Nature has endowed us with a longing for movement—a kinetic fascination—that the rather humble equipment with which she furnished us was destined from the beginning to disappoint. Our locomotive apparatus, in comparison to those of other animals, seems to have evolved in a direction that, while adequate for the secondary goal of inventing and manipulating tools, falls far short of our species’ prime objective of getting some place—any place—really fast. And so, to compensate for the shortcomings of our own gawky bipedal gear, we slyly co-opted the superior solutions of more effectual creatures.
Of course, we should not consider ourselves exceptional in pursuing this strategy: The remora, with its clever suction-cup head, has for eons hitched rides on the bodies of sea turtles and whales—and, much later, on the hulls of our own ships. But we improved upon this arrangement in that we insisted upon dictating where the host organism to which we attached ourselves would go. Although the camel and its kin certainly have their grievances (as do, perhaps, scores of other long-forgotten or now extinct injured parties), the chief victim in this scheme has been the genus Equus, whose members, literally, have borne the greatest burden. History has failed to record the precise moment at which horseflesh was subjugated to the whims of human wanderlust, yet the tyranny was complete. The horse was compelled not only to plow our fields and haul in the bounty of these exertions, but also to entertain us by running races, prancing in exhibitions, and sprinting in jousts. In battle, it was forced to gallop with abandon into peril, reaping the internecine harvest of our conceit, and when the Sumerians invented the chariot in approximately 3000 B.C., horses were harnessed in pairs, much like a chain gang, to these clumsy contraptions in which we, the self-styled masters, stood preening. The horse’s ultimate reward at the conclusion of this vital service was, in some cultures, to provide the substance of a barbecue, hair for brushes and mattresses, and, more importantly, cordovan leather for stylish shoes.
Equine emancipation, however, became possible only when another beast of burden could be yoked into servitude. This shift to a new host commenced with Scotsman James Watt’s improvements to the steam engine and French engineer Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot’s invention of a steam-powered cast-iron tricycle in 1770 that, while sufficiently robust in power to crash into a wall, lacked a steady water supply and the dignity so essential to a French passenger. Still, this endeavor, through the rise of the internal-combustion engine, would inspire a similar tricycle built by entrepreneur Karl Benz. Unlike previous horseless carriages, Benz’s designs exhibited high levels of quality and workmanship, and the growing success that followed would result in his firm’s eventual merger with Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft, the creation of Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach, to become Daimler-Benz. Other future icons of transportation incubated in those last decades of the 19th century, including Peugeot, Isotta-Fraschini, and Giovanni Agnelli’s Fiat. Yet the challenge to these industrious pioneers was not entirely technical: Who in that turn-of-the-century world would buy these exotic devices? These expensive toys, after all, were viewed as oddities, the slightly dangerous appurtenances of conspicuous consumption. This fact prompted these companies to saddle into service the aristocrats and plutocrats of the world, who would become the host bodies, as it were, for the development of the automobile, as evinced by the patina of status and prestige that the aforementioned brands have since acquired. And so the wealthy underwrote for the rest of the population the single most significant revolution in human mobility.
The sporting indulgences of the well-to-do, such as Le Mans, would push the boundaries of performance, inducing designers to perfect continually the state of the art in steering, transmissions, braking, and speed with vehicles such as the Bugatti T35 and Ferrari Dino—a public service that continues today. The automobiles assembled at this year’s Car of the Year competition bear the technological fruits of a succession of elite amusements that range from the Targa Florio to the modern Grand Prix, and we beasts of burden who choose to drive them in effect will perform the work of sating the lust for faster, more satisfying locomotion of future generations. Unlike our four-legged counterparts, however, if we eventually are put out to pasture, we at least can be reasonably certain that the masters whom we serve will spare us from the shoe factory.