The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Carscapes: The Motor Car, Architecture and Landscape in England

Kathryn A Morrison and John Minnis (Yale University Press, 400pp, £40)

Reviewed by Henrietta Billings

The statistics in Appendix 1 of this richly illustrated book show why this thematic study couldn’t be more relevant to everyone in England. Cars are part of the universal experience of modern life, and the figures speak for themselves. In 1904, nine years after the invention of the car, there were 13,302 car licences in England. By 1946 there were 1,558,517, and by December 2010, 24,095,536. Mushrooming car ownership over the last century has re-oriented our landscape and society towards the car. But, while the glamour and sophistication of ‘classic car’ design has been well documented, the buildings and infrastructure that supported the car’s golden age have been overlooked. This book goes a long way to redress that balance by celebrating the best of our motoring heritage.

The book investigates the ‘cradle to grave’ life cycle of the car, charting car manufacture from tiny workshops to enormous factories like Fort Dunlop, north of Birmingham – the largest factory in Britain in the 1920s. It looks at the car’s impact on our towns and cities and the way we move around. It explores the history of a wide variety of building types and car-related structures, including showrooms, petrol stations, ‘motor houses’, underground and multi-storey car parks, motorways, bridges and even road signs.

Car showrooms, for example, changed dramatically over the last century as they responded to the needs of the target market. At first, dealers decked out their premises as carpeted saloons, like Argyll’s of Newman Street in London’s West End (1905), complete with chandeliers, potted plants and leather upholstery. Some even had reading rooms and dressing rooms attached. Large department stores like Harrods and Selfridges also opened galleried showrooms during this period, targeting wealthy men with the air of a gentleman’s club.

In the interwar period, as car ownership increased, showrooms re-located to arterial routes to reach the suburban middle classes, and their design changed dramatically. By the 1960s, angular and monopitch roofs were popular, like the Ford garage on Scotswood Road, Newcastle (Ryder & Yates and Partners, 1964). It had a butterfly-shaped roof, with the showroom ceiling suspended beneath lattice girders on full view behind a long stretch of glazing.

The book’s publication coincided with a raft of listing recommendations by English Heritage, for example, the 1909-10 neo-Georgian facade of the former Morris Garage in Longwall Street, Oxford, the WWI aircraft hangar reused as a service station in Herefordshire, and the 22m tall Pennine Tower Restaurant and sun deck on the north-bound side of the Forton Service Area (T P Bennett, 1964-65). The authors remind us that fifty years ago the idea of listing a garage or a motorway service station would have seemed laughable, highlighting how much architectural fashions change.

The authors also tap into wider debates about the future of the car and its impact in the 21st century. They list the downsides – the vast car parks, the re-orientation of our towns and cities at the pedestrian’s expense – and ponder what might happen if car use reached saturation point. For what would we do with thousands of miles of unused motorway?

Published February 2013