Wheels Around the World

James Egan, a New York advertising man who has written for the Atlantic’s Pleasures and Places pages, returned recently with his wife from a leisurely trip around the world. The Egans live in Westport, Connecticut, and have just come home from a stay in the French West Indies.


The total length of all the streets in Tokyo is 6800 miles, or more than one quarter of the distance around the globe. As Tokyo was preparing for the Olympics last year, it sometimes seemed as if every mile of every street was torn up and boarded over. According to the Tokyo Construction Bureau, the city tackled 10,000 construction projects, including roads and highways, overpasses, subways, parking lots, and monorails. That total excludes buildings. Yet, incredibly, the major projects were completed on time.

One visitor when he saw the boarded-over streets remarked, “I knew the Japanese built their houses of wood, but I didn’t know they paved their streets with it.”

I saw two Japanese businessmen get out of a taxi on the plank-covered Ginza, Tokyo’s main shopping street. One paid off the cab and dropped a coin. It rolled into a crack between the planks. They both bent over double, lower and lower and lower. I assumed they were after the coin, but Japanese know better than to try to recover the lost treasure of the Ginza. They were simply bowing good-bye.

Of more than two million cars and trucks in Japan, almost half are in Tokyo. Reporting on traffic problems in the world’s largest city, the English-language newspaper Asahi Evening News said, “An example of paralysed functions of the city is the traffic jam.” Contributing to the paralysis, eighteen million persons commute to Tokyo every workday, well over half by taxi, private car, motorbike, bicycle, or shoe leather. The Tokyo metropolitan police have done their bit to cope with the traffic problem. They are stern. The maximum penalty for illegal parking in Tokyo is a fine of 30,000 yen ($84) or a jail sentence of six months.

Tokyo taxi drivers wear white gloves, ornament their cabs with bud vases filled with plastic flowers, and carry a pair of three-foot-long leather dusters as standard equipment. Why two dusters? So they can wield one with each hand as they tidy up their cabs between fares.

By now everybody has heard about Tokyo street addresses, or the lack of them. For the Olympics, signs were erected with street names in both Japanese and English. But taxi drivers continued to seek addresses by landmarks. An American resident of Tokyo told me that he started out for a business address just south of the city, naming a building as a landmark. His driver took him almost all the way to Yokohama before the American discovered that his landmark had been torn down.

Many Japanese, including hordes of schoolchildren, see their own country by motor coach. At shrines, temples, palaces, and gardens — there are 1700 of them in the tourist city of Kyoto alone — the coaches line up to pour out their camera-clicking loads. Each coach carries a pert hostess, uniformed like an airline stewardess. I took a Japanese-language bus tour around Nagasaki. The hostess kept up a running chatter into a microphone for three hours. Every so often, just to tide the passengers over the dull spots, she sang a sweet little song.


Buying a new car in India is an economic nightmare in which the prospective buyer, clutching a maharaja’s ransom in his fist, pursues his car down an endless corridor of time. Only 50,000 cars a year are available, one for about every 10,000 of the population.

To build up an automobile industry and conserve foreign exchange, India has clamped down hard on car imports. The developing nation now manufactures two domestic cars: the Fiat, under license from the Italian company, and the allIndian Ambassador, a car resembling the pre-war Plymouth. Both cars still use about 30 percent of imported materials.

The Fiat sells for $4000; a buyer waits about four years for delivery. The Ambassador sells for $3500, and a buyer waits two to three years. The British Standard, an economy sedan known in the United States as the Triumph 1200, is assembled in India, sells for $2500, and has a two-year waiting list.

“Some of our people are getting around the waiting list,” an Indian official said. “They are finding someone who is at the head of the list and paying him a black-market price. But they must then drive the car registered in the proper owner’s name instead of their own name. If there is an accident, it can become very complicated.”

Despite current import restrictions, American cars have maintained their standing in India pretty well because the diplomatic community and the foreign-aid missions can import them duty free.

“I own a 1960 Chevrolet — a luxury car here,” one of our embassy attachés told me. “It cost me only $3000 new. When I leave the country I must sell it to the Indian State Trading Corporation, and they’ll give me exactly what I paid for it. But a late-model American car is in such demand that they can turn around and sell it for $12,000 to $13,000.”

In Kashmir — as far north from the big industrial centers as you can get in India — you find no smiling Kashmiri running used-car lots. It would be a fertile held for their talents. With only some 1200 cars in all Kashmir, a 1952 Chevrolet in satisfactory running condition brings as much as $4200.

Kashmir’s truck traffic is largely military, since the bulk of the Indian Army is stationed there on the Pakistan and Tibetan borders. One day in the paradisiacal Vale of Kashmir I watched a long convoy of troop-carrying trucks heading north for Ladakh on the Tibetan frontier. “Made in India,” said my companion, a Kashmir government official. On the hood of each olive-drab giant was blazoned the nameplate — Shaktiman.

“Does the name mean anything?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied. “All-powerful. Can you think of a better name for a truck?”


Before 1956, every automobile in Nepal had to be carried in, part by part, on men’s backs. In 1956, India built the first road into Nepal, through the jungle and over the mountains to Katmandu, capital of the little Himalayan kingdom on India’s northeast frontier. Now the Chinese, as a contribution to foreign aid for Nepal (and for their own military advantage), are building a road down from Tibet. It has the Indians scared stiff.

The Nepalese still venerate their antique, hard-to-come-by cars and keep them running. At the Katmandu Airport, I stepped into a 1938 Packard sedan with no glass in the windows. The starter was beyond repair. A boy hand-cranked the car smartly, leaped in beside the driver, and we lurched off to town.

“You don’t get to the real back country here by car,” said Robert Jaffie, the affable United States Information Service Director in Nepal. “You fly or walk.” He took me over to a map on his wall. “See, there’s only one road north and south in Nepal and a few lateral feeders — all right here in the Valley of Katmandu. Except for a couple of valleys and the jungle strip of the Terai along the southern border next to India. Nepal is all mountains. That takes in the Himalayas.

“You have airstrips here and there,” he said, pointing to about a dozen places on the map, “but everywhere else, you walk in — a oneto two-day journey. Last week I went to Baghut, a marvelous town in the mountains. They have nothing in the place on wheels. They’ve never even seen a bicycle. Yet they take a helicopter for granted. And they have a college there.”

An American Peace Corps man told me that there is a staff of a hundred in Nepal, some posted pretty far out, or up. One Corps man, who unfortunately has asthma, is stationed at a village 18,000 feet high. Peace Corps teams have to get around catch-as-catch-can, often against considerable odds.

A Peace Corps worker recently came into headquarters and reported an accident with a Jeep down in the jungle of the Terai. “We ran over a tiger,” he said.

“Did you hurt him?” asked the director.

“I don’t know,” said the Peace Corps man. “We didn’t go back to find out.”


Giorgio Panni is a sculptor who lives in Vernazza, a tiny medieval port that clings to a spur of rock on the Italian Riviera some sixty miles southeast of Genoa. Vernazza has no access by road. It is a village without a single automobile. Handsome, thirty-one-year-old Giorgio, a sculptor whose star is on the rise, works in his studio in Vernazza all summer. Last season he had an exhibition in Milan of his sculptures in native black stone and iron. It was a two-man show: the other exhibitor was Picasso. Giorgio’s works were a sellout; Picasso’s, at considerably higher prices, did not move so well.

In winter Giorgio leaves carless Vernazza and his studio to take up another career. He is professore — no Italian would hold a lesser title — in an auto school in Rome. So is his slim, pretty wife, called “Meri,” a chic Anglicized version of “Maria.”

Giorgio’s vision falls just short of twenty-twenty, so he holds only a license for passenger-car instruction. Meri, whose vision is as flawless as her figure in a bikini, gives instruction on all types of vehicles. At the wheel of a twenty-ton trailer truck, she wears a narrow white sheath, gold sandals, and coral polish on her toenails.

Giorgio takes automobiles seriously, as do all Italians. He reads Il Giorno Motori, a twenty-fourpage color supplement that comes weekly with the respected Milan newspaper Il Giorno — it would be comparable if the New York Times were to publish a fat automobile supplement every week.

A friend of Giorgio’s who summers in Vernazza, Aldo Cesare Trionfo, a well-known Italian play director, gave me an explanation of the national attitude toward automobiles. “Cars are no longer a luxury in Italy, but every Italian still wears his car as if it were a bauble, a jewel, a crown. He can-

not yet accept an automobile as a matter of course. He hasn’t owned one long enough.”

Giorgio’s and Meri’s pupils — especially Meri’s — include men of ninety or older. “They sometimes take a hundred lessons without learning how to drive,” said Meri. “It appears that they would like to restore their virility but cannot.”

I asked Giorgio which among the glittering birds of passage along the Via Veneto was the current snob car in Rome. His answer surprised me.

“A Volkswagen,” he said. “It is the car of the sons of the rich — the ultimate in simplicity.”

Giorgio himself drives a dashing Alfa Romeo Sprint. I asked him if he had ever had an accident.

“Only three in my life,” he said in his most explosive Italian, “and always with a Neapolitan. I will tell you about Neapolitan drivers. Eh? I was standing still in a line of traffic in Rome. This car in front of me backed up and bumped me. I could see that my damage was slight — not more than three thousand lire, five dollars. The other driver descended and began to wring his hands.

“ ‘I am a poor man,’ he said. ‘I have driven all the way from Naples to Rome to see my sister who is in the tuberculosis hospital.’ The Neapolitan began to cry. ‘Do not ask me to pay. No? Do not call a policeman. I have no documents. There will be a big fine.’ ”

Giorgio continued. “Then a policeman came along. I tried to make nothing of the accident to help the poor fellow. But the policeman asked for our documents. And do you know what that Neapolitan did? Eh? He took out his wallet. He showed the policeman his documents. His wallet was bulging with lire!”

Giorgio paused dramatically. “There was something else?” I prompted.

“È vero! The bandit blamed the accident on me. And I had to be satisfied with a thousand lire. Eh? That is a Neapolitan driver!”


Booming, bustling Hong Kong installed parking meters two years ago. The Chinese populace immediately named them coin-eating tigers. Hong Kong drivers come from all over the world, so they started feeding the meters an international diet. Hong Kong police found coins from thirty different countries in the tigers’ maws, including the currency of Nigeria, Algeria, Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand, and Malaysia. Some of the coins caused indigestion, jamming up the meters. But others worked fine, and when the police figured out the net daily take, they found that the value of the foreign coins often exceeded the actual meter rate.

Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, has found an easy way to build new roads and widen old ones. The roads department simply shoves earth into the networks of klongs, or canals, that thread the city. There is no need for condemnation proceedings. Randolph Hamilton, American adviser to the lord mayor of Bangkok, reports that by this ingenious method the city has added twenty-eight miles of new roads and sixty-two miles of extra lanes in the past five years. Bangkok is now building two twelve-lane boulevards, permitting traffic-flow patterns even more advanced (and possibly more complicated?) than those in the West. On the road gangs, women do the lighter work, such as carrying baskets of rocks.

Bangkok can use the new roads. Traffic there is as desperate as in any city of the Orient. Bangkok had only 4000 registered motor vehicles at the end of the war; now it has more than 400,000. Slow moving bicycle rickshaws have been banished to provincial cities, leaving the field open for Bangkok taxis to beat the lights — and gently swindle tourists by refusing to use their meters. The city is adding new cars at the rate of one every two hours, twentyfour hours a day. Traffic engineers calculate that each new car needs 250 square feet of additional lebensraum, says Mr. Hamilton. He is grateful for the klongs.

In Iran the import duty on cars of the ChevroletFord-Plymouth class is 100 percent. On Buicks, Chryslers, and other medium-price cars, it is 200 percent. And on Cadillacs, Chrysler Imperials, and Lincoln Continentals, it is a forbidding 300 percent. The avowed purpose of oil-rich Iran’s graduated duties is to discourage the wealthy from conspicuous consumption. In Teheran, automobiles are apparently considered as precious as diamonds. At night, automobile dealers draw folding iron grilles across their showroom windows, just as jewelers do in other countries.

In Israel it is against the law to leave the ignition key in an untended car. According to an Israeli official, the purpose of the law is not so much to protect the car owner as to prevent an unlicensed, and presumably incompetent, driver from making off with the car and endangering others. “We are survivors here,” he said. “You will appreciate that we have a high regard for human life.”

The most popular cars in Israel are the small European makes, but the Volkswagen, understandably, is not one of the favorites. Nevertheless, it has its adherents. A while back, when a West German official paid a visit to Israel, he was met everywhere by protesting pickets. The leader of one picketing delegation down in the Negev arrived at the official’s reception driving a Volkswagen.

In Yugoslavia just outside Dubrovnik on the Dalmatian Coast is a colony of camping huts about the size of bath cabins. They are reserved exclusively for the buyers of motor scooters. The idea is to buy a scooter and get a vacation absolutely free, a gimmick that smacks of capitalist merchandising. The buyer gets a lottery number with his purchase, then waits. He may have to wait a year or more, but when his number is drawn he gets his free vacation. Painted by grateful hands on the outside wall of each hut is a life-size portrait of a scooter traveling at full throttle, slanted at a rakish angle, trailing speed lines in its wake.