by Cedric Hughes, Barrister & Solicitor with regular weekly contributions from Leslie McGuffin, LL.B.   

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The Automobile: From Horseless Carriage to Something Unrecognizable

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One of the best coach museums it the National Coach Museum or Museu Nacional dos Coches located in the Belém district of Lisbon, Portugal.  Ever wonder what inspired the animators of Disney’s classic Cinderella when the Fairy Godmother transforms the pumpkin into a carriage?  One cannot help but surmise that a visit to this museum or at least images from its collection may have played a role.  Queen Amélia of Portugal founded it in 1905 to house, as Wikipedia describes it, the “extensive collection of carriages belonging to the Portuguese royal family and nobility.”

In the 50-metre long, 17-metre wide Neoclassical arena built in the late 18th century to showcase all aspects of horsemanship are now housed 60 carriages from the late 16th through to the 19th centuries, not only from Portugal but also from many of the other great European monarchies: Italy, France, Spain, Austria, and England. It is “one of the finest collections of historical carriages in the world” and one of the most popular museums in a city full of such gems.

Photos of the collection show dazzling craftsmanship all in the service of making the ‘mobility of the nobility’ as comfortable as possible while also showcasing their wealth and power.  But one also recognizes all the basic elements carried forward into the horseless carriage of the 20th century when technological advancement replaced horse-drawn power with engine-produced horsepower: four wheels, a driver’s seat, a passenger cabin, and, in some, even a storage area.

Arguably, the 20th century horseless carriage is one of the greatest inventions of all time.  Basically, it revolutionized everything even down to the simple opportunity it provided ‘everyman,’ for the first time in history, regardless of status or station, with comparatively minimal means to take to the road and see the world.  Henry Ford’s vision for his Model T: "I will build a car for the great multitude" has been taken up and realized by car companies all over the world contributing in no small part to the rise of the 21st century inter-connected, globalized world.

At the start of another year in the 21st century, we see the horseless carriage developing further.  The basic elements are shrinking: no more driver’s seat, and perhaps no more of the storage area/trunk space once deemed so essential.  Power sourcing is undergoing a revolution, and construction materials likewise.

And while full autonomous driving has been held out as the best hope for a ‘zero crash’ future, some futurists now suggest that safety issues may be used as a cover for the opportunity to target driver/consumers more effectively, to the point where driving costs — ‘mobility points’— will be exchange-able for exposure to more advertising of more targeted services and commodities.

Car ownership could become completely unnecessary.  Cars that take you shopping to places you don’t know for goods you don’t know you even wanted or needed are, apparently, waiting just around the corner.  The computer will be the coach driver.

Cedric Hughes

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As Seen In

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