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Vroom A Verbiest by Nigel Roth

This week we begin in 1692.

Giles Corey is being pressed to death like a grape for being a witch in Salem, John Page is shuffling off the coil having placed Middleton Plantation so firmly on the map that it will eventually become Williamsburg, and Robert Campbell is joyfully slaughtering the MacDonald Clan in Glencoe, where you can now hike, climb, and enjoy a cream tea before the next downpour.

Meanwhile in China, Ferdinand Verbiest was inventing the automobile.

Well, the first working steam-powered vehicle, to be precise. And it was a model, so you couldn't exactly ride it. But it started a trend.

Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot built a similar vehicle in full-scale one-hundred years later, and in 1801 Cornishman Richard Trevithick drove his Puffing Devil along a ‘road’, its steam pressure waxing and waning along with enthusiasm for the enterprise.

Further attempts by Nicephore and Claude Nièpce, Francois Isaac de Rivaz, Samuels Brown and Morley, and Etienne Lenoir came close to offering a road vehicle with an internal combustion engine, but didn’t quite crack the car code.

It was left to Gustave Trouvé to give us the first electric car in 1881, and to messrs Gottlieb Daimler, Wilhelm Maybach, Siegfried Marcus, and finally Karl Benz, to invent what we know today as the modern automobile.

All of which brings us to what the president of a company I once worked for told me about my choice of company car. “You can have,” he told me, waving a thick hand at nothing in particular, while gripping a large glass of chablis in the other, “any car you desire.”

Which wasn’t exactly true.

Because I couldn’t have any car I desired, I could have any car that was available to me. He then refined his broad sweep with a maximum cost, so I could have any car I wanted in that price range. And from the company’s favoured manufacturer. And with an automatic gearbox in case I left and someone else needed to drive it. And that could be delivered quickly.

So basically I could choose a Honda, in whatever color they had around at the time.

The fact is, free choice is not free, but filtered by existence and availability and parameters.

My desire would have been a convertible SUV, which would be good in winter and excellent for hiking trips, and cool and light in summer, yet none existed then that truly met my needs, and I’m not sure they do today either.

While we’re at it, I’d also like memory foam seats so my posterior enjoys the journey as much as I do, and electric sockets that can be removed and stretched like an extension cable so phones can charge anywhere in the vehicle. And, please add an electric sliding plexiglass screen between the front and back seats like they had in old New York City cabs, so that the kids can party-on while I drive in peace.

Free choice is what we call it, but it’s a misnomer.

I do want to clarify that some people have no choices at all about anything, let alone what car to buy, but we're talking here just about purchase choices, and cars specifically.

So I’ll go on.

If we actually had free choice - that is, if we could create the car we wanted exactly and buy it for a reasonable price - would we need advertising or marketing for that category? We wouldn’t need to be convinced that one car was better than another based on what it could deliver because it would already meet our needs. Advertising might switch to marketing the virtual systems we’d need to create the car we desired, or the components and options we could add to it.

Interestingly, the US cereal market went in the opposite direction, trying to create a cereal for every desire. Hundreds of cereals actually created a paradox of choice; there are so many to choose from that making a choice becomes not only difficult but in some cases impossible; the decision-making goes on for so long it could be turned into a surreal serial cereal serial drama.

But back to cars.

This year there are around two-hundred and fifty models available in the US alone, and many variants of each, making that choice fairly difficult too, certainly more than when Benz introduced his first marque back in 1885.

And yet not one of them meets my humble, but practical, requirements.

Now, I have been thinking about what my own car would look like for about twenty-nine years, since being offered that company car of my “desire”, but for others, creating a car will be very difficult. Years of being sold what’s available has dumbed down our ability to create. In research, we turn to stimulus response for concept refinement; asking for reaction to mock-ups is far easier for people to handle.

The adage ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses,’ is erroneously attributed to Henry Ford, but it sums this point up nicely. We can react but we can’t always create, and so refinement rather than creation tops the innovation bill.

There is a version of what I’d like to see at Epcot. The Chevrolet Design Center lets you create a virtual concept car that you can drive around their test track, putting it through its paces, as they say. One-hundred and nine years after the Swiss racing car driver, Louis Chevrolet, founded the company, you can almost kind of somewhat virtually design one.

The design is within the parameters of the program, and so options are fewer. But imagine if they were less limited, more complex in specification, and more varied in component additions.

You could Vroom a Verbiest, corner a Cugnot, tune a Trevithick, nuance a Nièpce, rev a Rivaz, borrow some Brown and mirror some Morley, learn from Lenoir, trial a Trouvé, design a Daimler, make a Maybach and mould a Marcus, and bend a brilliant Benz.

And I could finally make my own car, before I have to buy a Camry and nail my testicles to a garage door.

credit picture Matheus Bertelli

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