Department of History

Motor Cities

Motor Cities: a Leverhulme Trust funded project

Automobility and the
Urban Environment

A comparative and multi-disciplinary project to examine how the coming of the motor age reshaped the modern city through a study of Nagoya and Birmingham, places defined by their relationship to the car, c.  1955-1973

The LeverhulmeTrust

Funding body: Leverhulme Trust, Research Project Grant to run 2011-2014

Award: £154,757


Principal Investigator: Dr Susan C. Townsend, Department of History, University of Nottingham

Co-Investigator: Prof. Simon Gunn, Centre for Urban History, University of Leicester

PhD student: Mr Matthew Parker, University of Leicester

Research Assistant: Mr Kosei Mino, Kobe, Japan


Dr Susan Townsend wins funding for 'Motor Cities' project

Dr Susan Townsend, Associate Professor in modern Japanese history, was awarded a Research Project Grant by The Leverhulme Trust for £154,757 over three years for a project entitled 'Automobility and the Urban Environment in Nagoya and Birmingham c. 1955-1973.'
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Project outline

Our project examines how the automobile reshaped the modern city through a study of Nagoya and Birmingham, places defined by their relationship to the car. In Japan and Britain the period from the onset of mass motorisation in the early 1950s to the ‘oil shock’ of 1973 was decisive in the making of a modern ‘car system’ involving widening car ownership, an expanding infrastructure of roads and motor services, and an increasingly dominant motor industry. While the number of cars quadrupled in Britain between 1950 and 1970, in Japan car ownership soared from just over a million in 1963 to over fourteen million a decade later. Increasing mobility was accompanied by industrial relocation, suburbanisation and urban sprawl. In the 1960s motorway construction and rapidly rising levels of traffic led to mounting concern about the urban environment and the historic fabric of cities. Car ownership posed new dilemmas: how could personal desire for car ownership be reconciled with accessibility, the need for green spaces, historic preservation and quality of life for city dwellers?

Recent concerns about air pollution, global warming, the damaging effects of car emissions and the sustainability of the petrol- and car-based society have highlighted just how embedded the car system became in the second half of the twentieth century. At the same time, many of the measures currently envisaged as solutions to the problem – congestion charging, motor vehicle taxation, new engine technologies, alternative fuel sources and so on – themselves have histories almost as long as the car itself.

Nagoya, Japan’s fourth largest city, and Birmingham, Britain’s ‘second’ city, provide an outstanding opportunity for comparison and contrast of the historical development of motorised cities in the East and the West. Not only do they have important associations with the automotive industry, Toyota in Nagoya and British Leyland Motor Corporation in Birmingham but, following extensive bombing during the Second World War, they were rebuilt as modern ‘motor cities’ becoming, from the late 1950s, fulcrums of burgeoning national motorway systems. We are interested in national differences in these histories of motorisation and urban environmental change, but also in how common experiences of car ownership, traffic planning and conservation translated across the two urban cultures.

Our project is not only comparative, but also multi-disciplinary, drawing on archival, statistical and visual sources and bringing to light previously unexplored Japanese and British sources on the history of city planning and car-use. It is influenced by current scholarship on the relationship between ‘nature’ and modern urbanism, in particular, the idea that nature is not somehow extraneous to the modern city but pervades it through complex networks that have recombined human and material agency in new forms. It also has contemporary relevance. As cities in developing countries such as China, India, and parts of Africa contemplate a still more potent environmental dilemma to that faced by Birmingham and Nagoya, we believe there are lessons to be learned from the history of the modern car system in British and Japanese cities in the crucial period of its implementation between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s.

The project was awarded Leverhulme funding in summer 2011 and work started in autumn 2011 for three years. The results will be published in a number of ways; through academic articles, a joint authored monograph by Townsend and Gunn, workshops in Britain and Japan, a project website and an exhibition at Birmingham Museum.


Department of History

University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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