Drivers in 1987

Drivers In the 80s is a book of photos taken by Chris Dorley-Brown coming out on May 4th, published by Hoxton Mini Press. The photos date from 1987.

1987: a moment in a car captured by Chris Dorley-Brown. Image: Hoxton Mini-Press.
1987: a moment in a car captured by Chris Dorley-Brown. Image: Hoxton Mini-Press.

You can view some more samples of the photos here . The Guardian has a review here by their arts correspondent, Sam Wollaston. This part here is worth quoting: “Twenty-eight years on, the pictures make a curious collection. I’m no photography expert but I would say that individually, none of them is winning any awards. Composition-wise, there are all those pillars and mirrors in the way. And on a bright day, with stark contrast between light and shade, all their faces are in the dark; it’s their right elbows that are catching the light.” That’s correct, most of the photos are very banal. The one I selected has a little something due to the colours and composition. Can anyone guess what the car is?

Most of the photo titles describe the car but this one does not. The fact that the photos are now interesting has much to do with the simple passage of time: ordinary things are not preserved and in the end become rare than that which was special at the time. There are certainly more 1987 Ferraris (any single model) on the road than Renault 30s, for example. The other aspect of the images relates to the passage of time lending a certain poignancy to the faces in the cars. Many of the drivers and probably all the cars are now dust and rust.

Typical 80s rubbish? A 1987 Alfa Romeo 164. Image:
Typical 80s rubbish? A 1987 Alfa Romeo 164. Image:

Wollaston’s penultimate paragraph lumps the cars of the 80s in with the politics and culure of the time. “The horror is 80s horror: crap cars, crap hair, crap clothes, crap jewellery. There’s probably crap music coming out of those windows too, Money for Nothing by Dire Straits most probably, mixed in with the hot throbbing and the diesel fumes of the bus. A nice irony, too – all those people brought to a standstill by the Iron(ic) Lady’s economic progress. Crap politics.”

This level of generalisation needs questioning, the crap car part anyway. By 1987 engine electronics and rust-proofing had eliminated the two main banes of the car owner. If was asked to pick a year when cars stopped being potentially trouble regardless of makes, 1987 would be that turning point. From then until the 00s, car design and engineering entered a sweet spot of relatively simple machines rather well made.

What Wollaston is doing is conflating the depressing and sometimes poorly made cars of the late 70s that held over into the early and middle 80s. By 1987 I would guess there were very few new cars on sale with a production run starting in 1975 or 1978. Even Jaguar’s XJ saloons pass that basic test.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

9 thoughts on “Drivers in 1987”

  1. There’s an awful temptation to judge that where you are is just fine, bar a little tweaking, and that where everyone else used to be is both dire and risible. People like Mr Woolaston earn a living as professional smartarses, whereas amateur smartarses like me can be a bit more reflective. Each of the (too many) decades I’ve lived through was ‘crap’ on too many levels, and reading the glib Mr Woolaston makes me realise that this decade will be seen as just the same. I’ve never really got ‘documentary photography’ like this. Are we sneering, or are we empathising? Do we see ourselves in these odd people, or do we revel in how much smarter and cooler we are than them? Unfortunately, for most the people who buy this book, or view, say, Martin Parr’s exhibitions, I fear it’s the latter.

  2. For me it´s pure curiosity. A lot of photography is staged and is of special things. What gives this interest is the casual point-the-camera approach. I have taken a fair amount of pointless photos and found that a decade later they have a curious wonder to them: did it really look like that? I wonder about the colours. Is it the film stock or processing or just entropy that makes the colours of the past look odd? There was a short film about the Mini that was posted at the Guardian. It was made in 1990 and, goodness, the colours and light look so different than my recollection of it. I can´t tell what other people do with these photos; I am not sneering as Wollaston does. His glibness is tedious.
    What we think of as the 80s is really a few short years, say 1980 to about 1985. The rest of the 80s is what I call the long 90s. Much of what we think of as the 1990s seems already rooted in 1986 and onwards. That happy period ran until Sept 2001 and then things seem to have taken a darker turn.

  3. Of course, with film and print some colours degrade over time but, in any case, colour reproduction is quite subjective. Kodachrome film used to be held up as being the most ‘natural’, under the right circumstances, but even in pre-digital times, photographers took great liberties using filters. Why did that holiday destination of a lifetime not look like that National Geographic shot?

    Today, with digital, anything goes. We talked the other day about how extensively car photos are tweaked. Even magazines, whose job is not to make the cars they review look better than they are, can’t resist getting to work with Photoshop. Possible these photos show the colour balances that we found acceptable back in the 80s, but don’t any more.

  4. It’s interesting to compare these images with the film of the A1, linked in the article before this, and filmed on the eve of World War 2. That was taken 38 years before Chris Dorley-Brown’s photos and shows a very different country. His photos were taken nearly 30 years ago and, unless you are very superficial and judge society’s changes in terms of hairstyles and hemlines, they show a very close variant of a world we’d recognise. Many things have changed, but the everyday function and freneticism (relative to 1939) remains the same.

  5. 1979 is the year that marks the closure of the Simple Modern period. After that came what Anthony GIddens called Reflexive Modernity. From then on, globalisation and digitalisation took off. I think that meant an acceleration in change. 1979 didn´t differ a whole lot from 1969 and 1959. I don´t think the visitor from 1938 would be all that surprised by 1979. They´d be stunned by 2015. The pre-Modern period has been submerged. Fewer people, proportionally, live within its infrastructure.

  6. ‘There are certainly more 1987 Ferraris (any single model) on the road than Renualt 30s, for example’

    I’m guessing that even back then there were more 1987 Ferraris driving around London than Renault 30s (any year). Interestingly the pictures selected by the Guardian show a lot of cars (and a truck) that would have been quite dated already back then – all products of the 1970s like the Renault and Cortina Mk4/5 (or 1960’s in the case of the Merc W114/115), and a Renault 15/17 and Fiat 131 in the background of the moped picture.

  7. Yes, there might have been two selection biases. First, the photographer might have noticed the older cars more than the then-current cars. Second, the Guardian might have preferred the oldest-looking ones for their quaintness. It certainly is not an objective sample by any means. I don´t really notice modern cars unless I make a point of staring for some reason. I do notice variations from general run of cars. And this is entirely to be suspected, isn´t it? Humans are difference-spotting machines. It would be stupid if we noticed that which was the same. We´d live in a state of astonishment!

  8. Lovely snap of a 164 that – not seen one for years, which is a shame. Very 80s, but not rubbish in my book.

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