The roads that ate Melbourne

Georgine Clarsen, University of Wollongong

Graeme Davison Car Wars: How the Car Won Our Hearts and Conquered Our Cities, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 2004 (328 pp). ISBN 1-7411-4207-5 (paperback) RRP $29.95.

Mobility, and in particular automobility, is a dominant feature of contemporary culture. But for all its importance, automobility rarely attracts serious study in Australia. A popular literature exists, written by enthusiasts or manufacturers, but there is little broad ranging analytical scholarship of how car culture has developed in Australia, comparable, for example, to cinema studies. Cars are so absorbed into our daily routines that they are easily ignored. Perhaps analysis has been inhibited by the troubling contradictions of our dependence on a technology which is simultaneously so enabling and so destructive. Perhaps cars have been overlooked because so many academics take a negative stance towards them. What is clear is that cars deserve a great deal more attention.

As technological objects, cars have changed remarkably little over the past one hundred years. Their mechanical sophistication has increased exponentially and their design and styling have been constantly renewed, but the fundamentals remain much the same. Like most cars at the beginning of the twentieth century, contemporary cars still have four wheels, an internal combustion engine, require a driver who controls pedals, levers and a steering wheel, and they still discharge poisonous gases into the air we all breathe. But if what constitutes a car has been relatively stable for the past century, the place of cars in everyday life certainly has not. Once pleasure vehicles for a lucky few, cars are now the ubiquitous background to our daily routines. Still fun on occasion but more often mundane and occasionally infuriating, for most of us, most of the time, cars have become the ordinary, almost invisible, platform of our lives.

More than just move us around, cars do much cultural work. They give shape to our personal biographies—from memories of family holidays and our first car, to the trauma of a crash. But they also structure our urban, national and even global biographies. The history of expanding car dependence is literally inscribed on streetscapes and city maps. Cars produced in Australia have been taken as the measure of our national maturity (think of the pride as we climbed off the sheep’s back and into the first Holden, or our current contributions to the ‘world car’). And from wars in the Middle East to the Timor Gap, our reliance on cars increasingly underpins the geopolitical realities of our time. As any road movie director knows, cars—with their reach from the intimate to the global—are evocative vehicles for stories about ourselves, our society, and the times in which we live.

Cars have changed remarkably little over the past one hundred years.

The challenge for critical analysis of cars in contemporary life is to think our way into new connections between those layered meanings of car culture—from the car as an object of personal consumption, to the implications of automobility in the reordering of physical and social time and space. We are familiar with arguments about cars as status symbols, as emblems of masculinity and femininity, and as conferring the gift of freedom, because they are the images automobile manufactures and their advertising agents put out daily. We also know that our dependence on cars is an environmental problem, even a global disaster in the making. But the big challenge to imagining livable futures as automobile citizens is to think outside that simple opposition of cars as a great gift or a great problem. We need to articulate more dynamic interpretations of the automobile’s place in the structures and rhythms of social life, and to understand the subtle ways in which cars have worked to enforce particular kinds of sociality, and particular kinds of material environments. In the last few years that task has been taken up by academics from a variety of disciplines in Europe, Britain and North America. It is now common to find sociologists, historians, environmentalists, psychologists, political scientists, artists, town planners, anthropologists, geographers, cultural theorists, and transportation engineers talking to each other in multi-disciplinary automobility symposiums.

Graeme Davison’s Car Wars: How the Car Won Our Hearts and Conquered Our Cities, which won the Victorian Premier’s award for non-fiction, is a much-needed move toward such an integrated study in Australia. Part autobiography, part political history, part social history, and part urban history, Car Wars tells a story of Melbourne through the lens of the automobile. In many ways it is an extension of Davison’s well-known 1979 study, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne, in which he traced the development of Melbourne from a provincial city to a competitive, bureaucratic metropolis through the property boom and bust of the 1880s and 1890s. In this latest book, Davison considers another boom in Melbourne’s development—the dramatic rise in car ownership and use in the second half of the 20th century. Using a wide range of sources, from government reports, market research, RACV records, the motoring press, film, and oral histories, Davison tells a story of a city transformed from a population of pedestrians, cyclists, and strap-hangers in the 1940s, into an automobile city in the 1950s and 1960s—the first in Australia to import American investment and expertise in car manufacture, suburban design and road engineering—and finally to the emergence of Melbourne as a freeway city in the 1990s. He shows how the modern metropolis of Melbourne was reshaped, in this 20th century boom, through a struggle over car culture.

Davison and his family experienced the arrival of mass motorisation as a great personal liberation.

Car Wars is a much more personal story than Marvellous Melbourne, as the changes in Melbourne correspond with Davison’s own life. As he tells it, his personal biography parallels the remodelling of the postwar city. The son of a plumber in the north western suburb of Essendon who became a professor of history at Monash, Australia’s first drive-in university in the outer suburb of Clayton, Davison’s upward social mobility and outward geographical relocation paralleled many of the social, topographical, and political changes in Melbourne in the past sixty years. Davison and his family experienced the arrival of mass motorisation as a great personal liberation; it rescued them from a more limited and regulated world. That perspective makes Davison more sympathetic than many other academics (‘terrace-dwelling intellectuals’, as he characterises them), who are inclined to sneer at the delight suburban Australians take in their cars. Davison’s empathic account urges us to resist an instinct to draw up a balance sheet on the value of the car until we have considered not only the pains and regrets of car culture, but also the pleasures it has delivered to millions of Australians.

Davison opens his study with cars as objects of desire after the austerity of wartime shortages, but quickly moves beyond individuals’ relationships with their cars. From a brief dream period of consumer innocence and infatuation with chrome and petrol that coincides with his own childhood, his narrative becomes structured around a series of conflicts over the meaning and use of the car. The image of war is the driving metaphor of the book—the Car Wars of his title—and each chapter examines skirmishes large and small. He considers the car’s role in the battle between the sexes; in generational conflicts between parents and children; in transformations of suburban landscape and roadways; in political struggles between liberal individualism and communal visions of public life; and in debates over how to respond to the tragedy of death and road trauma. His final four chapters take a somewhat different turn, providing a detailed account of the sometimes bitter conflicts over freeway development in the last three decades of the 20th century. He tracks the political and organisational changes that facilitated a freeway program, the alliances of anti-freeway campaigns in inner city suburbs during the 1970s, and the eventual triumph of economic rationalism in the Kennett years, which saw the revival of Melbourne’s stymied freeway program through state partnership with private corporations.

In the bad old days of the 1950s, women had to fight to get their hands on the wheel of the family car.

In one of the most evocative sections of the book, Davison traces links between private automobiles and the revitalisation of the federal Liberal opposition in the postwar years. He demonstrates the deft way that Robert Menzies spoke to the aspirations of middle class Melbourne, the ‘forgotten people’ of his 1949 campaign, by linking liberal political ideology and the promises of automobilism. ‘Empty out the socialists and fill the bowsers’ was an effective election slogan. Engaging seriously with the role of ordinary suburban Australians in the formation of modern Melbourne strengthens Davison’s analysis. His is not a vision of the modern city simply imposed by powerful elites from above, but one where everyday practices, desires, and aspirations have shaped its contours. Oral histories and his own family biography allow him to move between the micro-history of personal experience and the macro-history of corporations and the state to paint a picture of a distinctively Melbournian car culture.

No historian would claim to tell the whole story, and all must make choices about how to make sense of the mass of material available. But the central image propelling Davison’s account—war between opposing values and interest groups—paradoxically flattens some of the complexities he wishes to highlight. Davison’s narrative of the automobilisation of postwar Melbourne unfolds as a linear story of continuity, which mirrors his own life story. In this narrative, conflicts are resolved and synthesised into a trajectory of steady progress toward personal autonomy and freedom—albeit a trajectory that has delivered unanticipated negative consequences, such as congestion and pollution. Employing the overarching image of conflict, he steers his story in a more or less straight line to the conclusion that we are now so in the thrall of car culture that we are committed to the ride, even though it may be unsustainable.

This is a trajectory that car manufacturers, already the dominant voice in the public domain when it comes to defining the value of cars in our lives, would endorse. They, of course, are committed to a story of social progress in which better technology will sustain the momentum of automobiles into the future. In fact it seems that stories about social progress told through cars gain much of their power by hitching a ride with narratives of an evolving and constantly improving technological product. Just as there is steady improvement in the year-by-year development of motor cars—a story we hear daily in advertising as new models supersede the old—so too is there social progress in the way that more and more people have been included in car culture. From the bad old days of the 1950s, for example, when women motorists were ridiculed and had to fight to get their hands on the wheel of the family car, we now find that manufacturers are competing with each other to design better cars with women in mind.

A linear story dismisses as aberrations the women who ran motor garages in the 1920s.

There is much truth, of course, in this depiction of the democratisation of car culture, and it is a very good thing that women are now welcomed into the citizenship of the road. But a commitment to a narrative of steady progress forces evidence that runs counter to that pattern into the shadows. What is to be done with stories about those who did not fit into that convenient trajectory? A linear story dismisses as aberrations the women who ran motor garages in the 1920s, for example, or the women who enjoyed gunning army trucks up and down the Hume Highway during the war, or the competent women drivers of the 1950s who ignored all the jokes about women drivers. To discount those counter-narratives, as standard automobile histories have always done, is not an entirely innocent choice.

Given how important cars are in our lives, and given the tremendous impact that mass motorisation has on our world, it is crucial that we try to open out space for fresh perspectives. We need to think outside an automobile industry view that would have us believe in steady automobilic progress. One contribution that historians can make to the future of car culture must surely be to make room for new and unexpected narratives about its antecedents—ones that can muddy a linear story and expose the unruly dimensions of the past. For the pressure towards a neat and coherent story can overwhelm the ways in which the emergence of our automobile society may have been discontinuous and counterintuitive. And a less carefully sutured narrative can enable us to take seriously evidence that troubles the fiction that the future is already fixed.

Georgine Clarsen is a lecturer in the History and Politics Program at the University of Wollongong. She has held fellowships at the Smithsonian Institute; University of California Berkeley; Menzies Centre, Kings College London; the Huntington Library, Pasadena; and the Research School of Social Sciences at the ANU. Most recently, she was a Resident Scholar in the Centre for Cultural Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz.


Davison, G. 1978, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.