The car has changed from being a luxury item to becoming an almost essential component of life for many people. As a family, my paternal grandparents had a Morris 10, which came out once a week on Sunday morning for a drive to the pub in the country. As the push button starter didn’t work properly, it had to be started with a crank handle at the front, which couldn’t be entrusted to women or children because it could kick back and hit you on the arm quite painfully. So my grandfather had to crank it while my grandmother sat in the driving seat and fiddled with the choke and the accelerator pedal. Once the engine had started, they changed places because my grandmother didn’t drive.
My grandfather mostly drove in the middle of the road, because there was little traffic and that’s where he liked to be, particularly on the way back from the pub (drink driving laws came in much later).
In the early 1950s, my parents acquired a third share in a Morris 8, meaning we had the use of it one week in three. Later they acquired the full use of it. The car had a winder on the front windscreen, meaning you could open it, hinged at the top, to let in a breeze as you drove along. It also had a blind which you could pull down over the rear window, so that the driver was not blinded in the rear view mirror by a car following with its headlights on. There were no side mirrors.
We often visited a nearby hillside to play games, and on the return journey there was a very long downhill road where my father would turn the engine off at the top and coast all the way to the bottom and we would see how far we got before the car stopped. This was fun, but seemed very dangerous, even to me at the time, but there was never any traffic. We had occasional Sunday outings to the coast, for a day at the beach. Our longest trip in the car was to Brighton. My father was stopped for speeding through Stratford, and a stopwatch was pushed in front of his face by the police officer, showing he was doing 38mph in a 30 mph area.
In the early 1950s we moved to a house on the edge of town, about a mile out. Both my parents used their bicycles to cycle into town. Most men worked in one of the three factories in the town, and either walked to work or cycled. Some came home for lunch. At rush hour in the morning and evening, the roads were a swarm of cyclists. Hardly anyone drove to work.
There were only two other houses in our road when we moved there, but gradually more were built until the road was full. All houses had garages, but people acquired cars gradually, as they could afford them, usually small cars like Morris Minors or Ford Prefects. When the first Austin Mini came out in 1959, it cost £500 new. It was quite basic. Later my girlfriend had one, which often broke down, due to water getting into the engine compartment. I remember putting a rubber glove over the distributor, with the wires passing through the cut-off fingers, to protect it from rain. This worked. Cars are much more reliable now and last much longer, but hardly anyone services them themselves, as they used to.
Gradually over the decades, more and more people acquired cars, the roads filled up, more and bigger roads were built, and the car became an almost essential consumer durable for families, with lifestyles built around it. There are now around 33 million cars on the road and the extent of household car ownership is nearly 70%. Now, towns, shopping areas, and housing estates are designed around the car. With garage parking, on-street parking, car park areas, living, working and shopping areas are dominated by cars, and the air quality in some areas is terrible. Many tragic accidents have occurred.
Some new housing developments in the middle of the countryside are approved, where there are almost no local facilities, so that everything a person or family needs requires a fresh car journey to the nearest town. This makes little sense.
Driving is a very socially isolating activity. Everyone in their own little box. People can be quite rude to each other when separated off like that, rather like anonymous hate mail on social media today.
I had two foreign holidays with my family, a week in Ostend in about 1952 and two weeks in a holiday camp in the South of France in about 1953, to which we travelled by train. Air travel was not a part of my childhood experience. The change has been huge
The first passenger flight across the Atlantic was in 1939, on a Pan-Am Boeing B-314 seaplane, with 22 passengers. Air travel for passengers has grown rapidly, from a zero base in around 1939. Worldwide, the number of passengers annually is in the region of 5 billion, which is over double the figure for 2004.
Frequent fliers, privately-owned aircraft, and internal journeys which could easily be taken by train, contribute greatly to these totals. The environmental impacts are high, including noise and bad air quality around airports, and serious contributions to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 7% of UK emissions are from air travel. There is little prospect of these harmful emissions and noise being reduced in the near future, although according to UK Government plans emissions from aeroplanes will be reduced to near zero by 2050, due to electrification, hydrogen fuels and sustainable aircraft fuels. But progress in these areas is very slow, and unless there are very substantial reductions in air travel, this reduction in emissions seems very unlikely to occur.
Air travel is effectively subsidised, because there is no tax on aviation fuel, and no penalties for the environmental damage. Governments try to justify this in three ways. Firstly, air travel creates jobs and encourages business, secondly, it is popular with the voting air travelling public, and thirdly, if one country acting alone clamps down on its air travel industry, it would create a competitive disadvantage for itself.
The solution lies mostly in international or regional cooperation, to share research and cooperate in the production of quieter, less polluting aircraft, and in adopting a demand management plan which could include a green environmental damage levy on ticket prices. IATA is the international trade association for airlines, and does a good job in many ways, but it does not represent public or environmental interests.
Media and Communications
We were connected to the telephone in the early 1950s. Before that, communication was by letter, and there were two postal collections and deliveries each day. We didn’t use the phone much, and when we did, it was just to pass a message, for example, ‘We’ll see you at about 3pm on Saturday, OK?’. When the phone rang, it was an event. People didn’t chat on the phone.
We watched the Queen’s coronation in 1953 on a small TV at our neighbour’s house, as we didn’t own a TV at the time. Over the coming decades, watching TV grew on us, starting from a low base, like Play for Today on a Sunday evening, to just watching the 9 o’clock news, to watching a series like The Onedin Line in the 1970s. After that, people started watching daytime TV too and the average number of hours people watched just kept growing, until social media came in a few years ago, and some people now spend hours every day on that. Another isolating experience.