Motorism by Daniel James


Nobody invented the motor car.  It evolved from the carriage, the bicycle and the industrial engine.  Today there are hundreds of millions of motor vehicles in use across the globe.  The negative consequences of this are documented elsewhere.  André Gorz, in his 1973 essay The Social Ideology of the Motorcar, set out what is now the conventional explanation for this huge technological proliferation.  Cars are 'luxury goods invented for the exclusive pleasure of a very rich minority' which are widespread due to the triumph of bourgeois ideology.  This has combined with the planning of towns and cities around the car to make motorised travel both essential for modern life and paradoxically disastrous at the same time.


Imagine a typical person, driving a hatchback car down to the shops.  A bourgeois, luxurious activity?  Hardly, and not just because there are too many other people doing the same thing.  The experience of driving a car in contemporary Western societies could be described as rule-bound, unstimulating and repetitive.  Driving is done because it 'has to be', not for pleasure.  If we accept that all the people driving motor vehicles chose to because of the bourgeois mantra of 'personal freedom', then any resulting problems are due to 'personal freedom' being exercised by too many people.  Who would want to fight freedom?


There is another explanation for the situation we find ourselves in, without the paradox mentioned above.  Some people must have thought it would be a really good idea for lots of people to own and use a personal motor vehicle, and made it happen.  Not luxurious limousines, or sports cars for the racetrack, but utilitarian transport.  Rather than a spontaneous 'love affair' between the people and the car, there has been an ideological campaign throughout the twentieth century.  The first  campaigner was Henry Ford.


The son of an illiterate farmer, he created a technologically crude but relatively cheap vehicle for American farmers - the people he knew.  An all-purpose machine, its engine would take the farmer to market, as well as power other farm equipment.  The physical isolation of these farmers made the Model T an attractive concept, and it's light weight made it suitable for the largely un-made roads.  Fifteen million Model T cars were produced, making Ford one of the richest men in the world.  In parallel, the oil business was developing, trying its' hardest to make what had previously been a substance of limited use into a 'neccesity'.


An extreme control freak, Ford had a 'Sociology Department' to spy on his workers, and a private police force, the 'Service Department', to beat them up.  Ford Service reached its' violent peak in 1932 when four unarmed 'hunger marchers' were shot dead, and twenty others wounded.


Mass motorisation had begun, at least in the USA.  A particular ideology was embodied in this utilitarian vehicle, that we could call 'motorism'.  The core principles of motorism at this time were those of rural American Christianity; hard work; obedience and a hatred of 'jewish' finance.  Ford's vision of the utilitarian car and his other 'values' were the foundation of this belief system, but it was taken up and developed by Adolf Hitler.


Ford was a hero to Hitler; a New York Times correspondent visiting Hitlers' private office in Munich in 1922 found a large picture of Ford on the wall.   Ford's bible-belt anti-semitic rantings, via his ghost-written book The International Jew and column in his own newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, had also inspired Hitler. Knowing of their ideological sympathy and Ford's vast wealth, it seems feasible that Ford funded Hitler's rise to power, as the New York Times alleged that he did.  Hitler even gave Ford a medal in 1938, the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, which was the highest honour a civilian could recieve. 


Hitler planned his own Model T for the fantasy Ayran nation of peasants, rooted in 'blood and soil'.  Ferdinand Porsche was comissioned to design a car for the nazi 'Kraft Durch Freude' organization - the slogan meaning strength, or power, through joy.  This was echoed many years later by Audi with their 'Vorsprung Durch Technik' advertising campaign. 


In parallel with their propaganda about cars for the German people, including a KDF-Wagen downpayment scheme which was used to fund the military build-up to war, the nazis developed the Autobahn network.  The original motorway project was part of the Blitzkrieg 'lightning war' strategy - it allowed rapid control of areas remote from the seat of power, but not just in war time.  They could have taken their inspiration from the Romans, who were keen on military conquest and were prolific road builders, but never claimed to be solving the horse traffic problem in their empire.


The KDF-Wagen was produced in military versions such as the Type 82 and amphibious Type 166, but it wasn't until after the second world war that it became available to civilians as the Volkswagen.  The word Volk, meaning the 'people', is an ideologically-loaded term, having been used by the nazis to refer specifically to the 'racially-pure' German nation.


After the second world war ended, the Volkswagen factory was in the area of Germany under British military rule. The British army supervised the re-opening of the factory and the production of Hitler's fantasy cars.  It seems the ideology of motorism, which by this time had an explicity fascistic flavour, must have been influential within the British government at this time.  Manufacturers were allowed to produce private motor vehicles despite the devastion of Europe and extreme scarcity of raw materials and skilled labour.


The official explanation was that Britain needed to earn cash to rebuild its' economy via exports.  Even if we assume that this would have been a sensible priority over immediate domestic needs, the production of new cars would not have been the obvious way to make money quickly.  It involves large set-up costs, and the un-bombed American factories would have provided stiff competition in any overseas market. Only a proportion of the motor manufacturers profits would have been invested in Britain in any case.


In 1948 the British equivalent of the KDF or Volkswagen was launched - the Morris Minor, designed by Alec Issigonis.  France, similarily, had the Citroën 2CV, previewed in the same year.


Sales of the Volkswagen in the USA during the 50's spurred manufacturers to develop the 'compact' car. In Britain, 1959 saw the arrival of the Mini-Minor, later abbreviated simply to 'Mini'.  It's front-wheel drive, transverse engine design, again by Issigonis, formed the blueprint for utilitarian cars to this day.  It was available in only three colours; red, white and blue.


Stalinist regimes were not immune to motorism, despite their collectivist rhetoric.  The Trabant in East Germany and the Russian Lada were examples of people-car projects.


Meanwhile, mass public transport in the USA was systematically destroyed by private interests, resulting in prosecutions under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.  The extensive British railway system was severely cut back by the state under the direction of Beeching, with many of the local feeder lines closed. 


Motorism shed it's rural origins to envelope the suburban and dormitory town dwellers it had helped to create.  With the change of focus, motorism became less overtly fascistic, until Margaret Thatcher took up the torch in Britain.  Her roads program and fantasy of the private car aped the nazis own, and it wasn't until after she fell from power that construction plans were scaled back down.  The current Blair administration has revealed it's Thatcherite core by shelving election 'promises' to limit car use and appointing a transport minister, John Reid, who is transparently a devotee of motorism.


Mass motorisation was never anything to do with personal freedom (despite the myth-making) because the manufacturers are advertising a machine in a related but separate tradition from the one they generally sell.  It's not for nothing that we differentiate linguistically between a 'car' and a 'limousine'.


The contemporary motor car is a device steeped in subjugation and obedience. Although we can make a personal decision to drive or not, we didn't choose for things to end up this way.  If we recognise motorism as an ideology rather than a popular choice, we are in a position to discard it.





Keith Sward, The Legend of Henry Ford (1948), New York, Atheneum 1968

Heathcote Williams, Autogeddon (1991), London, Johnathan Cape 1991

ed. Bart.H.Vanderveen, British Cars of the Late Forties (1974), London, Frederick Warne & Co 1974



Berlin Hears Ford is Backing Hitler (New York Times, December 20th, 1922)

Henry Ford Getting High Honor from German Government (Detroit Free Press, September 10th, 1938)

The Story of B.M.C. (Express (London) supplement, undated, probably 1959)

Jonathan Kwitny, The Great Transportation Conspiracy (Harpers Magazine, Feb 1981)