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Monday28 July 2014

Carscapes, by Kathryn A Morrison and John Minnis

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The story of the physical upheaval caused by the arrival of the car in England is a fascinating journey

Carscapes

A 1952 petrol station as illustrated in a Nuffield brochure.

Carscapes: The motor car, architecture & landscape in England
By Kathryn A Morrison and John Minnis
Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, in association with English Heritage
400pp; £40
4/5 stars

The grafting of the motorcar on to the town and into the country, building on the structures and systems of horse (and, briefly, bicycle) transport, was undoubtedly the biggest physical upheaval in 20th century England.

That we know so little about what this revolution brought, at almost every level and scale, is surely extraordinary. The great achievement of the joint authors of this volume, and the researchers in the two exercises that led to it, is to bring the whole episode coherently together.

It begins, logically enough, with manufacture. The backyard workshop of the 1890s quickly ceded to premises such as the (converted) Motor Mills at Coventry where the gloriously named Great Horseless Carriage Company began life. Hundreds of companies sprung up — most died away. For many years chassis and body were built separately, in different premises.

The huge, now largely redundant, agglomerates of Cowley or Coventry (shown in a series of fine modern aerial shots) were their heirs. Yet in the early 21st century Rolls-Royce cars are being made on the fringes of a landed estate in Sussex, in an elegant, low-slung sedum-roofed factory, which the public are invited to visit — much as they once caught boats from Westminster to Dagenham to see how cars were made.

By 1916 Long Acre, in London’s West End, was almost entirely taken up with car showrooms

If the factory can’t always be theatre, the showroom had to be eye-catching. Sir Herbert Austin told his dealers that “some [premises] need a little window dressing, others a charge of dynamite”. The glazed high-rise stack of cars at Hodgson Mazda’s premises in Gateshead, a beacon from the A1, is a recent nod to Austin’s imperative.

The English rarely set the pace, but watched and learned; the Italians designed autostrade, the Americans parkways, while Paris saw Auguste Perret’s mechanised parking system as early as 1905 and it was left to a Dane, Arne Jacobsen, to perfect the petrol station. In our own century, the Germans invented the car showroom as eyecatcher, even destination.

Carscapes

East Sheen Service Station, built in 1926.

In the beginning, the car hit the city amidships. Long Acre, in the West End of London, was almost entirely taken up with car showrooms by 1916, displacing almost 50 premises for the horse and carriage trade in 1896.

After the first world war, with a growing mass market, the dealerships and the rest moved to the suburbs where “ribbon development” was being led by car ownership.

Until the motorway programme, trunk roads were often unfit for purpose and even when new, embellished by “little exotic timidities” placed at intervals. Yet despite the inadequate infrastructure, cars had to be mended, parked, washed and fuelled. Motorists, too, had their needs. In 1928 there were 25 teashops along the 80-mile route from London to Margate, while the novel roadhouse led to a range of eclectic design solutions, from palatial Tudor revival establishments (with swimming pool and overtones of loucheness) to white-rendered moderne for the coast.

Carscapes

Bristol’s Unicorn Hotel and Car Park, 1963-6.

Post-war, the first English motel was built near Stratford-on-Avon, for Americans, but motels, like drive-ins, did not take root. Soon English drivers began to visit the coast and notable beauty spots en masse. Photographs show the harsh reality: endless tailbacks to the Kent coast and a log jam of vehicles on the moor at Dartmeet.
Soon cars no longer needed greasing and endless tinkering and new weatherproof materials made them hardier. New building types such as the multi-storey urban car park benefited from concrete ramps and uninterrupted floor space. Below High Point 2 staggered single-storey blocks of lock-ups (providing 28 spaces), topped with a garden, were a positive addition to Tecton’s work.

Throughout the book runs a thread of tension, between modernity and tradition. The adjustment of 20th century England to such an irresistible force was an immense test of nerve. The journey, not yet over, makes an engrossing account.

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