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    Written by Christopher Mount, Assistant Curator,
Department of Architecture and Design
    When the automobile was first conceived in the late nineteenth century it was imagined as a leisure vehicle for the affluent. Unthinkable to these early inventors would have been the mass proliferation of the automobile and its immense influence on modern society and its economy. The role of the private car began to change in the 1920s with Henry Ford’s lucrative concept of the inexpensive auto for the "multitudes," the Model T. Since then, in industrialized nations, the auto has increasingly become a fundamental part of everyday life, a thing more utilitarian and borne out of necessity than for leisure. In recent years the use of the automobile has grown most exponentially in developing nations, where the private car is also quickly becoming a primary form of transportation and an integral aspect of their economies.
Many have predicted that the automobile is ripe for a reinvention and that in the early part of the twenty-first century we will see changes both in the kinds of cars we use and how we use them.
Photo: Michael Moran
Select image for enlarged view.
Automotive engineer Robert Riley, in his book Alternative Cars in the 21st Century, says "The machine itself may need a . . . holistic renewal, a wholesale overhaul in order to remain the central component of our modern society’s transportation system." The radical new developments being introduced by many of the major automotive manufacturers support this claim. These innovations are fundamental, from revolutionary types of power plants to new materials, innovative structures, and even new classes of autos. Interestingly, a significant portion of this change is occurring at the entry-level market. The intention of this exhibition is to survey this current generation of automobiles and outline different paths to the future. These are cars intended for the average person and will satisfy the predicted need for simple, affordable transportation in the near future. In short, these automobiles are ultimately more intelligent, efficient, user-friendly, and better suited to the tasks for which they will be most frequently used.
By focusing on the small, efficient, and affordable private car, this exhibition illustrates the scope and direction of the rethinking that is beginning to take place in automotive design. This is not to suggest that these are the only sorts of cars, nor that they are appropriate for everyone or every situation. Instead, these cars represent an important and growing aspect of the market that caters to a consumer who is more attentive to thrift, and thus more attracted to the improved economy of these cars. Unquestionably, many of the innovations first tested in the low-end market will filter up into the production of other sorts of cars, as well as trucks and even public transportation.


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