Review of Car Wars: How the Car Won our Hearts and Conquered our Cities by Graeme Davison

Eras Journal – Dyrenfurth, Review of Car Wars: How the car won our hearts and conquered our cities, Graeme Davison with Sheryl Yelland

Graeme Davison with Sheryl Yelland, Car Wars: How the car won our hearts and conquered our cities,
Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, 2004
Isbn: 1741142075

Australia’s leading urban historian Graeme Davison is at it again – making sense and distilling order from another taken-for-granted, material familiarity of modern life. The car, like the mobile phone, internet and television before it, has drifted into imperceptibility. Yet, “Cars are everywhere. They take us to work, shop and play. They monopolise our streets and roadways and mould the landscape to their insistent demands”. So, whether or not we drive, we are all affected by the car; it is, as Davison suggests, not only our society’s “most valued tool” but also the “most powerful status symbol”. Indeed, the recent federal election and the emotive issue of the Scoresby freeway (tollway?) highlighted the political and social power held by the car. At a more local level, the bane of most drivers – parking fines and fees – increasingly satiate the coffers of local government. In Car Wars Davison is fascinated by the embedded power of ubiquity, of (sub) urban life and its material “things”, in not only shaping landscapes but transforming our human perceptions of time and space. Cars seemingly add another layer to what Benedict Anderson famously termed our “imagined communities”. Davison is also keenly aware of the symbolism and metaphorical power of the car. Yet, he is keen to reject the (postmodern?) tendency of “terrace-dwelling intellectuals” to view the car as a “fetish”, “cult” or excessive “irrationality”. However, Davison’s work is ultimately concerned with capturing the historical context and contingency of that power (or Faustian pact), seeking to appraise “how cars have both enriched and impoverished our lives”. He is well-equipped to reflect such complexities through the prism of his metaphorical “wars”. Such skirmishes transcended men and women, young and old(er), impudent and moral, public and private, environmentalists and developers, whilst society at large wages an ongoing campaign against death and injury. Davison’s journey, however, is both a take on a society’s “love affair” but also an intensely personal journey. He vividly recalls the joy of his father’s arrival in a new “Chevrolet Ute with cream duco and chromium grille” at his family’s Essendon home. Indeed, he credits the possibility of his courting and eventual marriage to the nous of his FJ Holden. Yet, akin to Eric Hobsbawm’s “bird’s eye” take on the twentieth century, Davison is aware of the difficulty of a study which overlaps with his own lifetime and engagements with the “Car Wars”.[1]

Davison’s Car Wars seems to have two main concerns. He is primarily interested in the car as an aspirational, freedom-giving object, but equally interested in themes of gender, sexuality and wider cultural notions of “Americanisation” and individualism. More broadly, he is intrigued by the impact and power of the car (and its related culture) as a shaper of everyday life, human community and (urban) landscapes. In this respect, the book’s subtitle (“How the car won our hearts and conquered our cities”) seems a little odd, as the focus of the book is really Davison’s preferred subject: Melbourne. Indeed, one could view Car Wars as a sequel to his famous The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne (1978). As the book’s blurb accurately describes, Davison explores “the story of how the car changed a city”. Accordingly, the strongest parts of Car Wars are those which cover the “insistent” demands of the car upon Melbourne’s malleable landscape. This is evinced not only through arterial roads and freeways, contoured streets and neighbourhoods, but also through shopping centres, motels, drive-in cinemas and bottle shops, car ports, service stations, factories and even Australia’s first “drive-in” university, Monash.

Davison argues that while the car had long been the object of curiosity and desire, the conditions of postwar Australia provided the contextual groundswell. A mixture of pent-up desires and continued wartime controls meant that the car often evoked and expressed people’s “dreams”. And the “dream car”, as Davison shows, increasingly mirrored the shifting national consciousness from Britain towards America. The influence of Americanisation is carefully examined (though highlighting differences like attitudes to road deaths, including the TAC’s graphic series of 1980s and 1990s advertisements). However, Davison is careful not to damn what Robin Boyd caustically criticised as “Austerica”. That said, a critical and detailed eye is placed over perhaps the most important autopian (and American) symbol, the urban freeway. The car signified the shifting ethos towards individualism, also complementing notions of domesticity and suburban privacy, the tensions of which are well investigated throughout Car Wars. Indeed, the car, as evinced in the disparate Australian launches of Ford and Holden, seemed to sum up the changing mood of the populace as well as other important sociological trends of modernity. The car was also ultimately bound up in politics. For Robert Menzies’ postwar Liberal Party, the car was an important symbol and practical measure of individual freedom and prosperity. Of course, as Davison rightly points out, the individualism and “freedom” of automobilism could only be guaranteed by collective action and increasing levels of state surveillance and control. The “medicalisation” of the issue of road deaths, for instance drink-driving, is the most obvious example.

Yet, such responses would not have been necessary without the “mass automobilisation” of Melbourne. Practically speaking, the growing availability of hire purchase quickly overcame the problems of supply and cost for most citizens. In 1953 only one in five Australians owned a car. By 1962 that figure was almost one in three. However, such trends were highly gendered, a theme not only treated but central to Davison’s series of “wars”. Women’s lives often mirrored the travails of the car. The car broadened horizons, though it was often the site of more private, gender “wars”. Publicly, the female form was increasingly used in advertising, but later women became the direct source of such attention as consumers. Indeed, the car and its trappings were big business. Oil companies slowly wiped out the small garage operator and dotted the landscape with petrol pumps. Advertising billboards were aimed directly at the car’s occupants. Sex and sexuality was of course not restricted to women. Men, too, mediated sexual desires and taboos. Young men channelled such tendencies through the car, often raising the anxieties of authority figures and wider society. This was often for a good reason. In 1960 young male drivers were fourteen times more likely to be killed than female drivers. Even in 1982 they were still about four times more likely. Yet, as Davison explains in his evocative chapter ‘Sex, Speed and Power’ – “Cars were more than trophies, more than symbols of sexual aggression; they were instruments of social power…” That said, to my mind the twin concepts of sex and gender relations could have been handled with a more critical and engaged take on “class” and its pervasive influence across gender, age and lifestyle. For “Car Wars” were also central to class relations and the ostensible reduction in such conflict and consciousness. The car and automobilism were a crucial factor in breaking up geographically fixed working-class communities, cultures and identity. But, perhaps that is the quibble of a class-conscious labour historian and Davison’s focus is rightly on other themes, such as the rise of new social movements and the changing mores of the sexual revolution, amidst rising middle-class (environmentalist) activism.

Davison possesses a keen eye for detail and contradiction, weaving effortlessly between public and private primary sources, sociological evidence and popular culture such as the 1979 movie Mad Max. His use of what could be construed as ordinary facts and imagery is enlivening. On the one hand, Davison soberly reminds us that by 1947, 65,000 more Australians had been killed or injured on the roads than through war. On the other hand, he is able to draw out the delicious irony that a car-created suburb such as Vermont can also lay fictional claim to the television serial Neighbours with barely a hint of the car. Moving from a detailed (and biblically themed – ‘The Walls of Jericho’ and ‘The Serpent in the Garden’) study of the freeway wars of the turbulent 1970s, Davison appropriately concludes with the evocatively titled chapter ‘On the Move’ – the seemingly personalised identity and mantra of Jeff Kennett’s alacritous Victorian Liberal government of 1992-99. As Davison suggests “Kennett exploited the symbolism of the car more provocatively than any other leader. The smell of benzine seemed to rouse his native recklessness”. In practice, Kennett relentlessly and controversially pursued his “dream events” – a neo-liberally inspired privatised tollway “City Link” and the return to Melbourne of the Australian Formula One Grand Prix. Yet, just as Kennett’s reign ended rather abruptly in 1999, Davison somewhat hastily concludes, pondering whether or not Melbourne is necessarily headed towards its own automobilic cul de sac . That said, Car Wars is wonderfully written and engaging, his wide use of imagery through photos, posters and cartooning is impressive. Quite deservedly, Car Wars recently won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction.


[1] Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991, Abacus, London, 1994.

Nick Dyrenfurth

School of Historical Studies, Monash University