Who remembers the car-crusher in Goldfinger? The Ford Motor Company supplied a range of its cars to this smash hit of the James Bond franchise, which came out in 1964. Quite near the end of the movie, the henchman Oddjob, a kind of cross between Jeeves the butler, Kim Jong-un and Cian Healy, drives a Lincoln Continental (a Ford marque) into a wrecking yard. With a lurch, a cranedriven grabbing claw swings into view and picks up the suddenly small-seeming car. Inside, we know, is a dead man.
If the resulting block of crushed metal seems unfeasibly small, it is because they did indeed need to trim it down so that it could then be dumped into the back of Oddjob’s pickup, a Ford Ranchero.
Two CIA men who had been tracking the Lincoln, watching a radar-style display-screen inside their Ford Thunderbird, are last seen going the wrong way, passing a Ford dealership by the side of the road.
If the block of metal seems unfeasibly free of blood, it is because even gruesome deaths in mainstream cinema of the 1960s were sanitized affairs. And it is because you don’t need to see blood to know that a body has been drained of life.
Car-crushing machines were so common in film and TV from the 1960s to the 1980s, especially in cops-and-robbers stories, because they instantaneously transformed the car into what it metaphorically already was – a coffin. The society that found itself newly car-bound found narratives about cars for itself: ‘Bullitt’, ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’, ‘The Italian Job’, ‘The Streets of San Francisco’, ‘Hill Street Blues’, ‘The French Connection’, ‘The A-Team’, ‘Knight Rider’, ‘Starsky and Hutch’, ‘Vanishing Point’, ‘The Blues Brothers’, ‘Smokey and the Bandit’, ‘The Cannonball Run’, ‘Herbie’.
The dream-place of the car story was the scrapyard, an ecstatic transubstantiation of the body of the car, an ashes-to-ashes, dust-todust moment of death and rebirth. What is a chunk of metal but a car that was, and a car that will be?
Another moment we have seen countless times: a car shoots off the top of a cliff, plunging into a ravine. It sheds parts as it tumbles down, though human body parts are strangely invisible. To make sure we know the plunge has been fatal, we need to see the car self-combust a half-second after coming to a halt.
Outside of specific genres, such as horror and the exploitation movies imitated quite recently by Quentin Tarantino in ‘Death Proof’, it is a rare film that spatters the inside of the windshield with blood to let us know that the occupants are dead.
More notoriously, Tarantino built a whole subplot around the clean up of an exploded head inside a car in ‘Pulp Fiction’. The gunk is cleaned up and concealed in the trunk and the car is dumped, yes, at a scrapyard.
The mangling of cars is such a commonplace that it barely registers anymore.
Cars get stuck on railway crossings, they tip off piers, they take flight off previously invisible ramps, and they ram each other at intersections. They shoulder each other off the road and teeter off precipices, their tyres blow out and their brakes fail, their windows get shot out and flames rush towards their petrol tanks.
Franchises such as ‘Die Hard’, ‘Transformers’, ‘Bourne’, ‘Mad Max’, and ‘The Fast and the Furious’ are sort of about the destruction of cars. Ditto motorsport programmes and ‘Top Gear’. And then there are the dashcam videos of road violence, notably from Russia, plus the tragictoned coverage of car wrecks on the regular news.
How dangerous are cars, really? Around 1.25 million people die in traffic-related events every year. That’s a lot of people, but there are a lot of people on Earth. In truth, in wealthy countries, the prospects of dying on the road are quite remote. In Ireland, you can get away with driving 250 million kilometres before the statistical average comes looking for you. In Brazil, that number is closer to 17 million.
If cars really were as dangerous as they seem to be on screen, most people would never drive. And yet, as viewers, we have a prolific appetite for watching these metal hulks killing us, and watching ourselves killing them back. But appetites are not rational, critical or policy-focussed. Our appetite for car death on screen can perhaps tell us something about our unspoken, non-rational feelings about cars and what they do to us.
The car has sped up our lives, contorted our cities, our bodies, our commons, it has privatised whole swathes of space, and polluted the air, ground and water, as well as the plant and animal kingdoms, including us.
A secondary list of black marks against automobile culture might include archaeological destruction, fracking, oil sands, Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon, the Keystone pipeline and the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa. Not to mention the menace of oil-rich states, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Not to mention oil wars. Not to mention climate change.
It is very difficult to grapple with these issues, indeed it is very difficult even to mention them in most contexts, political or social. And even a person in full denial about, say, human-caused climate change, cannot ignore the other effects of cars.
The truth is that cars are just too convenient, comfortable and affordable to do without, and we have generated far too much infrastructure around the petrol engine to cast it aside now. They have become thoroughly entwined into our consumerist existence – when was the last time you used your car without spending money at some point on the trip? Possibly the most difficult task is breaking through the tough layer of desirability as status and design objects that many billion promotions, advertisements and product placements have created in the car’s short existence alongside us on this planet. Cars are inside us as much as we are inside them.
The gradual introduction of ‘autonomous driving’ features in new cars makes some sense in this context. Car companies have been very wary about persuading us to climb into machines that give us nothing to do. Robots seem to run counter to the powerful car-myths of control, individual freedom, dynamism and the open road that are so vital to their allure. But autonomous driving features are beginning to become commonplace and driverless cars are not far off. The potential advantages are apparent: accident-free driving, improved fuel efficiency, and … it’s difficult to make this list much longer.
An evening news show on RTÉ television is interspersed with advertisements when played online: the Road Safety Agency, Lexus, Peugeot, Budweiser, Ferrero Rocher. Don’t drink and drive. Drive a Lexus. Drink Budweiser. Drive a Peugeot. Eat sugary chocolate. Consume, indulge, relax, get fat. The final product is Votarol, for applying to back pain, presumably caused by the obesity and sedentarism of the driver. Driverless cars mean that things are set to get even more sedentary, more indulgent, and harder to give up.
And so the destruction derby careens around the track. The latest James Bond movie, ‘Spectre’, featured 22 cars from the Jaguar-Land Rover range as well as the hero’s Aston Martin. Whereas Oddjob, true to his name, was more of a plodder in the completion of his tasks, in this film the chief henchman is at the heart of the fantasy of responsibility-free power and speed that is the centrepiece chase sequence through the empty streets of a kind of Grand Theft Auto version of Rome. Mr Hinx, a cross between Jean- Claude Van Damme, Keith Duffy and, again, Cian Healy, improbably squeezed into a natty little Jaguar, in fact survives this sequence, though his car is in flames by the end. But we know, we all know, that he won’t make it out of this film alive. He’s already dead.