A new set of photographs celebrates the optimism and aesthetics of mid-century motoring
It’s hard to believe that something as mundane as the car was once a thing of wonder.
But in every way, the car changed lives dramatically and immediately. It enabled tradesmen to work outside their neighbourhood, city dwellers to commute from newly-built suburbs and families to take days out in places that previously had been out of reach.
Your car wasn’t just a tool that got you from A to B either, but a source of pride – an object that said something about you and your values. People loved their cars so much they went for a drive, usually on a Sunday, just for the fun of it.
And nowhere was the relationship between car and driver more deeply felt than in the United States. The promise of freedom fitted with the pioneering spirit of the country’s foundation: here was a machine that enabled you to find your little piece of heaven, even if it was just a picnic spot off Route 1.
“People had a deep affection for these heavy lumps of metal, beautifully crafted into elegant symbols of status”
Now a new book, On The Road: Vintage Photographs Of People And Their Cars, celebrates the golden era of driving. The images of regular people, mostly – but not exclusively – in the US with their cars show a sense of pride these mid-century drivers felt about their automobiles.
These are not fancy advertising images, but ordinary photographs created by ordinary people who only wanted to record their experiences. The photos have been collected by filmmaker Lee Shulmans’s Anonymous Project, which seeks to preserve colour slides before they denigrate and fade completely.
“When I look at the images in this book, I often see less of the mechanical ingenuity of the cars caught on camera and more of the personalities of these imposing machines,” says Shulman. “People had – and I suppose still have – a deep affection for these heavy lumps of metal, beautifully crafted into elegant symbols of status. It’s undeniable that the aesthetics of these cars from another time seem exotic today and even a little impractical, but they were made for the dreamers. They hinted at a hidden sense of adventure and elegance. They were their drivers’ alter-egos.”
As the 21st century moves on, it’s clear that the car is fighting for its right to exist. Soon, the combustion engine will be a thing of the past in wealthy nations, while town planners will increasingly push cars to the margins. This may be for the good. But it doesn’t stop us from thinking wistfully back to the age when cars promised a brighter, more democratic future. Which is why this book will appeal to dreamers everywhere – whether they drive or not.
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