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Cars In Literature: Where Are They All?

Mr Toad

Over 110 years ago (3 June 1914, to be exact), an American journalist named Stephenson Browne boldly wrote that “the motorcar, or the automobile, as one pleases, will probably take the place of the horse in fiction.” Looking back across the past century of fiction, was this prediction printed in the Boston Globe correct?

Well, the answer is probably “no”.  Fiction certainly does have some iconic cars – no doubt about that.  It’s rather hard to imagine James Bond without his Aston Martin (although, if you want to get really picky, this is not the only make he drives in either the books or the movies). It’s also hard to imagine Mr Toad without his string of unnamed motor cars (all of which have horns that go poop-poop!). But is there really a literary equivalent of, say, the Black Stallion, My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead or Black Beauty, where the life story of the car is central to the plot rather than providing the protagonist with a means of transport?

Only two or three cars seem to be literary protagonists: the completely imaginary Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the nasty Plymouth Fury Christine of the Stephen King novel called, surprise, surprise, Christine.  Very honourable mention also has to go to Val Biro’s Gumdrop, protagonist of a series of children’s picture books about a 1926 Austin 12 that sort of does for cars what Thomas the Tank engine does for steam trains.

Usually, stories that include cars are usually more about the driver and the journey rather than the car itself. On the rare occasions where a car’s make and model is actually specified, this is usually the author’s way of letting you know something about the character who drives it.  Not that makes and models make it in all that often.

However, cars have made a few good cameos in various works of fiction.  Here’s a selection:

  • In The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a glamorous yellow Rolls-Royce (a symbol of the hedonistic Bright Society portrayed in the novel) is involved in a hit-and-run accident; as this car is easily recognised, it leads to the death of the title character.
  • Dorothy Sayer’s aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey is as passionate about his fast cars as he is his first editions and fine wines.  Mrs Merdle (his Daimler Twin-Six) makes a number of cameos in the various novels, including a dramatic interruption to a late-night illegal road race (a small excerpt opens our review of the Jaguar XJ8 ).
  • An enchanted Ford Anglia comes to the rescue of Harry Potter and Ron Weasley on several occasions in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – notably rescuing them from (spoiler alert) the gigantic spider Aragog.
  • Fleur Beale’s Slide the Corner contains quite a lot of rally driving as a car-loving misfit finds out where he really belong.  Inflicted on teenagers as class novel to study in New Zealand classrooms, alongside an unnamed banger in a Patricia Grace short story called It Used To Be Green Once.
  • (really scraping the bottom of the barrel here): numerous vehicles are mentioned by make and model in the Twilight saga, notably the VW Rabbit restored by Jacob Black and the yellow Porsche 911 stolen by Alice Cullen.  Apparently, the author’s brothers are motor enthusiasts; hence how these books get a bit more brand-specific than your average Mills & Boon.
  • One of the lead characters in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is named Ford Prefect. However, this character is a humanoid alien rather than a vehicle, more’s the pity.

But it’s still hard to find a more recognisable fictional motorist or a more beloved celebration of the addictive pleasure of driving than Wind in the Willows:

“… with a blast of wind and a whirl of sound, that make them jump for the nearest ditch, it was on them! The ‘poop-poop’ rang out with a brazen shout in their ears, they had a moment’s glimpse of an interior of glittering plate glass and rich morocco, and the magnificent motor-car, immense, breath-snatching, passionate , with its pilot tense and hugging his wheel, possessed all earth and air for the fraction of a second, flung an enveloping cloud of dust that blinded and enwrapped them utterly, and then dwindled to a speck in the far distance, changed back to a droning bee once more.”

If you have any favourite fictional cars – from books, not movies, TV shows or films – let me know the good ones!

Happy driving (and reading),

Megan

2 comments

  1. Brian says:

    My favourite fictional car, and car from fiction, was driven by the Saint. In the books he drove a Hirondel. When it came to making the tv show they had to use a real car so used the Volvo P1800.

    January 28th, 2015 at 2:11 pm

  2. Fred Johnston says:

    I think you’ll find that the 3rd of June 1914 is only a little over 100 years ago. 😉

    Back on topic, not a book but a movie, who could forget “Genevieve”.

    January 29th, 2015 at 5:24 pm