Who was John Henry?

Tony Davis March 23, 2012

Strange change agent... Henry Ford created the once-advanced Model T but then resisted progress.

Strange change agent... Henry Ford created the once-advanced Model T but then resisted progress.

As anyone with a penchant for folk songs knows, John Henry, when he was a baby, sitting on his daddy's knee, picked up a hammer and little piece of steel and cried ''Hammer's gonna be the death of me - Lord, oh, Lord - hammer's gonna be the death of me.''

OK, get the campfire going, we can sing in rounds. No, stop there. That isn't the point.

The point is that the song - in all its versions - tells the story of the railway guy with the hammer who stood up to the new age of power tools.

In a heroic attempt to protect his job, and those of his crew, he ended up in a competition along a railway line, breaking rocks with his hammer on the right side, while a ''steam drill'' worked on the left.

John Henry defeated the machine but died in the effort. In the process, proven old ways gave way to modernisation, labour was crushed by capital and much else besides.

It's an inspiring story, up to a point. John Henry's heart was in the right place, perhaps, but we're talking about someone who would have argued that having four guys walking around with you playing instruments made more sense than an iPod.

He certainly wouldn't have been debating alternative fuels. ''Why don't you just walk, you big girl!'' (Note: misogynist comment included for historical consistency; no working man would ever say something like that today.)

The mindset is not completely unknown today. So who are the automotive John Henrys?

Maybe they include the two Brits who have just relaunched the obscure Atalanta sports tourer of 1937, complete with aluminium-over-ash body structure. The car is described as a limited edition. Unsurprisingly.

Perhaps it's another British brand, Morgan, which never stopped using wood as a structural element. And which is entering the second decade of the 21st century with a three-wheeler with an exposed engine between the front wheels.

Perhaps the answer is less obvious - say, BMW clinging to rear-wheel-drive or Porsche doggedly putting the engine behind the driver.

Maybe it's those car-makers that never wanted to give up cassette players. According to The New York Times, the last new model thus equipped was the 2010 Lexus SC430.

No, really, the tape is coming back, the product planners must have argued. Along with hammer men.

You can forgive Bristol for making a car that uses 1950s methods and offers 1950s technology, because they make so few. Those who buy them are still getting what it says on the tin. Contents: one old shitbox.

But what about Ford? The Lincoln Town Car, a flagship luxury model, still has a separate chassis and solid rear axle.

OK, it's the 2011 model and there's no replacement but there are still examples out there in new-car showrooms. Henry Ford would have approved.

Henry the First quite liked mechanisation but absolutely fetishised the old ways. Near his ultra-modern plant, Ford built a replica rural village so he could retreat to the simple life that existed before people like him stuffed everything up.

In the ''T'', he had built a relatively sophisticated car for 1908 but then resisted almost all change. He didn't want an electric starter, let alone such later frivolities as styling or more-powerful engines.

Various forms of motor sport have their John Henrys, too. NASCAR's top formula, the Sprint Cup, ran carburettors until earlier this year. Lord, oh, Lord!

The series has now agreed, however, to be dragged into the 1980s with fuel injection. But many competitors are not happy. NASCAR has such a curious relationship with the past that, since 2007, all competitors have been racing an antediluvian beast known, without irony, as ''The Car of Tomorrow''.

The Car of the Day After will be seen any century now.

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