It is in the interests of a robust argument that I offer the following, as I am in full agreement with the ideas presented in this paper. Nevertheless, though perhaps strictly correct there are passages which invite an interpretation, especially when read adversarially, to the effect that the author does not know what he is talking about. There are always details that fall outside the author’s expertise, and it is not good if the possibility of convincing a reader of the merits of an argument hinges on these. It is fortunate, then, that a handling of those details out of an intimate familiarity with their minutiae would tend to support our argument more, and not less, effectively.
Though it is understood that reference to power steering and V8 engines is intended as an example of inefficiencies resulting from inflexible, centralized corporate management, the reader familiar with the history is immediately drawn to the apparently anachronistic reference to 1930. The mention of V8 engines likewise may or may not betray the layman’s common conflation of number and layout of cylinders with engine displacement. The most common V8 engine in the years from 1932 to WWII was Ford’s famous “Flathead”, which during that time had the decidedly small displacement of 221 cubic inches (3621cc), considerably smaller than many of the six-cylinder engines on sale then, and only 10% larger than the four-cylinder engine it replaced.
If the intention was rather to point out the excesses of the “classic” American overhead-valve V8 as it developed between about 1950 and 1955, it must be mentioned that they represent a measurable advance in efficiency over what had gone before. They coincided with the adoption of thin-wall iron-founding, which allowed cylinder blocks to be considerably lighter than before. Moreover, a cursory analysis of data contained in Langworth, R (ed), “Encyclopedia of American Cars 1930-1980”, Publications International Ltd., 1984 reveals that the industry-wide trend in specific output, that is, the power produced by an engine per unit of displacement, which had been stagnant through the 1940s after a steady gentle increase through the 1930s, suddenly underwent a 50% jump between 1954 and 1957. The average American specific output was 19.90bhp/litre in 1930 – very low by European standards even at the time. By 1940 it had increased 32%, to 26.32bhp/litre; but would barely increase again until 1954. By 1957, however, when the effects of the new, lighter, short-stroke, high-compression V8s could be felt, average specific output had in three years risen from 33.00bhp/litre to 48.13bhp/litre. It was therefore suddenly normal to get more power out of smaller engines – or, as was often the case at the time, even more power out of somewhat bigger engines.
Now, on the one hand, there is no absolute correlation as such between specific output and specific fuel consumption. Given, however, the unsuitability of extreme states of tune for the broad American automobile market at that time – more on which below – it is safe to expect that fuel efficiency generally followed specific output over those years. On the other hand, the fact that efficiency of output manifested here largely in greater output for the same input rather than reduced input to achieve the same output does point to a real limitation of efficiency as a measure.
It is implied elsewhere in the same paragraph of the paper that weight savings might be effected through electric propulsion. The truth is precisely opposite. The weight of the requisite batteries or accumulators has been the main disadvantage to electric propulsion from the start, and even given the most power-dense modern types this remains prohibitive. The much-vaunted Tesla Roadster is in fact gross, at almost double the weight, compared to the elegant Lotus Elise on which it is based.
Nor, as an aside, is the demise of the early electric vehicle the result of a sort of competition in which the internal combustion engine was victorious, as is often presented; much less was that competition unfairly weighted in IC’s favour by nefarious agencies. The early electric was for the most part a phenomenon restricted to the context of the American east coast in the first decade or so of the 20th century, and specifically to the society ladies in that context. It is remarkable that no parallel phenomenon appeared among wealthy European women, or anyone else in Europe, at that time. The early electric offered a specific performance envelope that suited the requirements of a specific context, outside which I submit it has little value. The job they do best is that most likely to be done by walking in any sane world. At least those early Detroits and Columbias used nickel-iron Edison-cell batteries which, though rather heavier for their capacity than many other types, are virtually indestructible and supremely permeable to artisanal manufacture.
Power steering appeared in the the early 1950s as an extra-cost option on the most expensive American cars, and would not reach anything approaching ubiquity for another two decades. It therefore trailed the tendency to heavier vehicles by almost half a century, during which time the only recourse, for the most part, was to very low-geared and therefore unresponsive steering.
The fact that the American motor industry came to prefer heavy automobiles over quick-steering ones gives a clue to the real issue at play here. Before the early ‘30s there had been greater similarity between the American and European motoring environments than any time since. Thus the development of a wide variety of vehicle types followed distinct parallels on both sides of the Atlantic. This extended to phenomena like the cyclecar, with American examples embodying very much the same sort of thinking as their British and French counterparts. Motoring was concentrated, with the population, along the east coast of North America, which had by then developed effective and established systems and patterns of mobility, just as such systems and patterns had existed in Europe for many centuries. There certainly was such a thing as an American engineering style, with a penchant for large T-head four-cylinder engines, for instance, being as much an element of it as deeply-V’d radiators were of Austrian and German engineering. But it was not the separate world it became subsequently.
By the early 1930s a small number of American automobile manufacturers had reached a level of political and economic power that allowed the development of a total vision of what the automobile would become. Apart from the systematic extermination of small, specialized, and regional competitors, this entailed defining the automobile as an ubiquitous necessity of life, used by everyone. In the presence of the systems and patterns of mobility mentioned above, the European automobile was marketed to a specialist user, of whom a certain technical interest and skill could be expected. The American automobile would henceforth be marketed to all and sundry; it would be developed specifically for the expected user’s lack of technical interest and skill. Systems of dependence would be created out of thin air by State collusion, to which end existing systems of mobility would be deliberately dismantled.
The American car was, from the 1930s on, marketed to people who did not know how to take care of an automobile, and who didn’t care. Such people need automobiles that are extremely reliable and resistant to abuse. Such was the technology at the time that it was not possible to build such vehicles except by making them extremely durable in the process. It was only with the introduction of electronic engine management at the end of the 20th century that the motor industry achieved its holy grail, and became capable of producing vehicles that perform with absolutely reliable consistency over an absolutely limited period of time.
At the same time an artificial abundance of cheap petrochemical fuels was made available in North America, through the same processes of State privilege that elevated a small selection of American automobile manufacturers at the expense of the rest. Combined with the absence of the sort of tax measures that tended to promote smaller engines (or at least small-bore, long-stroke engines) in Europe, the need for abuse-proof vehicles led not only to the robust construction but also to the characteristic low specific output of the American car of the mid-20 th century. Moreover, such big, lazy engines producing little power tend to be “flexible” in use, i.e. they require little in the way of gear-changing. And that makes them easy to drive for the target market, in the absence of automatic transmissions. (Personally I think the big, lazy car has its place, provided that its understressed robustness is accompanied by mechanical simplicity and potentially open-ended durability.)
We can see, then, how the American manufacturer’s need to ensure ease of use by unskilled and uninterested users made the slightly more “nervous” V8s of the 1950s impractical until it had developed the automatic transmission. That marketing agenda is also what led to the rapid penetration of the automatic transmission once it was introduced: the American car is simply not meant for a driver who appreciates the sense of control and takes pride in the skilful shifting of a good manual ‘box. Likewise finger-light steering was preferable to steering feel; and heavily-assisted but mechanically not very powerful brakes preferable to mechanically-powerful brakes with little assistance.
The reason for all this is clear: despite the permeation of automotive meaning in modern world culture the enthusiast motorist continues to represent a tiny fraction of the whole. The American motor industry built its position not on people who wanted to drive but on people who needed to drive, their need being a thing painstakingly constructed by collusion between the big manufacturers and the State. The American motor industry is selling not to a spontaneous minority but to an engineered majority – and so, these days, are the European and Asian motor industries, and with greater nefarious dexterity.
It is interesting in this light to investigate the history of State regulation of vehicle specifications, from the forcible introduction of feeble sealed-beam headlights in 1940 on. In each case the danger of exceptionalization of the vehicle market is identifiable. In 1940 it was considered preferable that large numbers of vehicles be in operation at the same time at night than that a solitary driver on a lonely road might be able to see where she is going. Likewise in the late ‘60s it was preferable that existing levels of California traffic congestion be maintained than that a few motorists might have efficiently-functioning exhaust systems by declining to pay for the otherwise useless platinum-series precious metals in a catalytic converter. For all that that device accomplishes is to accelerate the deterioration of intrinsically unstable compounds that would deteriorate all by themselves given low enough levels of traffic, besides endowing platinum interests with artificial value and creating a vehicle-life regime responsive to corporate-State manipulation.
I have long maintained that the effect – and possibly the purpose – of everything done to mitigate the effects of the automobile has been to increase the incidence of the automobile, and by a greater margin. The ostensible environment-and-safety regime has made current levels of traffic possible, not by making them less noisome but by making them necessary. And recent attempts to mandate efficiency directly will only make matters worse.
For efficiency as such, being a ratio, is neither here nor there. As we have seen with the V8 engines that powered the befinned behemoths of the ‘50s, it’s no good having a more efficient engine if the systemic requirements of its emergence have it pulling a load that is heavier by a factor greater than the increase in efficiency. Efficiency is value-for-money, as it were; and it can be more for the same as easily as the same for less. Most easily of all it can be much more for a little more, which is no good if what is wanted is less. Jevons knew all about this.
If we go further and think in terms of sustainability, we find ourselves working towards closed systems. Closed systems have no input or output to compare to one another, and can therefore have no efficiency to speak of in any strict terms, however plain the beauty of their functioning is to the muddiest observation. It is then to be expected that no simple aggregate of unitary component efficiencies could add up to the undefined efficiency of a closed system. Indeed when we begin to think in such terms we discover that 100% efficiency is certain in any individual component of a system if we refrain from distinguishing between outputs in which we are interested and outputs in which we are not, but instead consider the nature of all inputs and outputs purely in terms of how they support the system as such. Hence the criterion is no longer efficiency expressed as a percentage but “fit” expressed as a more or less sound judgement.
As a practical example, the inefficiency of a cow as a converter of solar energy embodied in grass into meat or dairy products, as evinced by the fact that its dung burns quite readily, is a key characteristic that determines its place in a sound system of organic agriculture. For it is that very inefficiency that allows the cow to produce a manure fertilizer, to provide traction, etc. A more efficient cow would be one without useful dung or strength to pull anything, which would induce a reliance on external sources of fertilizer and traction, thus collapsing the closed system.
We thus find ourselves confronted with the idea of optimal efficiency, rather than a general clamour for the greatest possible efficiency. This is the level of efficiency that allows the best fit into things that work well. (I am not sure if I am duplicating Illich here: I have not read him, and I suspect that I ought.) For an optimal level of mechanical efficiency for automobiles I should require that level at which the volume of production is capable of matching spontaneous demand, which I hold to be a mere fraction of current engineered demand; that is, where the embodied technology is thoroughly vernacularized, and forgiving enough to obviate the need for strict adherence to type. And this, I propose, is the approximate level of efficiency of a typical European car of c.1970. And I submit that this is the level of efficiency to which a freed market would tend to gravitate, which would be quite sustainable ecologically given the concomitant drastic downward adjustment in the scale of the phenomenon.
This is the context in which ethanol begins to make sense as a vehicle fuel. The processes involved in its manufacture represent a much better fit when production is local and demand is small, for then the processes slot easily into the network of inputs and outputs that are the life of an organic farm, or that of an organic farming community. I should direct you to Blume, D, “Alcohol Can Be a Gas”, International Institute for Ecological Agriculture, 2007; and to the relevant pages at journeytoforever.org.
I speak of the level of efficiency of 1970, but not of the actual type of vehicle which predominated in Europe at the time, for that was already the product of a long-term State-corporate project to define the automobile in terms of a type to which only the industrially large and powerful might attain. An analysis of the development of unitary construction of the body and frame of a vehicle from c.1934 on, by Ford in the USA and Citroën in France (discounting the rather tentative attempt by Lancia c.1922) should prove informative. It is by a concerted programme of propaganda that the idea was established that any modern automobile worth its salt will have a body of stressed steel panels welded together, which obviates the need for a separate frame. It is claimed that this makes for a lighter structure, which is more rigid in torsion, necessary as the accompanying development in suspension technology has been to techniques that require torsionally-rigid structures. Such vehicles – nowadays universal – cannot be set out by aligning lengths of stock steel profiles to marks on a workshop floor, but require expensive body jigs and panel presses and dies, all suitable for only a single design.
It is ironic that it should be a much-weakened Citroën who should develop the first car whose interconnection of suspension obviated the need for the torsional rigidity which is one of the primary pretexts for unitary construction, in the body-on-frame 2CV of 1948. I should recommend very close study of the 2CV to anyone wishing to speculate on what a car might be in a truly free market. Likewise the Triumph Herald seemed an historical anomaly when it was introduced in 1959, with its separate frame, a design approach intended to facilitate poorly capitalized production in developing countries. Like the 2CV it represented a sophisticated interpretation of the age-old body-on-chassis idea, though its swing-axle rear suspension earned early versions notoriety for vicious handling. It nevertheless survived in India until 1978 as the Standard Gazel.
The article concludes with a vision of localized, pedestrian-oriented urbanity which matches my own vision very closely. It is however not uncommon to expect the residual handful of automobiles in that environment to be rather meagre and austere, even if there is no reason for them to be so. It seems rational to me that where automobiles are uncommon, only uncommon automobiles should exist; that absent artificial need for mobility, unless an automobile has a spendour of some kind it will not be built at all.