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Icon of the month: Nativity

Steve Tomkins

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'Lord won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?' Echoing the Almighty, perhaps, we might in all fairness respond: Why? Of all Victorian inventions, why should the car spark our desire in a way that other, arguably more worthy, products such as the tram and the airship have failed to?

As the love affair with our four-wheeled friend consolidates into another century, it is impossible to see ourselves without the car, so powerful and various are its associations. Imagine either Hitler or hippy without the Volkswagen Beetle, JFK's death without the motorcade - even Apollo moon landings without a buggy.

The most enduring icon of the age of progress, its rear-view mirror reflects an era in rapid transit - history with man at the wheel. Karl Benz, whose 'patent motor wagen' first trundled through the streets of Mannheim in 1886, would surely tremble to his tappets.

But, beyond a little early jostling with real horsepower, the car has never had a serious rival in human affections. It soon proved plastic to our demands, whether as armoured car for Flanders or charabanc for a jolly to Brighton.

Indeed, the bond has remained so close that motoring gives an uncannily accurate gauge to cultural expression over the years. Fictional personalities from Noddy to James Bond have been defined - in part at least - by the contents of their garage. So have plenty of real-life ones, 'two-Jags' John Prescott being just one model.

Apart from the oily genius of the internal-combustion engine, what drives the car's iconic longevity? The promise of personal freedom is surely its strongest suit, and one which has yet to be trumped by environmentalists and the gurus of alternative transport.

Henry Ford's vison (shared by the Third Reich) of mass-market mobility increasingly found car ownership welded to social aspirations, where 'getting on' and 'getting away' inevitably meant getting through your driving test.

Manufacturers soon realised how vivid were dreams of advancement or escape and styled their products accordingly: the Ford Zephyr and Capri conjured up far-fetched mystique, while the Humber Sceptre and Morris Oxford offered the rather homelier prospects of middle management and a little place in Pinner.

The romance of the road in the (especially North American) popular mind has generated a deep mythology, wherein the car is a key motif in Bruce Springsteen's songs of longing and liberation and a source of a certain kind of romance in film, from Genevieve to Thelma and Louise.

Crucial here is its tempting balance of security and danger - a theme which JG Ballard's Crash played out with grisly effect. The car is a potent combination of womb and v-bomb, and it is only the public reaction to the horrific toll of road deaths that has lately persuaded motor manufacturers of the sexiness of safety.

Prophets of the 1930s presumed that by now we would all be in helicopters; but, for the most part, we are still snug in our saloons - even when they only ooze through our catarrhal road system. As if nostalgic for its youth, road traffic is in old age slowing to such a sover pace that most school-run parents would have trouble keeping up with anyone walking in front waving a red flag.

Perhaps the car is finally nearing exhaustion as an icon for our times. The high-revving chorus for safer and wiser means of locomotion may soon drown out this transport of death and delight.

But, before we eagerly hand out the bus passes, remember how far behind lies the competition, even now. The car is on its victory lap, and expects a leisurely retirement. May it rust in peace.

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