Romance of the Road

The American inventor Samuel Morey patented his internal combustion engine on this day in 1826 — not the first of its kind but an innovative design now regarded as precursor to the modern car engine. Morey used his engine to power the first auto ride in the U.S. (the second in the world), though he promptly fell off, sending the car into a Philadelphia ditch. His engine didn’t do much better — already in his mid-sixties when he got his patent, Morey died without ever finding a buyer for his design.

Paul Ingrassia’s Engines of Change chronicles “A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars,” most of the fifteen falling into the two categories which have always driven the auto industry:

In the 1990s Chrysler executives used to joke that they could tell a Jeep driver from a minivan driver just by looking at his or her watch. Timex watches were for practical people, those utterly unconcerned about putting up appearances and thus unworried about driving a mommy-mobile. Even if they were mommies. But Rolexes signaled people whose self-image couldn’t cope with a minivan and who wanted to flaunt their rugged, outdoor lifestyle. Even if ruggedness only meant hitting potholes en route to the mall in their Jeep Grand Cherokee Orvis Edition. With a skinny Venti Latte in the cup holder, of course.

Even when Ingrassi’s cars are trucks they follow the “frugal vs. flamboyant” rule: “Pickup trucks started out as down-and-dirty work tools until Detroit discovered it could make billions by selling lavish designer trucks. The seats on some of them have more leather than most cows.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at