Ilya Ehrenburg’s visionary text The Life of the Automobile is usually called a ‘novel’; but in the foreword, the author describes it as a ‘chronicle of our time’, adding that he has ‘made a point of not deviating from the raw material: news items, minutes of meetings, court records, as well as memoirs, diaries, private letters, plus personal observations by the author’. The treatment is fictionalized, with conflated characters, imaginary dialogue and embroidered events. But the polemic is so consistent, the sarcasm so sustained, that the book cannot be seen as a work of fiction in any normal sense. It is a brilliant essay or tract, not so much about the life of the automobile itself as about human life under the sway of the automobile.

Visionary it certainly is for 1929, pointing a magisterial finger at the multiplication of the car as a driving force in a world-economic system dominated by monopoly capitalism (in which Ehrenburg, a Russian communist, rather characteristically implicates the Soviet Union). A historian’s vision, encompassing the sweep of mass politics, the will of powerful individuals—Henry Ford and André Citroën—and the craven and distorted lives of the servants of the production machine: the middle manager and assembly-line worker, the rubber planter and coolie, the oil baron, the stockbroker and his clerk; the Italian socialist politician Matteotti and his fascist assassins, the engine of their bright red car—a colour that ‘naturally, testified not to Signor Filipelli’s political views, but only to his uncommon joie de vivre’—‘cheerily snorting’ under the envious glares of passers-by . . . everything is there, or enough to make the vision comprehensive.

But the gaze has a reptilian quality; we are not shown the joy or pleasure occasionally glimpsed in real life even by the oppressed, even by their polemical champions; compassion is narrowly focused on victims of injustice rather than other aspects of the human condition. Equally tract-like is the absence of ambivalence where the automobile itself is concerned. The text begins with one fatal road accident and ends with another. It tells us with devastating clarity that this machine, while seeming to possess a sort of life—it moves, it consumes, it pollutes, it proliferates—is really a monstrous creation that threatens us personally, as well as shaping the world to destructive ends. Its semblance of life is a sickness, incompatible with the real thing. While aware that the automobile is an object of desire, Ehrenburg shows no real interest in why that might be. Cars, in his view, are for suckers.

Nevertheless, for reasons he disdains, people desire the automobile and a small minority even like it. On one level this has to do with ‘pride of ownership’, and the sensuous exercise of a cluster of skills resulting in rapid or agreeable movement, analogous to a fondness for horses. On another, as Ehrenburg seems to imply, it reflects a flawed or skewed psychology, integral with the flawed or skewed nature of our capitalist, and now globalized, society: a psychology that makes it possible to enjoy cars without wishing to deny the inhumanness of the automobile or the inhuman and dehumanizing ways in which it is made, sold, promoted and supplied with fuel and roads.

Not all rich men were early motorists, but most early motorists were rich men. Rudyard Kipling, who settled in Sussex in the late eighteen-nineties after the commercial success and critical acclaim of his ‘Indian’ tales, published two short stories on motoring, ‘Steam Tactics’ (1904) and ‘The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat’ (1917). Both are really the same story, in which wronged motorists employ robust practical jokes to visit vengeance on authority figures deemed to have behaved dishonourably. In ‘Steam Tactics’ two naval petty officers, acquaintances of the Kipling-like narrator, help to kidnap and humiliate an officious village policeman and deposit him at dusk, miles from home, among exotic fauna in a private menagerie. Stalky & Co meet Soldiers Three, as it were.

Although comic (and not very good, involving as it does two opportune geographical coincidences), the tale is written wholly from the motorist’s point of view and conveys some of the flavour of very early motoring. Three cars are mentioned: the narrator’s lightweight, tiller-steered steam car; his friend Kysh’s ‘big, black, black-dashed, tonneaued twenty-four horse Octopod’, also tiller-steered; and a ‘claret-coloured petrol car’ belonging to a titled landowner. The petrol cars are portrayed as reliable and effective, but the steam car is more typical of the period in being slow, ill-handling and difficult to drive, incapable of running for long without needing fuel or water, and subject to frequent breakdowns: a toy really, not to be considered as serious transport. ‘I told him the true tale of a race-full of ball bearings strewn four miles along a Hampshire road, and by me recovered in detail.’ Not only the paid engineer got his hands dirty in those days.

One of the petty officers is an engine-room artificer, serving on destroyers—a naval steam engineer. Captivated by what, to him, is a charming miniature device, he is allowed to drive it, helps skilfully with the running repairs and forms an instant unspoken bond with the narrator’s chauffeur. But although they share Kipling’s muscular modernism and insouciant attitude to the law, the sailors start to display blunt proletarian scepticism after an hour or two of motoring. ‘Where d’you get it from?’ one asks when the machine needs water.