A Lada VAZ 2101, 1975. #12827 Photo: Fortepan / Vajk Kiskos

Four-wheeled Family Members

The Art of Posing for Photos with Cars

A car and its owner: a well-known, usual pair in family photos. In the photos, we see girlfriends with a defiant gaze, wives with a truly happy smile, or friends joking around. But the dominant presence of cars is never a question. One can’t help but guess what could have gone through the minds of all those people who had their photos taken with their cars over the past century.

One can find thousands, if searching for specific brands, even tens of thousands of photographs featuring automobiles in the Fortepan archive. Shiny BMWs and Mercedes Benzes from the pre-WWI era, Fiat Topolinos from the 1930s and the 1950s, later many, many Skodas, Volgas, and Moskviches. Times were changing, and so were the quality of the cars and their surroundings, but one thing makes all these photos similar: Next to the car, there is the owner — usually, a man — standing, sitting, leaning on it, and his wife, girlfriend, friend, or a whole company of friends.

Mercedes 24/100/140 LE, 1924. #1582 Photo: Fortepan
A Gräf&Stift, 1918. #9791 Photo: Fortepan

Automobiles have no doubt changed the history of mankind. We could get to places by cart, bicycle, or motorcycle, but that was far from what an automobile offered: getting to where we are going quickly, comfortably, and cleanly. It has become a symbol of modernity, of speed; and those who could ride in a car could experience the freedom of motion and the freedom of choice.

Earlier, it was unthinkable for a wide range of people to own a personal vehicle of transport made out of steel. Though still not many could afford it and cars have always had an aura of wealth and authority, but for the lucky ones, owning a car indeed multiplied their possibilites and choices. The value of car ownership even increased through the terrible year of 2020: in the COVID pandemic, many considered the car to be the safest means of transport…

Fiat 508 Balilla, 1943. #72577 Photo: Fortepan / Tivadar Lissák

Such a great companion deserves to be captured in photos for eternity. Not only in advertisements and movie posters, but in private photos as well. Since it was mostly the rich and famous who used cars and other people tried to emulate them, it has led to a great number of photographs where it is not the owner but someone else who chooses to appear next to a cool car in a photo.

Budapest, Hermina (Május 1.) way, no. 45. The former Állami Szociális Otthon (State Social Home, today Mozgássérült Emberek Rehabilitációs Központja [Center for the Rehabilitation of he Disabled]). A Moskvich 423, 1966. #59495 Photo: Fortepan / Antal Braun

It is an Eastern European peculiarity that due to the specific turns of history, the car has become a symbol of social status not only once but twice in this region. At the time of World War I, two or three thousand cars were on the roads of Hungary: in smaller towns, residents would know whose car they were seeing on the street. About 15 years later, approximately ten times as many cars were in circulation. Automobile shows started to take place from the 1920s on; some were very important and elegant social events.

After World War II and the austere 1950s were over, it was possible again to obtain a car in Hungary from the 1960s on, yet having one continued to be a matter of prestige for several decades. Later even humble people could sign up and start the payment for one at the state company Merkur (Merkur Személygépkocsi Értékesítő Vállalat), but during the long years of soviet-type planned economy, it took several years of waiting to finally receive the actual car keys in hand.

Whether in the years preceding the World Wars or in socialist times, it is interesting to see the diversity in style of the photographs taken of people and cars. It seems likely that those behind and in front of the camera had somewhere in their minds Sophia Loren’s famous photos with a Mercedes Benz, Roger Moore’s photos with a Volvo, or even Marilyn Monroe’s advertising photos with automobiles, as well as the ads for the soft drink Traubisoda featuring the Hungarian top model Ági Pataki.

Model Ági Pataki in a 1980 ad for the softdrink Traubisoda. #196997 Photo: Fortepan / József Füles Tóth

Weddings provided a good occasion for nice and happy photos featuring cars. The families did everything they could to provide a really elegant automobile for the just-married couple to depart — it made a pretty big difference though when the young couple sat in a convertible instead of the back seat of a dark cab or a Dacia. Having your wedding photo taken with a convertible must have felt like being in Hollywood and the air of movies and stars — there are not many of them in the Fortepan collection.

Some of the photographed preferred to be active during the shoot (fixing the car, washing it, or even doing artistic gymnastics), while others chose to appear passive: leaning against the car or standing elegantly next to it, or lightly, almost shyly, resting their hands on it. One can both find easygoing, casual drivers and dramatic ones looking straight at the camera. Some of the photographers seem to have shot the photo randomly, while others chose the backdrop carefully for the man-and-machine double portrait in the city or on a highway.

An Opel Kadett, 1961. #143660 Photo: Fortepan / Chuckyeager tumblr
Solymár, with the Kevély mountains in the background. A. BMW 319 Roadster, 1936. #18785 Photo: Fortepan / Kálmán Szöllősy

There is no actual data available about the gender ratio in private photos of this type. In the case of advertisements, it is clear though: since the potential car buyers were mostly men, manufacturers followed the age-old rule in advertising from the start until recent times; cars could and should be sold with good-looking ladies. Automobiles were features of other types of advertisements as well: clothing, music, travels or anything else that could be related to a comfortable and easy life.

And the potential customers indeed got hooked by the advertisements: the same seductive poses and tempting looks appeared in private photos as well. There was one telling difference though: sincere smiles and cheerful happiness were absent from the models appearing in the ads. People in private photos show real pleasure, the joy of traveling independently — something few people could afford at the time.

On the Buda Lower Embankment, near today’s Pázmány Peter Promenade. A Trabant 601, 1971. #87375 Photo: Fortepan / Tamás Urbán

And what else is missing from professional photos? Bystanders appearing uninvited or by chance. Those faces! It is worth browsing through these photos with a focus on these figures. A little boy peeking into the wedding car, an old man wearing a fur cap, servants, and passer-bys — they are all unforgettable characters.

1957. #9878 Photo: Fortepan
A Lada 1200 (a.k.a Zhiguli) serving as a wedding car next to the church on Lehel (/at the time Élmunkás) Square in 1981. #39169 Photo: Fortepan

Women in these photos may appear sitting behind the wheel, but with few exceptions they were passengers. We do know of women drivers from as early as the turn of the 20th century, though. The fact that the women that appear in these photos were interested in cars, and — even if only symbolically, for the sake of a good photo — they were ready to take over the wheel, is a clear sign that it was not for a lack of interest from their side that influenced their societal role as it developed.

1928. #135170 Photo: Fortepan / Ákos Lőrinczi
1964. #57514 Photo: Fortepan / Ágoston Kollányi
1964. #74952 Photo: Fortepan / Éva Romák

Car owners’ recollections were the basis for an interesting study by Orsolya Karlaki. Her interviewees had been able to obtain one of the most treasured and wished articles of consumption, an automobile, between the 1960s and the 1980s. From their recollections, it is apparent that they developed a very strong emotional bond towards their first cars: they gave them nicknames, they called them “family members,” and they still kept many photographs of them, perhaps because these cars brought new chances and freedom to their lives. […] “The level of prestige a car meant is apparent in the fact that happy first car owners would go on an introductory ‘tour’: they would visit their parents or other close relatives to show it around.”

Sümeg, 1925. #28403 Photo: Fortepan / Noémi Saly

The interviews in the study also reveal the associations or connotations different car brands had at the time. The Trabant was considered the “car of the people,” a type of car that would be bought by working-class people living in housing estates or in smaller towns, due to financial reasons. The Wartburg comes through as a car for the “hat-wearing” country folks, great for getting to and from their rural gardens and to carry the harvest. The Zhiguli is described as a car for the urban middle class — middle managers, well-paid craftsmen, and older intellectuals —, while the Polski Fiat was the choice for younger intellectual couples and perhaps for single women. The Dacia was considered an elegant car, bought by the more prosperous, and the Moskvich was for party functionaries and company directors.

A Skoda 120, 1985. #40428 Photo: Fortepan
A Moskvich, 1962. #153616 Photo: Fortepan / Album022

The family photographs with cars that so many Hungarians have saved are very similar, yet they tell different stories and different shades of our past. The present of these types of photos also needs to be mentioned. According to the dating site Zoosk, choosing the right photo for one’s profile is essential for success in online dating. And times are changing: according to the survey, men posing in or next to their car or motorcycle in their photos receive less likes than the average “pedestrian.”

Next to the Basilica of St Peter and Paul in Pécs in 1965. #202025 Photo: Fortepan / Antal Jakab

We used Orsolya Karlaki’s study titled“Autó-mobil? Személygépkocsi-használat a Kádár-korszakban” [Auto—mobile? The use of motor cars in the Kadar era] (published in Hungarian in Múltunk 2008/3. and Arcanum Digitheca when writing this article.

Text: Zsolt Lukács | Photo editing: István Virágvölgyi | English translation: Nóra Vörös

The Weekly Fortepan blog is a collaboration between Fortepan and the Capa Center. The original Hungarian-language article can be found here: https://hetifortepan.capacenter.hu/negykereku-csaladtagok

Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.

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