Ambassador, a Chevrolet station wagon and a Jeep. “The Jeep is best,” he says. “It makes me feel omnipotent — I can be creative and cut my own road if I want to. I’m more mobile than other people. And I can rationalize my love of gadgetry to expand my own feeling of power, of potency. To me it is the ultimate in cars.”