Space Between My Ears – The Geography of Cars

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I love cars. I’m a proper gear head, or petrol head if you’re in the UK.  Each and every year, I eagerly gobble up all the new cars news from the various car shows from around the world.  Designers and engineers are always tweaking this and playing with that, trying to eek out more power, better fuel economy, and prettier designs to get the public to buy.  And I can’t get enough of every little change, every little evolution, every revolution of car design and technology.  It isn’t just the supercars that cost 80 bagillion dollars and I couldn’t hope of buying sans a really lucky lottery ticket.  I dig the small cars that designed for the intro market (current object of fascination – Fiat 500 now available in the States).  I dig the cheap rear wheel drive sports cars for the people under a tight budget (I lust after the new BRZ/FR-S/GT86).  Even the idea of a returned Ford Ranger pickup gets my heart a racing.  I just love all cars.

As much as I love all these new cars and their ever greater technology, my real car passion is in the classics.  Every year for the last three years, you’ll see my ESRI User’s Conference badge reads, “Ask me about classic cars”.I especially have a weakness for classic British cars, particularly the roadsters.  I can talk for hours about the average MGB roadster (heaven help you if you get around ESRI’s Elvin Slavik and myself when the subject of MG’s come up).  I’d almost give a toe for the chance to own an old Mini at a decent price. That doesn’t keep me from loving other cars from other countries.  The Camaro is clearly a thing of beauty.  The People’s Car, despite it’s questionable heritage, is a marvel of engineering.  Honestly, how can you not be impressed by a car you can remove the engine in under 2 minutes with no power tools?  For that matter, I’ll always lust after a VW GTI Mk1, the originator of the ‘hot hatchback’.  If there’s someone that isn’t just blown away by the sheer beauty of the Ferrari California GT Spyder, I’m not sure I want to meet them.  The ‘49 Shoebox Ford is just such the definition of classic it practically screams to be in a parade or at least on a long Sunday drive.  Is there anything more American than the classic Ford F100 truck?  Or anything more British than the Land Rover Series I, II, and II (except, of course, the sexist car that ever existed)?

Since we’re a geography blog, you might ask, “What does geography have to do with cars?”  In short – everything.  Obviously transportation is a huge part of what we do in geography and the geospatial industry.  We have people who have devoted their entire lives toward figuring out how to move the masses of people from one place to another, and I, for one, thank them for it.  However, one thing we don’t often consider is just how much geography has directly impacted the development of this everyday device many if not most of us use, namely the car.  Topography matters in car design.  There’s a reason the muscle car is an American invention.  You can thank the flat open spaces of The Great Plains for the invention of a car that goes one direction, really, really fast.  Who needs to worry about how it corners when most of the roads are long and straight?  Conversely, the handling prowess of a Porsche 911 or a Ferrari Dino could only happen in places that understood the importance of curves.  The Land Rover was created for agricultural use, but quickly branched out to the military and then throughout the British Empire.  The need to be anywhere, from desert to jungle, to mountains drove much of its design.  Small cars like the original Mini or the original Fiat 500 were perfect for areas with twisty roads, narrow passages, and small landscapes.  Furthermore, the idea of squishing yourself and your family of four into one of those tiny cars isn’t so daunting when you can drive across an entire country in under a day.  Contrast that with the open spaces of the US, with it’s wide roads and exceptionally long distance to drive and you can see why the ‘boat’ sized cars grew up in the US.  Can you imagine riding in the back of an old Fiat 500 or a VW Bug in the 2,500+ mile journey across the US?  I’m sure people have done it, but I sure wouldn’t want to.  Better yet, imagine cramming an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser into narrow European city streets.

Geography played an even more subtle part in the history of car development.  Access to natural resources drove a lot of car trends.  The aforementioned ‘boats’ of American cars, like the Cadillac El Dorado, the 57 Chevy, or the Chrysler New Yorker could only exist in a country with access to cheap gas.  Honda started life as a motocycle company partially due to the difficulties in getting petrol into the country as it lacks any natural reserves of its own.  Is it any wonder the first Japanese car to make a huge splash in the US was the original Civic, which hit as a fuel efficient car right at the beginning of the oil crisis of the 1970’s?  Economic divides play themselves out in car design.  The Shooting-Brake design existed almost exclusively in countries with large landed gentry who owned cars specifically to support hunting expeditions on large estates.  Even looking more broadly at who makes cars, is it any accident that the majority of car manufacturers come from ‘Western’ Countries?  If you take cars that tend to be exported into account, the geography bias becomes even more pronounced.  Geography’s impact on car development continues beyond the history of cars.  Diesel engines are huge in Europe.  They’re seen as an economical solution to fuel efficiency.  Yet diesel vehicles account for less than 3% of cars in the US (Forbes).  The most likely cause is the extra expense of diesel cars due to emissions capturing mechanism necessary to meet emissions standards in stringent states like California.  Demographics impacts cars massively.  Dozens of cars and even whole manufacturers are unavailable in the US.  When was the last time you saw a new Opel (extra credit if you answered ‘we call it a Saturn’), a Peugeot, a Citroen, of an Alfa Romeo in the US?  None of those dealers are likely to come back to the US anytime soon as they’ve found richer shores in China, who has become the number one consumer of cars in the world.

I said it at the start – I love cars.  And it should be apparent I love Geography.  Geography’s influence on cars really hasn’t been discussed much in the history of cars, but I think it’s incredibly apparent in each and every car I’ve ever seen.  German cars just have a sense about them that’s apparent, minus, of course, the random bits of insanity (I’m looking at you AMG Black Series).  They’re smartly designed, technical, efficient, get the job done… but they lack a passion.  Italian cars are all passion.  Who cares if they break down if you look at them funny?  Just being around one stirs the soul.  British cars are quirky in their own way.  They’ve got passion and soul, but often under and unassuming exterior (excepting again, of course, the sexiest car that ever existed in the entirety of time, both present and future).  American cars are big, brash, loud, and just loveable in all the ways that matter.  Swedish cars are incredibly practical but also set in their ways, whether they make sense or not (and sometimes they are utterly insane but in ways we all really, really envy).  And French cars…. well, the less said about them, the better 😉  (Just kidding to all French people.  I’ve never actually been near a French car for very long, so I can’t say anything of note about them).

Someday when I’ve gotten well settled into my career I shall undertake to write a book on The Geography of The Automobile.  I honestly can’t think of a better topic to fill my days.

(Image Credit Frank LaFone, Creative Commons rights reserved)

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