City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Fiat advert reproduced in the book ‘Human Space Utopia’ by Colin Ward (Penguin Education, 1974)

Does anyone have information about this Fiat advert from the early nineteen-seventies? I found it reproduced in the extraordinary 1974 book Human Space Utopia (Penguin) by the great English anarchist writer Colin Ward (also author of the stone-cold classic The Child in the Cityand read Shumi Bose on that.)

The crisp Krone-esque copy and layout typical of the time is actually difficult unpick. It either conveys either a wilful disregard (“Our job is simply to sell what people buy without questioning the morality of that”) or a broader care for the environment (“As a car manufacturer, we know that cars are destroying society—so we’ll at least make smaller cars, whilst highlighting the issue”.)

It either describes a positive role for government (“We expect government to create and shape the market that we work within, dealing with our wider systemic challenges on our behalf”) or a negative role (“We can make what we want, knowing that government will have to try to pick up the pieces, not us”.)

Human Space Utopia itself is subtly radical early nineteen-seventies fare, and well worth trying to track down. I will no doubt write about it later, particularly as it seems to have long since disappeared from public view. It must have been one of the last of the Penguin Education imprint’s ground-breaking series of textbooks for schools. In keeping with the ethos of that series, Ward implicitly takes a few positions in the book, but also repeatedly prompts the reader to make up their own mind. Again, this is enlightened nineteen-seventies British education in play, rather than today’s simplistic didactic positions: note the caption next to the advert, below. Seb Schmoller points me to a recently-released history of the Penguin Education series: This Once Was Us: The Life and Death of Penguin Education (The West Drayton Collective)

The advert speaks so clearly to the long term damage wrought by cars that it’s astonishing to consider its provenance is Fiat. Although the text is damning, Wilshire Boulevard photographs are extraordinary, really (though presumably the stretch of Wilshire pictured is the flyover rather than the 10-lane freeway dug out below.) This extreme surgery to the landscape is well within a single lifetime—further reinforcing Danny Dorling’s point about that this era was the time of genuine technical invention, rather than our slowdown times, for good and ill.

It remains extraordinary that a major car company could speak with such clarity about this damage produced by their product—albeit caught up in the wake of the 1973 Oil Crisis and burgeoning environmental awareness—yet still pursue a course of destruction. Effectively, they are simultaneously admitting their culpability for destroying society whilst washing their hands of responsibility.

Still, this happened a half-century ago, and during the time following the ad’s apparent publication we did not pay heed to its central theme, and instead doubled-down on environmental destruction. As David Wallace-Wells and many others make clear, the real damage has been done in the last four decades i.e on your and my watch. And during that time, we have not seen companies speaking plainly like this at all. So if anything, we gone backwards in both action and discourse.

Any further information on this ad welcome. For more on the entwined histories of the automobile and the modern city, read the following series, which attempts to signpost our way out of this fix:

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