For centuries humans travelled on creatures with faces, moods and names. When they acquired chariots, these too often had eyes and breathed fire. Since then, through cart and landau, gig and omnibus, vehicles have steadily lost their personalities. The unctuous car salesman may boast of torque and acceleration worthy of Superman, and the pimply ad-writer may turn a humble hatchback into a purring sex goddess; but the truth is otherwise. Most modern vehicles are soulless. Blame Henry Ford, from whose bland production line Model Ts came cranking all alike. His legacy is the car park outside any Western superstore, where most cars are either silver saloons or black SUVs, and where the hapless motorist stands clicking his key in a state of mounting panic.
All the sadder, then, that 2018 will bring the demise, or projected demise, of three vehicles of outstanding personality: the Volkswagen Beetle (left), the Jeepneys of the Philippines (middle) and Senegal’s misnamed cars rapides (right). Yes, all these were struggling against sleeker, roomier or greener competition. True, they had had a good run; too good, critics said. True, too, that they all had humble, even slightly dodgy, pasts. No matter. These were vehicles about which people spoke with heartfelt emotion, as about friends.
Each species—for these were surely species, rather than mere “makes”—had its own beauty. Each car rapide, though originally a minibus of blue-and-yellow Renault sameness, burst out under the African sun in trees, extravagant flowers, birds, horses, portraits of Sufi holy men and Islamic slogans. (One ended up in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, as an extraordinary cultural artefact for anthropologists to poke at and artists to imitate.) The Jeepneys of Manila, monochrome Jeeps in their beginnings, bore family portraits, images of saints, lurid landscapes, swooping eagles and many, many half-naked women, all rendered with photographic exactitude. The Beetle, with its alluringly simple curve, was repainted as a tortoise, a rainbow, a cresting wave, a Persian carpet, an Indian scarf; in flower-power days it often became a meadow or a daisy-field. Since no two people are the same, why should their cars be?
These hand-painted labours of love reflected the passions of the driver and the painter, but also of the vehicle; for these modes of transport more or less qualified as human. Many had names. Jade, Goodluck, Saint Jude, Jayson, Beowulf and Gentle Devil all noisily and shakily cruised the streets of Manila. The Beetle in its original version (though all versions are planned to disappear) became “Herbie”, a star of TV and Disney films, and “Bug”, a term of endearment; around the world it was “Frog”, “Flea”, “Turtle”, “Cockroach”, “Bubble” and “Fritz”. Herbie also knew his name, and would raise his boot to it. The cars rapides took their names from their drivers (“Neyoo”, “Bakh Yaye”), followed by a shout of “Alhamdoulillah!” (“Thanks be to God!”). Amid all the exultant paintwork, the route might be vague, but the self-confidence was clear. It was underlined, on the Jeepneys, by sheer bling: extra mirrors, decals, statues, horoscope signs and a perfect riot of chrome.
These vehicles also had eyes. The Beetle’s headlights were appropriately bug-like or frog-like, and large for its size. For Jeepneys and cars rapides, however, anthropomorphic lights were not enough, even when improved with gaudy multicolour lashes. Proper, larger eyes were also painted on. “They all have eyes, because a man has two eyes,” explained a painter in Dakar. These were often on the back mudflaps as well as the front, balefully regarding the driver behind—aptly, for both sorts of vehicle spent much time listing by the side of the road, awaiting repairs.
None of these was proud, or gave itself airs. They were serviceable, ever-ready to help. They knew their beginnings were lowly: the car rapide a mass shipment to a distant colony, the Jeepney discarded American army stock, the Beetle a “people’s car” dreamed up by Adolf Hitler for the German masses. Cars rapides and Jeepneys, sempiternally patched up and cobbled together in backyards, were buses for the poor: cheap fares, stops wherever you wanted, always available. The Beetle promised the same: always there to transport you to work or pleasure, office or forest, waiting faithfully outside your house, as one owner described it, like a loyal dog. After the war it became the epitome of the “good German”, deliberately unassertive, useful and kind.
Not that their behaviour was always impeccable. Herbie summed up the Beetle’s hidden crazy side, zigzagging dizzyingly round San Francisco, overtaking on the inside, popping wheelies. When annoyed, he squirted black oil from his exhaust. Jeepneys and cars rapides, however, took such bad behaviour to a fine art. They blocked each other in pursuit of customers. They never bothered with seatbelts or safety checks, and would take any number of passengers hanging off the sides. Worst of all, both ran on diesel, each Jeepney farting out 40kg of CO2 a day. The terrible pollution of Manila and Dakar could be laid directly at their (often half-hanging-off) doors.
And so they were marked to go. In Senegal, white buses from China or India are already replacing the cars rapides. In the Philippines, a “complete transport ecosystem” will replace the Jeepneys. In the name of modernisation, safety and health (but also of sleek white-and-silver sameness), their drivers will have to switch to costlier, plainer new vehicles, and learn to like it. Meanwhile, on VW’s production line, the hardly grubby Beetle will give way to even greener, especially electric, cars.
Yet in this dispiriting saga cunning headlight-gleams remain. Who knows what the backyard painters of Dakar may do to the bland new vehicles, under cover of night? And who knows what shocking new personalities cars everywhere will assume, once they can drive themselves?
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