Do pictures of the past offer future insight?

For reasons I shan't go into here I've recently had cause to sift through my Mother's photograph collection. Two things of potential relevance to Transport Times readers came to mind. 

The first was how the photos, some dating from the late 1800s, tell a story of technology as they move from small sepia images through black-and-white and on to sharp, bright colour. Many of the subjects I might have expected to find were missing because in the 1960s my father enthusiastically embraced slides rather than snaps. Slides were the future. Slides (for younger readers) had to be inserted into projectors or illuminated viewers to be seen. But nowhere in the house can I find either device, and, indeed, the slides themselves – there were many boxes – have disappeared too. Slides, it seems, were not destined to last. Missing too are the much smaller number of digitally captured images from the mobile phone my mother never quite mastered, hanging, presumably, somewhere in cyberspace.

It's the hard copy pictures that have lasted. And I think this is interesting because it is illustrative of the fact that we can never be quite sure of the trajectory new technology will follow; what will turn out to be a short-lived fad and what will endure. When it comes to photography, for many of us, what we're actually doing – the core activity - is augmenting our memory, sharing our experiences and decorating our lives.

When we talk about motoring, or transport more generally I think we make a mistake to talk about it as an activity in itself, other than for travel literally as a pastime. We don't necessarily like driving, any more that we like the act of taking photographs, what we like is the thing that driving enables us to do. And we can get terribly carried away with new and seemingly better technology, sometimes moving on to something even cleverer, cheaper, convenient, but sometimes slipping back to the tried and trusted (have you seen how much the anniversary vinyl LP of Abbey Road costs?)

I fervently hope that the current fashion for touch-screen dashboard controls turns out to be a passing fad. Maybe they will be surpassed by voice-activated systems that work reliably. Personally I'd settle for the reappearance of the knurled knob that you can work by touch without having to take your eyes off the road (tried and trusted).

So, on to motoring, which is the other story that emerges from the photograph collection, a story of the place motor vehicles took in my family over, roughly, the last 70 years.

As the years pass and the black and white gives way to colour so the motorcycles – interspersed with cars - disappear as everyday, affordable transport, re-emerging as an occasional leisure vehicle (when, as happened in the 1980s, my father and mother took to borrowing my bikes to go out for a Sunday 'spin').

Over the years the cars get better – infinitely more reliable, easier to drive and safer.

The MG, snapped, I think, in 1948, was kept going at the time by my father rigging up a length of string to be tugged when the fuelling system failed. But despite this idiosyncrasy it opened up trips from London to Cornwall and north to the family in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. (That car, I happen to know, is still going – and looks in finer fettle now than at any other point in its life.)

The dormobile (a small-ish camper van) was a ticket to overseas adventure long before package holidays enabled mass sun-seeking travel. It also required near-constant fettling and repair, notably once bringing the rush-hour traffic in Milan to a halt when it expired.

I can find no pictures of the Vauxhall Victor 101, two-tone green estate car, which is a pity. Many a mile I travelled in that car, and much had my long-suffering mother to thank for the wipe-clean vinyl upholstery, since, from my childhood I've been a martyr to motion sickness. I am firmly with those who predict a return to vinyl trim when and if the driverless car arrives.

Later pictures show the rise of the car as an object of desire in its own right, not just as a tool for achieving other ends, the 1970's V6 3-litre Ford Granada marking something of a high-water mark for the household before car choices slid back into a more utilitarian fold. My, that car could eat the miles, at its happiest on the autobahn for the annual family holiday trek across the channel. And my did it have a thirst for fuel. But it meant something more for people whose modest wages put buying a home firmly out of reach – still the case for many on lower incomes, regardless of their travel needs.

Further photos flirt with the thrill of owning a car from new – after 30 years of motoring the collection of an 'L' reg Austin Maxi fresh from the factory was worthy of photographic record. The fact that two days later the side windows fell into the doors and, shortly after that, the gear-linkage snapped, tells you everything you need to know about the malaise and ultimate demise of the British mass-motor-manufacturing industry before modern – automated – car assembly latterly led to something of a resurgence.

And here is the car that my mother drove the most – a small family run-around, bought from new with no particular fanfare, easy to drive, comfortable to sit in. All too often this car was used to ferry my father to hospital appointments. Why? Because neither of my parents by this time could comfortably fold themselves into the seats of saloon cars favoured by most minicab companies, or, for that matter, comfortably get out of them either.

So, where does that leave me? Wallowing in nostalgia for an age of motoring which I never, personally, experienced, long before congested motorways, climate change and air quality came to dominate our transport debate? Well, to be honest, yes, up to a point. But, as a former boss of mind was fond of saying, we have to live in the real world, not the world we might wish we lived in. That means engaging with some urgency in cutting carbon and cleaning the air we breathe. And it means being open to having a fresh think about the many roles that motoring might play in our lives looking ahead – which might be a lesser role and it might be any number of different roles. I'm just not persuaded that, unlike the slide projector, it has no role at all.

Steve Gooding is the Director of RAC Foundation