Magazine article The Spectator

How the Morris Minor Proves That Bob Dylan Was Wrong

Magazine article The Spectator

How the Morris Minor Proves That Bob Dylan Was Wrong

Article excerpt

Seated at the wheel of a 1952 Morris Minor a few weeks ago, I reflected on how little technical progress these last SO years have seen compared with any half-century since the Industrial Revolution. I realise that to those growing older the world seems in a dizzying spin, but it always has: a truth more about ageing than about the world. The world has slowed down. Since the lateForties, `the pace of change' has slackened from the Victorians' gallop and the Edwardians' canter to a stately post-war trot.

Consider that Morris Minor. I found it for my brother, who has been looking for something about his own age to drive. The car I recommended is identical to that in which I passed my own driving test: just under 900cc, cheese-grater grille, hard-top, split-screen and small back window, pale greeny-grey - and flippers for indicators.

The flippers are now the most obvious anachronism. In what other respects has the petrol-fuelled motor car been developed in the last 50 years? The answer is `scores, but marginal ones'.

Gearbox and transmission are essentially unchanged, except that synchromesh has been added to first gear. Engines were switching then, and have all switched now, from side-valve to overhead valve; more recently, carburettors and distributors have been replaced by electronically driven systems. Fewer cars are rear-wheel-drive now and independent suspension (which Morris already incorporated on the front wheels) has reached the back too, as have disc brakes. Roadholding, acceleration and fueleconomy have improved, but not so much that a new Morris Minor or Ford Zephyr, kept in boxes since the Fifties, could not be put on the road in January 2000 and operated alongside the cars current today; clumsy but perfectly serviceable. Except that prominent boots have been out, in, out and now back in fashion, even body-styles have kept within the same parameters of design.

But I didn't mention the headlight-dipper. This is now operated from the steering column and is inferior to the Minor's, which was on the floor. Automatic gears did not take Europe by storm (as they were predicted to) and steering-column gearlevers never caught on; nor did the batteryoperated electric car.

Refinements to the carbon-fuelled, internal-combustion-driven automobile - an ingenious finessing of the basic concept have been legion, but there has been no step-change. I have often wondered why, for instance, we do not have balls-in-sockets instead of wheels. In the early 1950s families of (on average) five were driving around on tarmac roads in five-seater motor cars, and in 1999 they still are.

All this would be just an amusing aside, except that it is indicative of the half-century as a whole. Just consider the 50 years that went before. At the turn of the last century there were almost no motor cars, almost no tarmac, and families were nearly twice the size. Death rates (which have only inched down since the Fifties) were miles higher. It is fair to say that people did not have electricity or travel by air, had no telephones, no radio, no television and no access to moving pictures or recording devices. They did not have washing machines or vacuum cleaners. Many had servants, or were servants. Horses and trains provided the main means of land transport. People went to war on horses.

But by the time my brother's Morris Minor was built half a century later that age was utterly gone. What comparable transformations have we made since? …

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