CARS – An Elegy, with a nod to the future

Photographs by the author

Some people collect stamps; others collect old cars and trucks. Or if they don’t collect them, they don’t seem to be able to get rid of them. All over the BC interior, I  discover the shells of what were once beautiful and functional vehicles now slumbering in farmers’ fields, amongst old utility sheds. On a recent photo shoot near the summit of the Douglas Lake Road near Merritt, BC I found some wonderful automotive subjects,  rusty relics, clinging to the side of the road, surprisingly beautiful, shapely, though decrepit.

Sedans and coupes, luxury and service vehicles, arrayed in bright rusty colours, they are the remains of a golden age of automobile design and manufacturing. Similar vehicles often displayed in Show and Shine events in local cities, these vehicles are sadly neglected, too costly to restore, or simply too much work to revitalize. In larger centres, they would have saleable parts stripped away and the remains compressed into scrap metal due for export abroad. These mementos from the years 1955-75 simply rest and rot, nestled amongst the greenest Spring grass and flashing Wild Mustard flowers this region has seen for decades.

Think of where these vehicles have been, and the people who have driven and ridden in them. Young couples thirsty for adventure and romance (what are back seats for anyway); families setting out on vacation; criminals escaping a bank robbery (hello Bonnie, hello Clyde). Remember the movie American Graffiti and the way cars were central to west coast pop culture in the late 50s and 60s. Remember Wolfman Jack and John Milner’s Deuce Coupe. Remember Booker T and the MGs and the song, Green Onions.

Cross the pond and think of the British car scene, of Rolls-Royce, Austin Healey, and Jaguar — remember Morse, England’s most vehicular detective driving his stylish cruiser. These cars breed stories and struggles, fashion and fame, mobility,  and sometimes, murder. Cars are emblems of a lifestyle, one now quickly fading. Cars are arguably the most significant driver (!) of climate change, even here in the lovely Thompson Rivers Valley. As haze clouds the photographer’s summer vision, industrial particulate, atmospheric factors, and vehicle pollution are often on display.

Think of the world’s great cities: Paris, London, Toronto, or Los Angeles. In the early days of the pandemic lockdown, all experienced significant reduction of pollutants, especially Beijing which reported clear skies for the first time in decades. As most of us plan to continue traveling, commuting and recreating, using motorized vehicles, what is the answer? Many suggest that electric vehicles are the future, a solution however plagued with problems. Electric and hybrid vehicles are expensive and inaccessible to most consumers, even with incentives. On the manufacturing end the carbon footprint is very high, especially regarding the production of batteries. Battery disposal or refurbishing is problematic. With increased interest in electric vehicles, the demand for rare earth metals is growing and the supply remains limited. Such metals are often available only in conflict zones such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Electric vehicles are not the panacea many have predicted. Andrew Nikiforuk puts things bluntly:

“People who regard the electric car as a significant solution for climate change don’t seem to understand the incredible scale of the problem. Nor do they see that the electric car ‘solution’ accelerates other problematic trends in our technological society.”

A better way forward is through strategic urban transportation design, there the creation of livable communities which encourage cycling, walking, mass transit and car sharing. Ironically, a technical solution which will lead to less emissions is in fact a human change in behaviour. Such a change in behaviour will require both soul searching and sacrifice as we organize our travel and our lives in a new way.

In Simon Winchester’s wonderful book The Perfectionists, a technical tale which takes the reader from Prince Albert’s London Exposition of 1851, through an analysis of the different manufacturing strategies of the two Henry’s (Royce and Ford) to Ronald Reagan’s release (from the military) of GPS technology to the world, we discover the history of both precision and innovation. We learn how the Seiko Watch displaced the Swiss Watch-making industry; we hear about cameras and lenses and how the Hubble Space Telescope was repaired while in orbit. In these and other instances Winchester suggests that technology has and continues to enrich our lives each and every day, seemingly without limit.

In the final pages however, Winchester poses a simple question and a serious caution. Technology may not in fact alleviate all threats to life and community. Certainly, its benefits are unevenly distributed locally and globally. Looking forward beyond the present, how can the achievements of technology co-exist with the natural world? Will one overcome the other? And if one does overcome the other, which one might prevail? Will the cars pictured throughout this article simply sink deeper into the ranching sod as water bleaches away what colour remains, and earth reclaims the elements of humanity’s intrusion into its natural domain. Time will tell, but you and I won’t be around to applaud.

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