It was a symbol of personal freedom. It transformed how we worked, and helped create the suburbs. It made it easier to connect with friends and family than it had ever been before.
When the petrol car became a mass market product at the start of the 20th century it was one of the most radical innovations of all time, one that fundamentally changed the way we live. There was “a car for every purse and purpose,” in the words of Alfred Sloan, the industrial genius who created General Motors. And yet, 100 years later, Sloan’s formula is, regrettably, no longer true. The petrol car is being turned into an unaffordable luxury, out of reach of most ordinary people - and given that electric vehicles won’t work for many of us the era of the car may be coming to a close.
Over the last few years, the Government has thrown everything it can think of at forcing us to switch to electric vehicles. There are big subsidies on offer, both for the car itself and for a home charging port. There are tax breaks for company vehicles, long since phased out for the petrol equivalent. There are exemptions from resident’s parking permits, and from the increasingly bewildering array of congestion and clean air charges that now mean driving from one British city to another involves almost as much paperwork as getting a visa for North Korea.
And from next year onwards, the auto manufacturers will have to meet a target of selling 22pc electric vehicles, rising to 52pc by 2028, ahead of a complete ban on the sale of new petrol cars by 2030.
There is a problem, however. Despite all the incentives, most of us are not yet convinced about making the switch. According to a survey this week by Auto Trader, only 47pc of drivers believe that an electric vehicle will work for them, while 56pc of drivers felt that they were too expensive to buy. In fact, there are a whole range of reasons why people don’t want them. They are expensive, with average prices above traditional models. The charging network is hopelessly inadequate, especially if, like most people, you don’t have your own driveway. There are doubts over how long the batteries last, minor collisions can cost thousands to repair if the power unit is damaged, and there is even a risk of them catching fire in enclosed space.
And yet, at the same time petrol cars are becoming increasingly unaffordable. There already was a trend for new cars to get more and more expensive: from 2011 to 2021 the average price of a new car in the UK rose by 39pc, compared to a 22pc rise in average wages, according to research by Moneybarn. But as quotas are introduced, that will only accelerate, since the only way the manufacturers can meet the target, at the same time as protecting profit margins, will be to make fossil-fuel driven models pricier and pricier. Add in the soaring cost of insurance, and the vast range of Ulez-style charges, and one point is clear. A petrol car will be a high-end luxury product, restricted to a tiny minority.
The result? Car ownership will soon be following home ownership into dramatic decline, driven off the road by central planning, and short-sighted, chaotic government policies. Instead, people will be forced onto shambolic public transport that might just about work in inner London, and within a few other major cities, but is practically non-existent in the suburbs, small towns or villages. In reality, the end of the car era will be the greatest backward step in living standards in recent memory. In terms of mobility and freedom it will take us right back to the 19th century - and it will be entirely our own fault.