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Richards, B. (1989). Car bodies. Free Associations, 1Q(16):97-105.

(1989). Free Associations, 1Q(16):97-105

Car bodies

Barry Richards

Driving Passion: The Psychology of the Car, by Peter Marsh and Peter Collett, Jonathan Cape, 1986, x + 214 pages, hb £10.95

More than any other everyday object, the car resembles the body. This is indicated by, for instance, some of the vocabulary used to describe its parts or its performances. It has a ‘waistline’, areas of ‘skin’ and sometimes a ‘nose’. Some recent models have developed ‘blisters’. It ‘drinks’ petrol (and blows out its waste gases), and will be valued if it is ‘long-legged’. Sometimes, of course, the body is specifically female: it may have attractive curves, is rarely seen — in Britain at least — without a ‘bonnet’ (paradoxically this is also its notoriously ‘phallic’ zone), and ‘skirts’ are currently very fashionable. The ‘tail’ is, aesthetically at least, a very important area. Often the body is predominantly animal, non-human: it does after all sit on all fours (though an old species used to ‘sit up and beg’). It may ‘eat’ the road, ‘roar’ or ‘purr’; it is a ‘beast’ that needs skilled handling. Marsh and Collett write in this book of the ‘snarling physiognomy’ of American cars of the 1950s.

Although many kinds of machine are projectively endowed with such qualities, the car is especially rich in somatomorphic projections, for a number of reasons. First, it is vulnerable to ageing processes, with symptoms that may be experienced as similar to those of human ageing. Its bodily surface deteriorates: it loses bloom, and perhaps becomes discoloured. Posture and gait are likely to be affected: a car can lose its spring and may sag. It slows down, and needs more frequent attention. It may become incontinent and leak fluids, or suffer a seizure. Joints become stiff; a generally dim and erratic condition can prevail. Its life can be cut short by a notorious process of inner decay.

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