From The Editor: Getting There

<< Back to Robb Report, January 2003

We have a weakness for things that move. Whether we are born with the instinct or psychologically branded from our first spin in the perambulator, few objects in our private universes plumb the depths of sentiment like the sundry instruments of human locomotion. Cars, boats, trains, planes: We love them as much for their lines and lineage as for the places they can take us and the pleasures they give in getting there.

 

However, in dispatching the final pages of this Private Travel issue, one can’t resist speculating whether this fascination is a purely modern one. Surely it began much earlier, perhaps with the horse and camel. The former, after all, still fires the imaginations of breeders and gamblers, not to mention those of young girls: As many a parent will note, a daughter’s equine zeal is as boundless as the animal’s appetite, as limitless as the pecuniary ravages of its upkeep. And while the camel has failed to achieve a commensurate measure of affection (thanks to a quartet of ungainly limbs, an undulating gait, and a propensity to spit), one supposes that, sometime in the last 40 million years, the beast has enjoyed the attentions of fond admirers—if not perhaps to the same degree that, say, collectors might fawn over a Ferrari 250 GT SWB, then at least in the way that one might grow to appreciate the practically inclined, yet quickly discontinued, 1958 Edsel Bermuda wagon.

This analogy of hoof and wheel is apt, for it was with the historical transition from the one to the next that true vehicular connoisseurship made its debut. The cart-and-yoke must have been the independent four-wheel suspension of its day, and doubtless the Zebu cattle that pulled this technological sensation would have been the pride of any Bronze Age bon vivant. It would not be long before Mesopotamian and Sumerian improvements to this scheme would give rise to the spoke-wheel chariot—progenitor of today’s roadster—propelling the race into ever more spectacular new eras of personal freedom, as the much beloved “road trip” was born along the expanses of the Appian Way.

Naturally, developments in luxury travel were not confined to terra firma in these glory days. From 4000 B.C. onward, the Egyptians cultivated the sciences and arts of shipbuilding, furnishing fashionable pharaohs with the first megayachts: obelisk-bearing vessels 300 feet long and equipped with full complements of oars and sails. These barges would set the standard (with various adjustments by the Phoenicians, Romans, and, some short time distant, the Dutch and British) well into the late 19th century, when (though the boats were steam-powered and somewhat quicker to the helm) their decks exhibited similar encrustations of gold leaf and precious gems, as well as an occasional vassal, well liveried and trained to grovel.

Trains, too, must have had their early enthusiasts. Probably young boys of the Middle Ages, at the end of a day’s idyllic goatherding, gathered along the tracks as Europe’s mass-transit marvel, the plateway, crept by. This magnificent oxen-powered machine—consisting of a streamlined wagon creaking along a single track with vertical flanges that held it in place—sported standard wheels so that it could be detached from its rail. This process, like the hitching of cars and switching of tracks on modern railroads, was certainly the source of wide-eyed wonder among onlookers as late as 1815, when the last of the species was built.

Still, no mode of transport plucks at the heartstrings like personal flight, the first instance of which was performed in 1781 by Karl Friedrich Meerwin in Giessen, Germany. Meerwin, an architect to the prince of Baden, devised a craft of wooden and canvas construction that, by all accounts, introduced flapping wings to what was essentially a glider. Little is known about the degree to which this device, called the “ornithopter,” carried Meerwin aloft, except that it required a potent updraft. Given that the architect’s hot air was replaced almost at once by another variety—the balloons of the Messrs. Montgolfier—his following was likely fleeting.

Nevertheless, the cult of personal flight has persisted from Meerwin’s day, fueled by visions of jet packs and James Bond films. One concern, Nevada-based AirScooter Corp., even claims to have fulfilled this desire with its “recreational flying vehicle,” the first production models of which will be available later in 2003. If viable, this airborne scooter may represent the ultimate form of private travel. Perhaps we’ll include it in next year’s issue, alongside the latest camels.

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