Sunday, March 28, 2010

The global car

Whether March goes out like a lion or a lamb, it's still the time of year when I have to get my car inspected. Inspection time tends to make me testy about the growing extent of the regulatory apparatus surrounding automobiles, particularly since Massachusetts started flunking vehicles whose "Check Engine" lights are on (Gretta the Jetta has a recurring non-safety-related issue that makes her light come on, although fortunately it didn't happen this week, so I have my little sticker in the window that allows me to drive legally for another year).

According to another little sticker, this one on the driver's window, Gretta is a Mexican Volkswagen, made in VW's Puebla plant. (Here's a list of all of VW's plants.) I've been thinking lately about the globalness of the car, in part because I've been reading Matthew Paterson's great book Automobile Politics: Ecology and Cultural Political Economy (Cambridge University Press, 2007). Paterson sees the car as perhaps the crucial technology for the expansion of modern global capitalism, involved in accelerating both production and consumption and in generating and circulating enormous amounts of industrial wealth. The car industry is often seen as the exemplar of a globalized industry, especially during the 20th century; "Fordist" and "post-Fordist" labels for types of production directly invoke the history of auto manufacturing, and car companies have long been leaders in innovating new forms of global supply and financing. Paterson points out (p. 99) that while much of the actual assembly of cars is still done in the "triad" countries of North America, Japan, and western Europe, other parts of the world are beginning to catch up, particularly in component manufacturing.

Within these vast global flows of cars and car parts, there's a little heritage-oriented trickle created by vintage car collectors and enthusiasts--something that's been on my mind because I got an email yesterday from the Alice's Drive project, letting me know that a New York Times article this week featured a story about how the Alice's Drive team assembled their 1909 Maxwell from scratch. (I wrote about this project in a post earlier this year.)

Much of the hunt for Maxwell parts for the cross-country reenactment of Alice Ramsey's 1909 trip took place on the U.S. swap meet circuit, but the Internet was of course a key tool for the team as well. The Times article quotes Richard Anderson, who assembled the car: “My wife and I were on our wedding anniversary in Italy, and we stopped at an Internet cafe to get a cup of coffee and check our e-mails. And there’s an e-mail there from a Maxwell guy who lives in Australia. He said you ought to check out number such and such on eBay, I think these are the levers you need.”

Ordering hundred-year-old American-made levers from Italy on an email tip from an Australian, like driving a Mexican-made German car in New England, underscores the globalness of car-making. But the Maxwell story also makes me realize that automobility's past is still circulating out there, too, in tangible ways that newer technologies make increasingly accessible. This is a pleasing thought, given my sense that we need to see and recognize automobility’s histories (those dim days before the advent of the Check Engine light) if we’re going to remake or unmake it. Perhaps cars are really neither created nor destroyed, but are all just out there somewhere circulating in global flows that we may be able to tap into if we're tenacious enough.

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