Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Life of the Automobile: A New History of the Motor Car, by Steven Parissien

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Steven Parissien has written an enjoyable history, one which concentrates more on aesthetics than the larger issues that concern the car. 

This is an elegantly written and accessible history of the car, covering the period from the 1880s up to the present day. Steven Parissien has written extensively on architecture and cultural history, and it’s easy to see these influences come through in The Life of the Automobile.  He obviously appreciates cars for their design as much as their technological achievements. Hence the book is written more from the point of an aesthete rather than a petrol head, if I can put it like that. Parissien very much concentrates on the many different marques that have evolved over the automobile’s 130 year history. What’s under the bonnet takes more of a backseat, as does environmental concerns, the oil crisis of the 1970, negative effects on health etc.

Parissien includes a substantial amount of business history, chronicling the dizzying mergers, government interventions and takeovers in the car industry. It’s an unwieldy business and most of the major, ‘iconic’ brands have had very choppy histories. Nor are these huge companies averse to government hand-outs and tax breaks when the times are tough. It’s extraordinary how car brands can be considered national icons that must be saved.

The sections on the mavericks running these huge concerns is fascinating. Henry Ford’s notorious anti-Semitic views are well known, but here Parissien gives more detail on what a horrid crackpot Henry Ford was. Then there is GM’s notorious tyrant, Alfred Sloan, someone not well known today.

The Life of the Automobile doesn’t go too deeply beyond the surface of the car, which can make the book a little limiting for those seeking a book with broader sweep. Nonetheless, there’s plenty to interest the general reader.

The Life of the Automobile: A New History of the Motor Car, by Steven Parissien. Published by Atlantic. ISBN:  9781848877054  RRP: $45

To sign up for our monthly newsletter, featuring new releases, book reviews and favourite articles from around the web, click here