TCS Daily

Four-Wheeled Freedom

By Brock Yates - May 8, 2003 12:00 AM

In case you haven't noticed, this year marks three major birthdays in the world of motor vehicles. The beloved Corvette, "America's Sports Car" will celebrate its 50th while two for the nation's most venerable firms, Harley-Davidson and Ford, will each be honored with 100 candles.

While Harley-Davidson and the Corvette hold honored places in the pantheon of transportation, it is the Ford Motor Company that rises above both in terms of an overall impact on civilization. Many historians agree that the automobile joins the printing press and the micro-chip as one of the three most liberating technologies created by modern man.

Henry Ford ranks with the great innovators of all time. Backyard mechanic, anti-Semite, closet Hitler sympathizer, union-buster and general crackpot, this Michigan hayseed nonetheless revolutionized personal transportation and literally set the nation's masses free.

By utilizing mass production techniques developed by the meat packing industry, Ford created the incredible Model-T in 1908, five years after his company was formed. It reached the market costing $825 and finally sold for $260 in 1925 before it was replaced by the equally economical Model-A.

By offering cheap, reliable personal transportation to Americans and the entire civilized world, Ford literally untethered entire populations. This emancipation did not sit well with the elites, reminded as they were of the Duke of Wellington's famed remark about the development of the railroad: "That would only encourage common people to move about needlessly," he sniffed when told of the iron horses.

By the middle of the 20th century, Ford had triggered a tectonic shift in social attitudes and mobility not only here in the United States, but in Europe. This of course unsettled the aristocracy and the Communist central planners, both of whom quaked at the thought of an uncontrollable rabble roaming the countryside.

As an example of the car's impact, an amusing backlash can be traced to the late 1930's when John Steinbeck's novel, "the Grapes of Wrath" was transformed into a Hollywood production starring Henry Fonda. The Stalinists seized on the film, believing that it would showcase the plight of the American working classes. But the Russian public received another message. To them the film illustrated that even in the middle of the Depression, Dust Bowl-ravaged Americans could still afford automobiles.

Today the automobile remains under attack from the environmentalists and post-Stalinist urban planners. Schemes for dense-packed high rise cities offering only mass transit and the beloved bicycle are in the works. Any cockamamie concept is celebrated that excises the dreaded car from civilized spaces.

Yet despite this garbled fantasizing about Utopian living, the vox-populi hasn't gotten the word. Several years ago the National Association of Home Builders posed a question to a broad cross-section of citizens: Given the choice, would they rather live in an urban townhouse close to public transit or in a suburban, single-family home? Eighty-three percent of those polled chose the suburbs.

Is it not therefore reasonable to conclude that sprawl - discounting its attendant congestion and alleged consumption of land (still only a miniscule percentage of the nation's acreage) - remains a sparkling example of a free and vibrant civilization? Is it not a positive sign that so many people of all classes are able to flee the dense-pack living of center cities and move to the suburbs?

Such a concept causes the vapors among Greenies and central planners, who seek a docile, immobile population concentrated where they can move about only at the whim of Government.

These are the latter-day Wellingtons, who again see mass mobility by the proletariats as, in the words of the immortal Duke, "needless."

Despite the freedom offered up by the car, hatred percolates among the elites. Yet the potential of the four-wheeled, powered vehicle borders on the limitless. Even if every mile of paved road in the nation was plowed up, a new iteration of the device would be developed to navigate the landscape. Banning ozone Al Gore's reviled internal combustion engine - unlikely in that no viable replacement is in sight - would not stop the motor vehicle. Four wheels are the optimum setup for transiting the face of this planet, like it or not.

Sadly, the birthday of the Ford Motor Company will pass largely unnoticed beyond the borders of Detroit and Dearborn, where the firm is headquartered. In fact, more attention may be paid to the Company's current financial stresses than to its landmark contribution to civilization.

But make no mistake, the Ford Model-T must be honored as one of the greatest adjuncts to civilization in history. Regardless of the politically correct nonsense being bandied about regarding the alleged depredations of the automobile, it remains the most viable and universally appealing transportation device known to mankind.

And when it ceases to be such, the end of civilization will be in sight.

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