Home James: A Brief History of the Chauffeur
What do we imagine when we think of a chauffeur? A snappy gray suit, prim hat, Oxford English accent? Perhaps Dudley Moore in “Arthur” or Morgan Freeman? The chauffeuses (yes, that is a female chauffeur) in “My Chauffeur” and “Desert Road”? Or how about a dazzled Julia Roberts hitting Rodeo Drive? Maybe closer to home, after winning Power Ball, you cruise around in a chauffeur-driven Silver Shadow, sipping a ’92 Chrystal and tossing confetti of Franklins out the back window?
Sadly, most chauffeur images we conjure are based on the rich fantasy world of cinema and literature. We imagine free-wheeling opulence, which (I’ll speak for myself, here) is beyond the means of 99.99% of us. Take heed, the reality is somewhat different.
How so, you ask?
Although history is full replete with examples, let’s start back a millennium or two. The Romans, as we all know from “Gladiator” and “Ben Hur,” developed the horse-drawn chariot. Wasn’t that fun. China, Persia, Africa - the wheel and someone to drive it flourished, as human civilization fanned out across the globe.
By the 13th century in Hungary, the chariot evolved into the first four-wheel wagon. Drivers were tenant peasants hauling their hard-earned labors up the local castle for the gentry. Then all hell broke loose. Horse drawn carriages were everywhere: Before long the Mad King and Marie Antoinette jaunted around in a fleet of carriages with immaculately dressed carriage men and drivers. The fusion of driver and power, complete.
There was even an early Victorian song popularized by Elsie Carlisle, a singer popular between the World Wars.
Home James and don’t spare the horses
This night has been ruined for me
Home James and don’t spare the horses
I’m ruined as ruined can be”
Shall we jump to the steam age?
That’s where the somewhat less distinguished term chauffeur find’s its etymological origins.
Before the advent of the Rolls, ‘chauffeurs’ were soot-covered men who shoveled coal into steam engines. Yup. Fancy, huh? Hence the noun chauffeur ( Latin calêre "to be warm,” and French chauffer, “to heat”) means ‘one that heats’ — guess where the English word ‘chafe’ derives its roots? You feeling me?
Along comes the first automobile, unimaginatively referred to as the horseless carriage. These four-wheeled contraptions were little more than wagons retrofitted with small steam engines, which, in turn, attached to two axles and a chassis with a simple steering mechanism. They were not inexpensive, and one couldn’t both properly drive and shovel coal. Therefore, the early horseless carriages required someone to steer, another to stoke the engine with coal. Guess who the stoker was? Good guess, the “one that heats”, the chauffeur.
If a person in 1900 could afford a steam powered automobile, they could certainly afford had to have a chauffeur. Right? And these first drivers and chauffeurs were paid more than double what regular laborers were paid, or roughly $20 week. The die was cast.
In 1882 the first gasoline powered vehicle, a ‘tri-cycle’ designed by the Enrico Bernardi, scooted down a street in Italy, seated with Bernardi’s son. In 1885, German engineer, Karl Benz, unleashed the invention that would forever change the world, the automobile. With time and innovation, the internal combustion engine soon replaced the steam engine. Within a few short, Henry Ford delivered the first mass produced automobile. And with each from that point the notion of the ‘driver’ or chauffeur grew both in prevalence and prestige.
Are you still with me?
In 1906 Rolls Royce introduced the Silver Shadow, the first purely chauffeured automobile, equipped with what was soon to the standard for luxury: a chauffeur compartment. Think Teddy Roosevelt. Think Norma Desmond.
Think the 20s.
And it caught on. By the 30s people of means were driven by black-capped private chauffeurs. The lowly coal stoker was supplanted by a high-paid employee driver.
By 1927 Ford sold sixteen million cars. With each passing year the horseless carriages grew in popularity, sophistication, and power. And let’s not forget price, with the high-end commanding a pretty penny. But who’s driving these high-end babies. Not old man Potter. Nope. He’s in the back, cruising Bedford Falls thinking of ways to crush George Bailey. His Chauffeur is behind the wheel. Rich people have chauffeurs, was the au courant message of the time. Magazines. movies, and books reinforced this message and helped fuel the push towards conspicuous ostentation. Car companies knew a good thing, and thus the niche was invented, exploited, and marketed to sell the cheaper, mass-produced automobiles. If you’re somebody, you gots to have a chauffeur.
Limos lined up at the academy awards, with svelte starlets, who sashayed onto the red carpet from the back in long gowns. Captains of industry drove to One Wall Street. The queen when to cricket matches in them. And who was behind the wheel. Tick, tick. Hint. Not the queen, nope. A chauffeur. A black-suited chauffeur.
By the 70s limos were a thing. Hell, Donald Trump drove around in one. Jagger arrived at concerts in one. And with that visibility, everyone wanted one. And the price went down. Wedding parties. Proms. Drunken revelers. You name it. The limo and chauffeur were commonplace, until opulence and luxury surrendered to absurdity. Limos become longer and longer until they looked like shiny black gummy bears, stretched in the July heat, contorted beyond recognition. What stayed constant: the chauffeur.
And, well, here we are. Today, chauffeurs are a ubiquitous in our society. While a very select few still employ private chauffeurs full time to be at their beck and call 24/7, that’s the exception, not the norm. Chauffeur driven cars are no longer the dominion of the rich and famous. Even I, your humble writer, can call up any one of thousands of black car companies and be whisked away to an airport or anywhere (COVID notwithstanding) or a night on the town (ditto). And in each black car is a professional chauffeur, at my beck and call, to take me where I want, for a price. And here’s the excellent news. The price isn’t half bad.
So next time you want a chauffeur to take you to the airport, a night on the town, or visit Bailey Savings and Loan, call a company that uses real chauffeurs, like drvn.com.
And with that, I’ll close. Home James.