An article on the discovery of an ancient Thracian chariot near the village of Karanovo in Bulgaria recently set off, in my mind, a series of reflections on the curious culture of our own form of personal transportation, the automobile—which happens to be the subject of this, our Car of the Year 2009 issue. The 1,800-year-old chariot was among the first complete examples of its kind, as well as one of the most elaborate. Other vehicles uncovered have been narrower, cramped models with passenger platforms mounted directly on the axle—a configuration certain to have kept Thracian chiropractors, or their equivalents, gainfully employed. This regal contrivance, by contrast, boasts bronze plating decorated with pouncing panthers, and a passenger platform suspended by leather straps to cushion the ride. In an earlier interview with Archaeology magazine, Bulgarian archaeologist Veselin Ignatov, in distinguishing between the two designs, referred to the luxury version as a “Mercedes” and a less opulently endowed apparatus as “economy-class.”
These modern words, as applied to the crusty relics unearthed in Karanovo, piqued my curiosity, and I wondered whether the Thracian chariot had traced a social evolution as circular as that of the motorcar.
The first automobiles, after all, were the absurdly expensive diversions of plutocrats who, on Sunday afternoons, sputtered and smoked their way down country roads at dangerous speeds of nearly 20 miles per hour, upsetting at every turn their horse-drawn inferiors, many of whom regarded these newfangled appurtenances as the very symbols of ostentation. The supremely observant Henry James gave voice to this sentiment when, in 1904, his friend and fellow author Edith Wharton (a daughter of Old New York’s aristocracy) arrived at the doorstep of his English residence in a Panhard-Levassor. Representing the state of the art in motoring, the Panhard was equipped with a front-mounted engine, rear-wheel drive, and a sliding-gear transmission. During a brisk drive, Wharton informed James that she had purchased the car with some of the proceeds from her most recent book. James, whose literary successes were never to be of the commercial kind, replied irritably, “With the proceeds of my last novel, I purchased a small go-cart . . . on which my guests’ luggage is wheeled from the station to my house. It needs a coat of paint. With the proceeds of my next novel I shall have it painted.”
For Wharton, however, her motorcar was anything but a status symbol; it was a source of personal and creative freedom that reintroduced what she called the “adventure and novelty” of travel. On her trips through Europe, this innovation transformed her relationship to the landscapes and people, and many of these insights became the subject of her finest travel book, A Motor-Flight Through France, which she published in 1908. No longer confined to the sanctioned routes of the railways, she escaped their “bondage to fixed hours and the beaten track,” flying through seldom-seen countryside, gathering impressions and experiences that would inform her fiction as well. Her tours of the remote regions of New Hampshire and Massachusetts in her Pope-Hartford, for example, provided the raw material for Ethan Frome, a novel concerned with the bitter struggles of rural New England farmers that, without the automobile, she would probably never have written.
Of course, as it made the transition from exotic luxury to commonplace commodity, the automobile also reshaped the lives and perceptions of isolated villagers like those to whom Wharton had introduced her readers, connecting them by road—and then by highway and freeway—to the wider world. The car in itself no longer conveyed—as it had to Henry James—an air of privilege, anymore than, one suspects, the chariot did once the vast supply of vertebra-crunching economy models were unleashed on the plains of Thrace. And so Panhards and Popes gave way, in the garages of the elite, to the fresh adventure and novelty offered by new makes with sleeker lines, greater horsepower, smarter technology, and more advanced creature comforts—the bronze panthers and leather-strap suspensions of our day.
Correction: An article in the January 2009 issue (“Triumphant Trio,” page 74) should have stated that Regent Hotels & Resorts plans to open nine properties through 2013.