The man who invented the wheel is the forefather of Henry Ford, whose first motor car trundled out of the factory a hundred years ago
The wheel, since man invented it sometime in the obscure past, has turned many times, but always forward. From the first cart to the racing car is an inconceivable journey. In a very vital sense, it is difficult to think of mobility without the wheel. Even the aircraft, the most advanced mode of transport, is dependent on the wheel. But the wheel-based mode of transport which captured the popular imagination is the motor car, which celebrated its 100th birthday on June 16. A century ago, the Model T trundled out of Henry Fordís factory. Very few imagined that bizarre-looking vehicle would metamorphose into a sleek Mercedez-Benz or a stately Rolls Royce or a cute Volkswagen Beetle. The transformation of the motor car was analogous to the making of a butterfly from a caterpillar. It is entirely apt that one of the makers of the Rolls Royce, Frederick Henry Royce, was so poor that he could not afford a proper education. Yet he made the car that stands in the popular mind for luxury and opulence.
Today, the car has become synonymous with modern living in the Western or the advanced world. Even in developing countries like India, urban transport revolves around the motor car. It was in the United States of America that manís romance with the motor car began. The US is a country that moves on the mechanized wheel. It has been said, with perhaps a slight degree of exaggeration, that in certain parts of the US ó Los Angeles, for example ó to be without a car is akin to being without legs. In India, for a very long time, the car was a luxury commodity, used only by the very affluent. This sociological fact was epitomized by the fascination the Indian princes had for the Rolls Royce. But this situation changed dramatically with the coming of the Maruti 800. It was a small car with a price tag that was affordable to the salaried upper middle class of India. The use of the car thus spread down the social ladder from the gentry and the rich to the professionals. Maruti 800 changed the face of urban transport. More families owned cars and more women began to drive because the car was small, and easy to drive and manouevre. Small was convenient. Not surprisingly, the burgeoning of the automobile market coincided with the opening up of the Indian economy in the early Nineties, which showed to the Indian middle classes the face of prosperity.
The motor car is one of those rare items which can be both a luxury and a necessity, a collectorís item as well as an object of daily use. This alone should provide an index of the impact the automobile has had on modern life. The humble Model T is now, of course, a museum piece, but it is an icon, a symbol of the transport revolution and indeed of progress. The anonymous man who invented the wheel is the forefather many times removed of Henry Ford. The latterís innovation would not have been possible without that original invention. But the idea of a motorized wheel with an axle and a steering wheel run on petrol and ignition was a stroke of genius. Ford added further value by putting it on the assembly line and making it available to the masses. The car is as familiar today as the railway, and both, together with the aircraft, continue to excite the human imagination because they embody manís will to movement and progress.