We will explain how and why the car-manufacturing industry promoted mechanical, convenient, and aristocratic silence as distinct conceptions of sound and what this orientation meant within contemporary car culture. The pursuit of silence reflected an ideal more than a reality, but, as we will argue, the silencing effort sustained the highly valued visual experience of the driver.
“Speed is the aristocracy of movement, yet silence is the aristocracy of speed.” This aphorism was formulated by Maurice Goudard, president of the French Society of Automotive Engineers in 1935. /…/
We have alreadu explained that until about 1900 loud sound possessed a rather straightforward connotation of power, both within and beyond the engineering community. For twentieth-century mechanical and automotive engineers, however, the loud sounds generated by machines gradually came to be seen as the by-product of energy-absorbing friction and, as such, became noise, or unwanted sound. Culturally speaking, the symbolic links between loud sound and power were less easy to decouple. As many historians, soundscape scholars, and anthropoligists have shown, Western societies have long been ordered in such a way that those in powerful and high-ranking positions possessed more rights to create loud sounds and make themselves heard than those in lower-ranked position.
All these associations between aristocracy and silence can be found in the car ads of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. /…/
Our study of European literary sources showed that in the first decades of the twentieth century literary motorists described driving as being elevated above everyday life, experiencing the world as being more distant and less intrusive than normally, similar to the experience of watching a movie. The closed car body impeded this experience, however. /…/ It was exactly for this reason, as we have come to know by following American engineers, that the automotive industry started to study the multisensorial percaption of noise, vibration, and harshness by drivers, and invested in improvements in suspension systems and tires. This effort contributed to preserving the tourist gaze associated with early automobility.
Reducing noise was about creating a sense of trust in the car’s reliability, but silence was also sold by referring to its convenience and aristocracy. In doing so, advertisers made use of long-standing cultural connotations. They published images of animals that exuded both strength and silence (the swan, the panther) and tapped into the links between wealth and tranquility – controlling one’s acoustic environment – or between elites and the ability to keep deferentially silent. At the very same time, they unlinked earlier, or other, notions that connected noise to power.
Excerpt from Sound and safe. A history of listening behind the wheel by Karin Bijsterveld, Eefje Cleophas, Stefan Krebs, and Gijs Mom (Oxford University Press, 2014).