The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways

This morning, I pulled out of my driveway and angled down U.S. Route 2, shifting onto VT Route 12 and through the hills of Berlin and Northfield to work. Tonight, I’ll likely make my way back on the same route, but I very well might take I-89N up from Northfield to Berlin. Never once, in any of the hundreds of trips that I’ve made along that route, have I ever seriously wondered where the roads came from. They’ve always been there, for better or for worse, and they make up the foundation upon which our modern lives exist. Earl Swift’s latest book, The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways, is a grand story that I’ve long wanted to read about: the development of the American highway and interstate system.

Despite the title about this being a history of the superhighway system, Swift’s book looks to the development of the entire vehicular road system in the United States, deftly weaving together a story that looks at the rise of the automobile, its influence on urban development and the growth of commerce in the United States over the last century. This is a book that could easily be a dry tome, mired in the tiny details at the weed level. The focus is on the personalities, however, where unassuming men shaped the character of the country: Thomas “The Chief” MacDonald, Herbert Sinclair Fairbank, and Frank Turner, all people you've likely never heard of. Swift balances neatly the personal lives of each man (and from all accounts, he really did his homework, going the extra mile, so to speak, to look into how the men were motivated) with how they each influenced the way we drive around.

At the turn of the 20th century, driving was a nightmare for urban areas. Horses and bicycles were widely used within cities, and the first cars were primitive, dangerous contraptions that were hard to use at the best of road conditions. However, due to several motivated salesmen, cars became popular: the early days of racing sprang up, cars with wheels, a seat, steering, an engine, and not much else. As the demand for cars rose, so did the political pressure for a better road network, something that many notable politicians (including President Harry Truman), built their careers on.

The development of the United State’s infrastructure seems to have come in a couple of stages: the commonly agreed upon problem of poor roads in the country and the city brought about an interesting case for the influence of federal vs. state government interaction: a massive, national project such as the first highway system (the two lane roads that criss-cross the nation) is enormously expensive, and something largely outside of what the states could afford. The process in which the money came around, but also the construction and standardization of the roadways largely follows MacDonald, who’s vision carried the country forward by eventually linking the East and West coasts by a single, uniform road network. Once a dangerous endeavor that took weeks, it soon took just days, with little danger other than from one’s fellow drivers.

The development of the US Highway system shaped just how we drive as well: the development of headlights, improved safety features and the types of vehicles that were built all came as a result of just how the American public itself changed as a result of the new freedom of mobility that the new roads offered them. At the same time, the changes in cars allowed for continued changes in just how the roads were designed: new methods for building, as well as the best colors to paint signs, and an entirely new standard design for the signs and features along the highway system.

The monumental and extraordinary growth in car ownership from the turn of the century to the mid-1950s meant that the roads designed to link together the nation were overtaxed, overcrowded and clogged with traffic jams. Swift notes that the infrastructure simply wasn’t designed to hold the volume, which led to practical problems within cities. The traffic jams of today apparently can’t compare to what it was like at that time, with too many cars flooding too few (or too small streets), partially due to missed assumptions on the growth of the automobile industry, but also some fundamental basics to how roads attract drivers and how people themselves drive.

Where MacDonald took over for the first major phase of the highway system, his retirement lead to the rise of one of his associates, Frank Turner, who got his start under MacDonald. Turner helped to shepherd a newly designed style of highway into the country to help ease the numerous traffic problems throughout the country. The superhighway system is radically different from the regular highway system: seperated from other roads, with limited access, higher speeds and designed to bring people in and out of cities and across the country. As Swift recounts the development and political wrangling that occurred, we’re introduced to a new element of highway development: land use and the necessity to destroy thousands of homes and businesses in cities in place of roadway. Protests, political stalling and civic activism arises, further changing the system. Ever wonder why Baltimore doesn’t have a highway running through it?

If there’s any flaw with the book, it’s the treatment of President Dwight Eisenhower, for whom the entire network is named for. Swift goes out of his way to denigrate the President, pointing out almost every instance of where he was on vacation or away while vital decisions were made. While I've no issue with the critical element here, I do have to wonder if the careful research present in all of the other elements of the book are present on the highest level: I can’t fathom that Eisenhower was completely in the dark for all of the elements, as he alleges. That being said, it’s a good historical example how how enormously complicated things work: the groundwork is often laid far in advance of when things get going: this is certainly the case for the roads, with all of the right people, research and motivation moving along and ramping up in the first half of the 20th century, before coming into fruition under the Eisenhower Administration, and finally completed by 1992.

Swift closes the book with a warning: the highway system, as monumental and fundamental as it is, isn’t designed forever, and with further increases in traffic volume around the country, we’re quickly running up to the point in time where large-scale problems will start to arise. Hundreds of bridges are dangerous, damaged or out of date, and road surfaces are in continual need for improvement. While this is the case, the entire system will need a large influx of investment in the coming decades, numbering in the hundreds of billions of dollars, while decreasing revenue is bringing in insufficient money to keep up with the demand. The golden age of roads may be coming to an end, but the system will last far into the future.

The Big Roads is a fantastic book that delves into American’s history and its character. Swift has done an impressive job in telling stories within stories, shedding an interesting light on the nature of the mid-20th century. It’s exciting, exhilarating, and interesting throughout, with a bright cast of characters doing what very well might have been impossible, while building something that has made the country what it is today.

High Speed (or, I Want To Read On The Way To Work)

Recently, the problem of drivers texting while in a vehicle has been brought to the forefront of the news, shedding light on a vital issue that illustrates that driving is inherently a very dangerous activity. Road safety is something that should never be far from our minds, either in the car, or out of it, and every day on my drive to work, I see examples of poor training and practice amongst my fellow drivers. Two years ago, the issue was on the roads themselves, where cuts and transfers of funds to the roads took place, resulting in roads with plenty of hazards. Both issues taken separately are worrisome, but taken together, they're both downright scary.

Thinking about this has brought to mind another initiative that has been making a bit of news over the course of the past year: high speed rail service. Currently, the nation lags far behind other industrialized nations, such as the United Kingdom, much of Europe and Japan, for large-scale access to a fast train system. In part, I suspect, that's due to the sheer size of the United States, as well as competing for space with freight transportation across the country. Because of the size, a high speed rail system is going to be an expensive proposition, upgrading the current one to something far better.

However, despite the expense, I want to see a high speed rail system come to the United States. On my way to work, I cross a set of rail road tracks that have since been abandoned, and over a hill, follow alongside the major railroad track that runs from the Burlington area all the way down to Boston and down the East Coast. A friend once visited from New York City, and it took her just as long to get up as it would have been to drive. Driving alongside the railroad tracks this morning, I couldn't help but think how much I would prefer to have the ability to make a short walk to a train station, get on a train and simply ride in to work. While I lived in England, in 2006, this was a common occurrence for me, and I found that I really enjoyed riding in to work and class via the underground and regular London transit system.

Maintaining a high speed rail system in the State of Vermont would be a good thing for Vermonters. Our long winters bring about hundreds of accidents each year on the highways that commuters use between Montpelier and Burlington, and hopefully, a rapid system would help to cut transit time for people who live a bit further away, and would help reduce the load on the roadways. With an increasing number of people texting and driving, deteriorating roads, moving more people off the roads into a mass transit system will help reduce some of the risks while on the road, and will help with the wear and tear on the roads. It's an alternative that should be available, and as public transportation has increased as fuel prices have done the same, hopefully there will be the the perfect storm of dangerous drivers and accidents, federal spending and infrastructure and availability to Vermonters.

A system such as this would be good for the state as well, linking Vermont to the southern states and cities, allowing for the state to market itself as it has long done for weekend excursions during changing of the fall leaves to the ski season, as well as all of the other attractive reasons to visit our state. It's easy to do that by car, but I've always seen taking a train ride somewhere as a sort of adventure, and have many fond memories of doing so while in London, travelling to Edinburg, Cambridge, Oxford, Eastbourne, Stratford-Upon-Avon and many other places. It was quick, allowed me to plow through fourteen books in four months and allowed me to see the rest of the country without requiring a personal vehicle.

Plus, mass transportation is a good, sustainable sort of practice. Thousands of people driving separately to their destinations is a woefully inefficient activity in the grander scheme of things, only going to highlight some of the issues that the country has when it comes to dependence on oil. It would be good to get used to the idea of having to limit ourselves and what we use before we're forced to in the future by high price by becoming a more efficient society. Don't get me wrong, I like driving my Mini very much - it's one of the reasons why I bought a car in the first place. But I while I enjoy driving, I get very little joy out of my morning commute. I would much rather be reading a book and not having to worry about the other drivers around me.

Driving Like Crazy

Last Week, VPR's Vermont Edition hosted a program devoted to recent legislative efforts designed to combat cell phone usage in cars. Why there is any sort of debate over this issue is beyond me, but apparently there is quite a bit of discussion over whether or not this sort of thing is necessary or right for government to do to individual citizens.

A while ago, I read and reviewed Tom Vanderbilt's book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), which is, as the title suggests, about driving and how we drive. Prior to reading the book, I was not thrilled with the idea of a cell phone law in Vermont - it's intrusive, it's problematic and above all, it is possible to drive, talk, text or so forth while driving. That's not the case, far from it, and recent deaths in the state suggest that this is only the start to a larger issue in the state.

Vanderbilt notes that studies show several things: it doesn't take long for a driver to be distracted, and that even small amounts of time without one's eyes on the road could mean the difference between continuing home and ending up in a hospital. While on the road, Vanderbilt explains, the driver is constantly taking in information about their surroundings - what's in front of them, to the sides and the road conditions. Modern conveniences such as radios, CD players, and connections for phones only add to the things that drivers have to contend with. Furthermore, the human brain is fundamentally incapable of processing everything that comes in, and mental awareness of one's surroundings drops. There have been occasions while driving that I've spoken on the phone or peaked at a text message and find myself further down the road, automatically steering around well known corners, but with little recollection exactly to what I just did. The same is true with any task that involves thinking. In today's culture, drivers have far more to distract them on the road, and that's what is getting scary.

The rise in texting (I remember reading something recently that noted that the average teenager sends around 40,000 words a month in text form) makes this all the more scary, because as drivers are increasingly spending some of their time looking at their phone, reading a message and then thinking about and typing a response out, their eyes are not where they are supposed to be: on the road. Normally, I would advocate personal responsibility for the driver and say that if they crash because they weren't looking, well, it's their own fault. However, the roadways are populated by everyone else on the road, in all directions, and the actions of one driver not paying attention can mean dire consequences for someone else on the roadway.

So what is the solution? Well, as pro-life people naively state: abstinence works. Well, yes, it does, but holding people to that sort of thing doesn't necessarily work as well. Keeping teenagers away from cell phones (and adults, for that matter), is a huge problem, and merely telling people to turn off the phone and keep their eyes on the road isn't necessarily going to work, even with a stiff fine from police officers. A law needs to be put into place, no doubt about that, with stiff penalties for any driver caught doing this sort of thing. But, in addition to that, money needs to be spent on educating drivers, young and old alike on one simple fact: driving is the most dangerous thing that you can do on a regular basis. Taken out of a normal, everyday context, you are climbing into a rolling collection of metal parts, fueled by a highly combustible fluid and set off along roadways with more people doing the same thing, at high speeds. If that isn't enough to freak you out, now imagine that nobody is looking where they're going.

The Mini Countryman

Earlier today, MINI released pictures and information for the upcoming new Mini Cooper, the Countryman. The 3rd model from the company, which includes the Mini Cooper and the Mini Clubman. This one is a little more rugged looking, and is an addition to the 'Crossover' market, which falls somewhere between the sedan and smaller SUVs. On first glance, I rather like it.

This addition looks to make a lot of sense for MINI and BMW. The small hatchback market is a somewhat limited one, and this, along with the Clubman, helps to open up a couple additional markets. The vehicle looks to be a bit bigger, more practical, with more space. I love my own Mini Cooper, but I also realize that it's pretty well suited for what I use it for - I usually only drive myself around, and I don't need a ton of space, usually. I've found, over the past year or two, that most cars fit a certain lifestyle or use - some are better at things than others. I might ridicule the SMART Car, but honestly, while living in London, it would have been the perfect car for what I did - small, easy to park and safe, because nobody is driving more than 30 miles per hour in the city. Contrast that with the highways here, it's very out of place.

Mini has quite a lot going for it with this, and I suspect that it will be a really good car for them. The brand as a whole has a sort of quirk factor to it, with the Mini, going for the younger, hipper audience, and as that group grows up a bit, so to, the Countryman seems to have done the same thing. I like how it came out - it's a good looking car, more so than the Clubman, which I really dislike. The company did a really good job with updating the image of the car by making it a bit larger, but keeping the overall shape and key features. Where the Mini Clubman looks stretched, this version looks well proportioned, much more in line with the new MINI.

MINI Countryman

What I'm really impressed with is MINI's brand, with both how they've been able to market it, and expand it. The Cooper is an iconic car, and BMW did well to update it with the current model from the old one. They have their quirks, to be sure, but it's a solid, fairly reliable car. In the 30,000 miles that I've had it, it's only had to go in twice for major repairs: the transmission and more recently, a wheel bearing. The other things that have cropped up: replacing windshield wipers, oil changes, brakes, tires, etc, have been pretty expected issues, none that have really impacted how the car has driven. It's pretty reliable, but beyond my own experience with the car, the company is working to expand their market and really develop what the car will look like, and along with that, change their respective audience, and thus expand their brand to new people. It seems to be working - Mini has been around for almost a decade now, and it doesn't look like it's going anywhere.

As a MINI driver, I'm sold. I'm not necessarily ready to go out and buy one right when it comes out, but I think that it's something that I would consider if presented with the opportunity. I love my own car - it's a delight to drive, and I'm not planning on getting rid of it anytime soon, but someday, I might need something that's a little more practical. I'm very happy that Mini will likely remain an option.

Slave to the Traffic Light

Driving is something that I've become very interested in over the past year or so, and something that I've been interested in learning more about. It's very rare that I come across a book that really challenges a lot of the perceptions that I have about something, but Tom Vanderbilt's fantastic examination of driving, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us) really did the trick. Traffic looks at, well, Traffic, in all of its numerous and complicated elements, and in doing so, has become a book that is absolutely essential for everyone who gets behind the wheel of an automobile, and even those who come across a road with any regularity. Vanderbilt has put together a wonderfully comprehensive, exhaustive and accessible read that explains just why we drive the way we do and what it says about us.

There are several main arguments and elements of driving that Vanderbilt covers over the course of the book. The first is largely psychological, looking at the first major aspect of driving: The Driver. Without a driver, a car just sits in the driveway or a parking lot, and is for all intents and purposes, harmless. Putting a person behind the wheel subjects the car, driver and passengers to the judgment, attention and skill of the driver.

Attention seems to be the most important element for the driver, and this is something that Vanderbilt tackles right away in the book. Driver error is arguably one of the leading causes of crashes, and in this day and age, there's certainly no shortage of things to distract the driver, from other cars on the road, to mobile phones that are increasingly more complicated. Vanderbilt explains that driving is an extremely complicated process, and that in order to drive around safely without crashing into anything, the brain receives and processes a lot of information - eye tracking cameras have found that a driver is looking all over the place, to the side of the road, in front of the car and ahead, all while analyzing their surroundings and making decisions accordingly that minimize the risk to the occupants. In the instance of driving, eating, talking, fiddling with the radio and so forth, the brain has to essentially divert resources and stimuli in order to properly make those actions. Drivers who look down to text on their phone take their eyes off the road while moving, which creates an incredibly dangerous situation, as the car, moving at speed, is now captained by a driver who isn't acting on their surroundings.

Besides the driver looking at the road, the mentality of the drivers also comes into play. Vanderbilt describes the road as a place where a number of people who don't know each other must interact and cooperate, for the good of the system. Humans are social creatures - look to the difficulty of communicating online, where you are deprived of access of someone's voice and subsequent inflections, facial cues and so forth, and think back to the last time someone honked at you, passed aggressively, and so forth - the road is a place where numerous people come together, with a huge variety of training, habits and attitudes, and where there is virtually no feedback as to how you are doing on the road. Vanderbilt notes that just because a driver doesn't get into an accident, that doesn't necessarily mean that they aren't a poor driver - they've just been lucky. Most problems on the road stem from these relationships between drivers - miscommunications, the absence of communication and drivers not interpreting traffic correctly. As more drivers enter the road - and Vanderbilt notes that traffic is on the rise in the United States - it becomes more crucial for people to work better together while on the road.


Congestion and traffic is the next major issue that is covered in the book. It is noted several times that as highways were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, they were put together with a certain intent for capacity. In the ensuing years since these roads were constructed, the ceilings for traffic volume has shot through the roof and roads are carrying far more than they were ever intended for. Vanderbilt looks at several issues associated with this: the various ways in which traffic is dealt with, but also how some solutions are really not solutions at all. With a higher volume of vehicles on the roads, Vanderbilt notes that traffic systems have to jockey all these cars around - traffic lights and signs have been longtime elements that have managed traffic, but have severe limitations. Similarly, their very presence impacts the behavior in of cars in ways that are sometimes counter to what is good for the overall system. Traffic lights stop cars completely, which stops the vehicles behind them. Once the green light clicks on, cars go though, but there is an inherent risk there, as cars travel through a projected path of the cars to the side of the intersection. I've long been a fan of rotaries - there is one here in Montpelier, with another one just opened after a couple months of construction, and I believe that they should be put into far more widespread use, as it not only keeps traffic moving smoothly (once people get used to using them), but it keeps drivers on their toes, rather than automatically expecting that they will be safe going through an intersection.

A major issue with congestion is traffic volume, and how driving impacts the rest of an overall system. Vanderbilt notes that often times, roads can handle a high number of cars, provided that there are no bottlenecks, such as accidents and slow-moving cars. He compares the system to a bucket of rice going through a funnel. A certain volume can be handled going through, but with more and more added, everything backs up. He cites one example of stop-lights that monitor the volume of an interstate, and will allow cars on accordingly, at lulls in the system, allowing traffic to move smoothly as a whole. At times, what is best for an individual driver can be harmful to the overall health of the system.

With that in mind, consider that the best thing for the system as a whole is the health and well being of the driver, and in order for that to be achieved most often, drivers need to drive safely, and to be alert. Vanderbilt suggests an argument that on the face seems very counter-intuitive, but one that makes a lot of sense: In order for drivers to be safer, they need to drive in unusually unsafe conditions. Think back to the time when you drove in unfamiliar territory, or a road that was somewhat dangerous, such as a mountain road. I've done that recently, and remembered that I was more alert, a little slower, and more conscious of my surroundings. Thus, I was paying far more attention to the road, and less on what was far less important, such as my mobile phone. This argument has been tried out in various countries, where municipalities have removed road signs from the road in order to make drivers more aware of their surroundings. The result was fewer accidents, not more, as drivers were forced to pay more attention to the cars and roadside than before, where they could not assume safety in the regulations.

Branching off from that argument, Vanderbilt notes that there is an increasingly seductive move to give drivers more space, more warning, and more comfort in order to take cars further apart from one another, or to give drivers more warnings about hazards. The result is that drivers feel more comfortable with their surroundings, but instead of making the road safer, it provides a sense of security that allows drivers to drive more hazardously. Top Gear, the popular BBC show, has ranted about an excess of road signs, placed in towns to mitigate liability for accidents, such as 'Falling Rocks' (What am I meant to do with that information) and 'Changed Priorities Ahead' (I'd been thinking that I'll be more responsible, pay off my mortgage and eat healthier, but when I saw that, I said screw it, I'll go to the pub). Similarly, cities with large numbers of bicycles and pedestrians have noted trends that follow this information: as drivers are more aware of less protected people, they tend to act accordingly. I recently read an article on a city that saw an increase in bike traffic, and rather than a rapid rise in collisions, there were fewer. The problem as I see it is that that drivers do not realize that driving is an inherently risky activity - seatbelts, airbags, crumple zones and the like give us the illusion that we are safer than we really are. To be fair, these instruments are still essential - it may make drivers feel safer, but in an accident, they will absolutely help to save people's lives.

The overall effect of this book is taking a familiar activity and looking at it in an incredible amount of detail. Prior to reading this book, I had no idea of much of the information, and after reading it, I've noticed a number of bad habits with my own driving - things that I'm mindful of now that I'm going to be working to correct. At the very least, I, and I'm sure far more people, are largely unaware of how our actions impact those around us. I've gone, in my mind, from a good driver to an average one, and I'm honestly surprised that I haven't been in an accident before. It's a revelation that needs to be imparted to the rest of the driving population, simply because of one chilling statistic: every time you drive, you have a 1 in a 100 chance of dying in a car accident over the course of your lifetime. This book, in a way, is about risk-management, and examining driving in a way that helps us become more aware of the risks that we take every time we get behind the wheel of the car. Similarly, it helps to put into perspective just how traffic works. It will certainly make me more responsible, knowing the overall context the roadway.

The Brakes

I replaced the rear brakes on my car at the end of last week. It's been a long-standing issue that I've been waiting to fix for a little while now, and once you can hear the brakes working, it's generally a good indication that things need to be replaced. There's been a bunch of things that have gone wrong with my car since I've owned it, ranging from the more serious (transmission failure) to the incredibly minor, (windshield wipers needing replacement). When I've had the opportunity, I've opted to fix things myself. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that it's much, much cheaper. The estimated cost of brake replacement for the Mini was somewhere in the $300-$350 range. That's doable, but it takes a huge chunk of cash away from me. Fixing the brakes myself does more than save me money, however; it gives me some time learning just how my car works. Pulling the tire away gives me a good view of the suspension, and while I'm unscrewing or removing something, it gives me some time to actually examine how this works. It also gives me a bit more ownership of the car, making it a bit more my pride and joy, in a way.

Still, waiting to do the brakes, while possibly not the smartest thing to do, has imparted me with some lessons that have affected my driving habits. Coupled with the mindset of trying to save gas, I've come to change my driving habits in a way that makes me a better driver overall, I think. At the very least, it's gotten me thinking about how I'm driving, which few people seem to be able to do.

With the brakes going, I've learned better how to avoid using them. This doesn't mean that I didn't use them, but used them more sparingly, and drove in a way that meant that I didn't have to use them to the extent that I did. This means driving at a bit of a slower pace in traffic, giving myself more space between myself and the car ahead of me. Instead, I'd coast, downshift the car and take my foot off the gas, which helps bring down the car's fuel consumption a bit.

And it's worked - driving carefully, I've noticed a slight uptick in my car's fuel mileage, which is good, but I've also been a better driver around people. In doing so, I've noticed other bad habits that I've seen people doing - braking constantly, riding their brakes, tailgating other cars, braking while going uphill and not paying attention to the road through a variety of means.

While I've taken ownership of my car and responsibility for its maintenance, I've found that I've become more interested in the road and my own driving habits. Hopefully, with fuel at high prices and people watching where they put their money, they will do the same things.

The Mighty Mini: 50 Years and Counting

Fifty years ago today, in 1959, a car arrived that changed the face of motoring, with the unveiling of the Austin 7 (sometimes as Austin SE7EN) and the Morris Minor, best known as the Mini. In that half-century, the Mini has become a popular icon in today's culture, and was ranked by car experts just behind Ford's Model T in terms of overall influence to the motor industry.

The Mini got its start initially with the Suez Crisis, when Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, restricting traffic and prompting military action from Britain and France. The canal was shut down, and as a consequence, fuel prices in Great Britain rose dramatically. The British Motor Corporation (BMC) chairman, Leonard Lord, asked designer Alexander Issigonis to design a small car as soon as possible. The events of the Suez Crisis only underscored the need for such a vehicle, as it was becoming apparent that larger cars that used more fuel could become very impractical in the country.

The car had only one specification: a preexisting motor had to be used, in order to cut down on costs. Issigonis opted for several other requirements: the car had to be no longer than ten feet long, four feet high, requiring the designer to maximize space inside for passengers to be comfortable. This prompted several innovations that are now widespread in the industry. The engine was mounted sideways, in the front, which allowed for the driver and passenger in front to be as far forward as possible. The wheels were in the corners of the car, and because of the size and weight, it could go rather fast - new tires had to be designed for the vehicle. The trunk could be loaded with the tailgate down for more space. The result was a car that was small, fast, minimal and above all, fairly cheap.

Just after it's release on August 26th, 1959, the Mini's sales were, well, mini. The car didn't do very well in the market, with fairly slow sales, against the larger, more flashy cars from the United States, and consumers at the time saw a small car for a very small price, and because of that, were wary of the quality of the car, as well as its very basic approach to things. (The original cars didn't have radios, rollup windows or other things that Issigonis felt distracted from driving).

However, sales began to pick up when icons in popular culture began to buy the car. Members of the Royal family bought the Mini, as well as pop stars such as members of the Beatles and so forth. Between 1959 and 1960, production went from just under 20,000 vehicles to over 100,000, and sales increased from there. In 1961, racing car designer John Cooper collaborated with Issigonis and came up with the Mini Cooper, a racing version of the car, to much success, and a Mini Cooper S version was created in 1963.

Another element of visibility for the little car was its performance in some of the bigger races, beginning in 1963, and in 1964, with Paddy Hopkirk's victory at the Monte Carlo rally. (Incidentally, the British television show Top Gear refurbished Hopkirk's Mini Cooper S as part of a phone in vote, Restoration Ripoff a couple years ago, which speaks to the popular nature of the car.) The Mini became a contender in the racing world after that point, with its agility and speed. Top Gear did a short video on the history of British Touring Car Racing (BTC), which you can see here.

The Mini had made it's mark, and the BMC continued the car by expanding its brand in a way that really hasn't been seen with a number of other cars. In 1969, the Mini Clubman was introduced, a longer version of the Mini, while its height and wheel base remained the same. By this point, the original Mini had sold over a million units, and by 1975, it had surpassed three million units. Between the 1960s and 1980s, the original version was updated a couple more times, and several additional variations were introduced, such as the Mini Van, the Moke and the Estate, but none had the lasting appeal of the original Mini.

The Mini was built through the 1990s, when it was phased out in the year 2000. In 2001, BMW brought back the Mini under the moniker, MINI, with a Mini One, Mini Cooper and Mini Cooper S, to great success. In the years since, the company has reintroduced the Mini Clubman, and today, on its 50th birthday, unveiled a Mini Coupe Concept, which you can see here. There is an additional version in the works, set to be released sometime next year, called the Mini Countryman or Crossover.

In 1969 the Mini Cooper's enduring influence in popular culture was further cemented with the release of The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine and Noël Coward. The film is centered around a gold heist by a group of thieves, who use a trio of Mini Coopers as an integral part of the heist. The cars were the true stars of the film, with one of the best car chases that I've ever seen. The cars were used once again in the movie The Bourne Identity, with another exciting car chase. With the introduction of the new Mini Cooper to the public, a remake of The Italian Job, featuring the updated Mini Coopers, was released in 2003, and was the highest grossing film for Paramount Pictures in that year. Once again, the Mini Coopers were the stars of the film. A Rebel Without Pause, a short film done by BMW looks into the popular culture aspect of the Mini.

This is where I was introduced to the Mini Cooper, and I remember pretty clearly when I first fell in love with the car. I was in my 3rd or 4th year of working at YMCA Camp Abnaki, and on a weekend trip, I caught a ride in with a group to the theaters, where I saw the Italian Job. The Minis were spunky, quirky and fast, very different than the car that you see every day. I remember thinking: I want one of those cars. Over the next couple of years, I looked at them off and on, until last fall, when I somehow got onto a website selling them, jotted down figures and decided that I could afford a new car to replace my other one. Things were starting to go wrong with that one, and the time was good. I went out and after test-driving a couple, I found my own one, and bought it that weekend, learning to drive a manual transmission along the way.

One of the things that I'm most impressed with, looking over the history of the Mini, is the appeal to popular culture that the car has endured over the years. It has been part of movies, of celebrities and races, and it turns heads where ever it goes. The interesting thing that I see is that Mini has become a brand, something that hasn't really been done with a number of cars. There is an enduring Mini-look that is easily adapted to other vehicles, such as the Clubman, the Countryman, Traveler, pickup, Cooper, etc. This helped with the re-launch of the brand, which has made it so popular in recent years. When I drive along, I see other Mini drivers who wave, and the like, which is something that the company has capitalized on with their marketing, and far beyond just building a car, have built an entire community of people who have something in common. That sounds a bit dopey, honestly, but it's true - I've never felt any sort of connection to fellow Chevy Prism or Toyota Camry owners, that I have with the Mini.

I absolutely love my car, as I've written about before. The entire experience of driving it differs from anything that I've driven before, and I often will break out into a grin when I'm driving along. I love throwing Maxine into corners at speed, accelerating along straits and simply enjoying owning a car. I don't believe that a car should be boring, or simply just to go from point A to B during commutes. That just seems dull, and that just seems like a waste.

Happy Birthday Mini. Here's to another 50 years.

Rant: Montpelier Drivers

I love driving. I love it a lot, despite the slightly more frequent fuel ups - it's about $30 to fill up my car - and the annoying price of insurance in Vermont with my type of car. However, there are elements to driving that I'm not thrilled with, namely, other drivers from Montpelier, VT.

As a population, they need a re-education when it comes to driving their eco-boxes (As Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear and the UK Times calls the Prius and other hybrids). The amount of problems that I've come across lately is just annoying, and while I don't know if it's just Montpelier drivers, I do know that it's incredibly annoying.

  • While entering traffic, please look both ways before just driving into a lane. While there might be a small gap, you're most likely crap at figuring out the timing that's required to enter that gap. Most likely, it's not big enough.
  • Turn Signals are used to indicate when you're changing direction, entering a new lane or a new street. Slowing down to five miles per hour a hundred feet from where you're going to turn just pisses off the driver behind you.
  • There is a posted speed limit in Montpelier. Within the town, it's 25 MPH. Stick to that, because the people behind you have places to be.
  • Plan ahead and know where you're going. Don't slow down and turn on your turn signal every intersection because your girlfriend thinks this street might be the right one. Don't even think about waving your hand around in a WTF gesture when I honk at you.
  • When at a stop light, please keep an eye on the signal to see when it turns green. When it turns green, go, especially when there is a line behind you.
  • If said signal is a red, you're intending on turning right and there is no cars coming at all, please take a right on red. It'll keep traffic moving.

I much prefer driving on B roads than I do in the city, although larger cities are fun to drive in. While in a city, what I've found is that there's a couple of priorities that drivers should take - safety of their own person and vehicle, safety of the others around them, and to ensure that traffic flows smoothly as a unit. You're not the only person on the road, you're surrounded by other people, and any actions that you take will inevitably cause reactions down the road, such as stopping suddenly, not starting off, or being efficient with your driving habits.

The Best Driving Road in Vermont

Yesterday, I left work early to go to a talk by P.W. Singer at Middlebury College, about the book that I just reviewed, Wired for War. It was a fascinating talk, but it didn't really tell me anything new from the book.

However, the talk was in Middlebury, in Western Vermont, where I've only been a couple of times, and to get there, I had to do a bit of driving. Ever since I got Maxine, I've been wanting to really drive her, and that's precisely what I got to do. (One thing though - don't buy magnetic stripes for a car. I hit 50 mph and they flew right off. Bah!)

About ten thousand years ago, there was a global ice age that covered much of North America in a mile-thick ice sheet. This sheet ground over the state, shaping the surface to what we have today, and forcing the crust down. It's still rebounding, at about an inch a year, if memory serves. Central Vermont in particular still retains a memory of this. Valleys, running from north to south, held huge swaths of ice that would later become glacial lakes as the earth heated up and melted back the ice. As the ice sheets melted, sediment was dropped, and ice jams kept these lakes in place until more melting occurred.

That's what's happened with the route between Montpelier, Northfield and Moretown and Middlebury. To get from point A to point B, I went up Route 100B. Because my directions from Google Maps were abysmal, I went with the vague knowledge that I have of the area and continued down Rt. 100, through Waitsfield and into Warren. Past Warren is Granville, a tiny town that seems to have been squeezed between two sets of mountains. Looking at a topographic map, one can see the lines get closer together, and as you enter this area, the mountains loom steeply on either side, and close together, while a river borders one side of the road. This is the best place to drive that I've been to thus far.

The road is narrow, and curves around in a number of very sharp turns as the road meanders through this pass. Ten thousand years ago, it was the floodgates of a glacial lake, which in turn carved a path through as the ice melted. Driving past the trees, I can imagine the force of the water going through there. Large boulders litter the sides of the roads, and at points, it feels like you are driving through a canyon.

In Maxine, this was a joy to travel through. I'm a big fan of the British automotive magazine show Top Gear, hosted by Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, where they have extolled the virtues of European automobiles while denouncing American made cars. One particular complaint that I remember from them is that American cars can't go round corners without problems, i.e. crashing. While on this ten or so mile stretch of winding corners, I found that my MINI could pull some impressive speeds over the speed limit. Maxine held her own wonderfully, being fairly low to the ground and wheels out to the corners. I never felt her slip or misstep once, and fortunately, the one car that I came across was going around the same speeds as I was.

It wasn't the speed that I was thrilled with, although that made the ride exciting. (And, I did make sure that I was well within my limits) It was the curves, which really allowed me to test out the maneuverability and my own skills at turning around corners. This is something that I would have never dreamed of doing in my old Chevy Prism, which would have had to go far slower and would have likely gone off in the ditch if I'd driven like that. I do, in the future, need to remember to actually put away my CDs and not have anything in the passenger seat when I do this again.

One out of Granville, I reached the town of Hancock, which I had never heard of prior to today. From there, I turned onto Rt. 125, which the signs indicated led to East Middlebury, and recognizing a town name, I turned right, and found another stretch of curvy roads that went up and over Middlebury Gap. Overtaking a large truck, I followed someone in a Honda Fit, which handled the corners just as good as I, and we shot down the mountain. This drive was particularly nice, as it passed right through the Green Mountain National Forest, and through Breadloaf, Ripton and East Middlebury, all along this road, which was marked as scenic, which I can completely believe, driving along it. The only problem along this stretch was the sheer number of bumps from the frost heaves.

I reached Middlebury for the talk (I was running late, arriving about a half-hour after the talk started) got my book signed, and went back off, thinking that I would travel up to Burlington and back down, as it was falling dark. Driving up Rt. 7 from Middlebury and over to Rt. 116, where I remembered that I could go from Bristol to Waitsfield over the Appalachian Gap on Rt. 17. This is where the drive got interesting. As a child, my Grandparents lived in Lincoln, and to get there, we would travel over this route, which featured a road that twisted and turned far more than the Granville section. Maxine's tires squealed around the corners, and I almost hit a guard rail at one section (thank god for snow banks, which only filled my front tire with snow). In daylight hours, and when there will be no snow on the ground in June, this will likely be a fantastic drive that will really put Max to the test. The top of the mountain features a small parking lot at an intersection of the Long trail, and it provides a fantastic view of both sides of the state, all the way to Lake Champlain on clear days. The way down is even better, with the same curves down past Mad River Glen and back into Waitsfield, closing this fantastic section of driving.

I honestly can't wait to retrace my steps when the roads dry out and smooth down a bit, because this was an exciting drive through the Vermont countryside, something that I've been meaning to do ever since I first drove Maxine home. That particular section of Vermont is very beautiful, and there are several sites in the region with historical value (Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point) that I'm intending on visiting again. When I do, I know just how I'll get there.