Volti, Rudi

In 1965 Spain’s ratio of 25 automobiles per 1,000 persons was lower than many Third World nations’ today.1 Yet by the beginning of the new millennium the situation had changed dramatically. In 2000 Spain’s 17.5 million private automobiles produced a ratio of 442 cars per 1,000 persons, slightly less than the average for the European Union as a whole (469) but greater than the Netherlands (411) or Great Britain (419).

This expansion of car ownership did not take place in a political vacuum.2 Until the late 1970s an authoritarian State’s commitment to a policy of economic self-sufficiency motivated the creation of an indigenous automobile industry. The mass production of automobiles began in 1950, when a government agency, the Instituto Nacional de Industria, sponsored the creation of the Sociedad Española de Automóviles de Turismo (SEAT).3 The Spanish government used SEAT as a basis for further industrial development by mandating the maximum use of locally produced components. This requirement helped to spur the development of a supplier industry, but at the expense of high production costs and poor product quality.

By the mid-1950s the government began to relax its autarkic policies in the face of mounting economic and social pressures.4 One consequence was the establishment of automobile factories by several foreign firms. At the same time, however, governmental involvement continued in the form of price controls, high taxes, tariff barriers and the regulation of credit purchases. The death in 1975 of Spain’s autocratic ruler, Francisco Franco, was followed by the restoration of democracy and the drafting of a new constitution in 1978. The economic liberalisation that accompanied democratisation opened up the market to foreign competition, a trend that was strongly reinforced by Spain’s entry into the European Community in 1985.

The growth of automobile ownership

The social disruption that followed Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy had significant short-term economic consequences, which in turn led to a temporary decline in new car purchases. But sales generally trended upwards (Figure 1).5

While sales of new cars were growing during this period, so was the population. Even so, the increase in the number of cars relative to the Spanish population is quite impressive (Figure 2). One explanation for the steady increase in the automobile fleet is the growth of personal incomes, as can be seen by depicting incomes and the acquisition of new cars on the same graph.

The strength of the relationship between per capita incomes and new car purchases can also be demonstrated through the use of a Pearson correlation coefficient, which shows an impressively high correlation of 0.886 at p = 0.01.

This close association between income growth and increases in per capita income has led some economists to assign a numerical value to the relationship by reckoning that the income elasticity of automobile ownership is about 2. That is, each percentage increase in household income results in an increase in the automobile population that is twice that percentage.6 This may be an example of false precision, at least as far as Spain is concerned. The loose coupling between yearly changes in income and new car purchases can be seen in Figure 3. An elasticity of 2 would show up as a horizontal line passing through the y axis at 2. There have been a few years when elasticity was indeed close to this number, but they have been the exceptions.

There are several reasons that changes in income and new car purchases have not moved in lockstep. For one thing, increases or decreases in income will not immediately be followed by changed patterns of car purchases; a time lag of uncertain duration will usually be present. Other factors such as shifting government policies, the distribution of income gains and fluctuating interest rates also will intrude on the relationship between income and automobile purchases, but the essential relationship seems clear enough.

As a final point about the connection between income and automobile purchases, it is noteworthy that while total automobile registrations have mirrored changes in per capita income, there was no significant increase in automobile ownership when average incomes reached a certain threshold; overall, the process of new car acquisition has exhibited considerable yearto- year perturbations as the general trend of automobile ownership has moved upwards.

Population density and car ownership

Although income is the chief determinant of automobile acquisition, several studies have noted the effects of rural versus urban residence on the growth of automobile ownership. With regard to the United States, it has been pointed out that automobile ownership was initially an urban phenomenon, but after the first decade of the twentieth century this pattern reversed abruptly, and by the 1920s per capita car ownership was higher in the countryside as people eagerly acquired automobiles as a way of overcoming rural isolation.7 The same pattern appears to have held for Canada; during the first three decades of the twentieth century the agrarian and lightly populated province of Saskatchewan ranked second or third among all provinces in the ratio of cars to people, the level of ownership being particularly high in the rural areas.8 In contrast to the North American experience, many European countries exhibited a rate of automotive diffusion that was slower in the countryside than it was in cities and suburbs.9 We are therefore left to wonder if the Spanish experience of mass motorisation has tended to reflect the ‘North American’ or ‘European’ pattern.

Although no precise index of ‘rurality’ exists, population densities can serve as a reasonable indicator. In Figures 4-7 each point represents the population density of individual administrative regions plotted against the per capita new car registrations for each region.10 Four periods separated by ten years are presented in order to determine whether there has been a signifi- cant shift in the relation between new car registrations and population density.

Several observations can be made. First, the general arrangement of individual points on the graphs conforms to the same pattern from 1970 to the present. Although Spain was just entering the era of mass motorisation in 1970, the general disposition of the individual points is quite similar to those for the year 2001. Second, in all cases the four outliers are the most densely settled regions, all of which have high levels of new car registrations relative to population. It would be premature, however, to conclude that this indicates a direct connection between density and automobile ownership, thereby confirming the ‘European’ pattern of automobile diffusion. Reading from left to right, the four regions are Valencia, Catalunya, Pais Vasco (the Basque region) and Madrid-the four richest regions in Spain. It seems fair, therefore, to conclude that, more than anything else, their position on the graphs reinforces earlier conclusions about the overwhelming significance of per capita income for automobile ownership. Third, observation of the remaining points on the graphs for 1970 and 1981 shows a considerable spread in the acquisition of new cars, but these do not correlate to any signi- ficant degree with population density. Finally, regional differences in per capita new car registrations, while still evident, become less pronounced from 1981 to 2001. Since incomes were growing steadily during this period, we have another indication that increased spending power has been the primary driving force in the expansion of Spain’s automotive fleet.

Private automobiles and other forms of transport

The automobile is not the sole example of motorised individual transport; in many parts of the world people depend on motor cycles, scooters and mopeds as their primary means of transport. Spaniards have made extensive use of motorised two-wheelers for everyday transport (Figure 8). The rate at which the car population outstripped the growth of the motorcycle population can be graphically depicted by plotting the number of cars and motor cycles on the same graph (Figure 9).

Clearly, automobile ownership first exceeded motorcycle ownership in the mid-1960s, and grew at a much more rapid rate subsequently. From the mid- 1970s onwards, the size of the motorcycle fleet also increased, albeit at a much slower rate. This revival may be the result of the motor cycle taking a new role in an era of mass automobile ownership, less as a primary means of transport and more as a niche vehicle, either a convenient means of urban transport for people who also own cars or for fun and recreation.

Along with making use of individualised transport in the form of motor cycles and scooters, Spaniards also relied on public transport. This raises the possibility of a substitution effect: as ownership of automobiles grows we might expect to see a relative or even absolute decline in the use of trains, buses, trolleys and subways. This is exactly what happened in the United States from the 1920s onwards; with the exception of air travel, public transport use has declined in both absolute and relative terms. But a substitution effect is much less evident in Spain (Figure 10).

Prior to a recent upsurge in ridership, the peak years for public transit use were the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. Transit use slipped to a low point ten years later but then recovered during the 1990s. In order to explain the resurgence of public transit use in the face of rising automobile ownership, it may be hypothesised that privately owned automobiles initially served as a substitute for public transport, but increases in the automobile population began to diminish individual mobility as congestion and parking problems mounted, motivating many motorists to return to public transport. From this point on, in those parts of Spain with adequate public transport, the automobile has served as a supplement to mass transit rather than as a replacement for it.


Researchers always hope that surprising, counter-intuitive results will emerge form their studies. Such has not been the case here. The diffusion of automobile ownership in Spain followed a predictable path: increases in per capita income have been strongly associated with the expansion of car ownership, while population density may be significant only in as much as high densities are associated with relatively high incomes. With regard to alternatives to the automobile, at one point an expansion in car registrations was associated with an initial diminution of motorcycle ownership and public transit ridership, but neither trend was permanent. Equally important, the increasing usage of transport alternatives that occurred in the mid-1990s did not signify a reduction in Spain’s car population; indeed, quite the opposite was the case.

Anyone who has driven in Spain in recent years can recite a litany of traffic congestion, inadequate roads, misleading or non-existent signage, expensive fuel and urban parking horrors. Yet in the face of all of these dif- ficulties the automobile population continues to increase, as Spain has been one of Europe’s fastest-growing markets for new automobiles at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Perhaps the most important lesson that can be extracted from a history of automotive diffusion in Spain is that the desire to own an automobile is an elemental force limited only by the financial capacity of nations and individuals.


1 Banco Urquijo, Evolución a largo plazo de la industria del automóvil en España (The longterm evolution of the automobile industry in Spain) (Madrid, 1970), p. 40.

2 For a review of Spanish economic policies and actions from 1939 to the mid-1960s see Ramón Tamames and Antonio Rueda, Introdución a la economía española, 25th edn (Madrid, 2002), pp. 477-515.

3 Cecilia Castaño Collada, La industria del automóvil en España: efectos de los procesos de cambio tecnológico sobre los condiciones del mercado del trabajo (The automobile industry in Spain: the effects of technological change on labour market conditions), doctoral dissertation, Department of Economics, University of Madrid (1985), p. 209; Joaquín Ciuró, Historia del automóvil en España (Barcelona, 1970).

4 Tamames and Rueda, Introdución a la economía española, p. 491.

5 Numerical data are derived from various publications of the State Statistical Bureau of Spain.

6 ‘To travel hopefully’, The Economist, 5 September 1998, p. 4.

7 George Kirkham Jarvis, ‘The Diffusion of the Automobile in the United States, 1895-1969’, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan (1972), p. 386 and passim.

8 G. T. Bloomfield, ‘Motorisation on the new frontier: the case of Saskatchewan, Canada, 1906-1934’, in Theo Barker (ed.), The Economic and Social Effects of the Spread of Motor Vehicles: an International Centenary Tribute (Basingstoke and London, 1987), pp. 166, 170.

9 Gijs Mom, ‘Finding “Europeanness” in automobile diffusion: prolegomena for an international research endeavour’ (forthcoming).

10 An administrative region is a grouping of several provinces, with the exception of Asturias, Cantabria, Madrid, Murcia, Navarra and La Rioja, each of which consists of a single province.


The author wishes to thank Raul Sallárd, Carmen Sarasúa, and Joanne Xiaoyu Zhang for their assistance with this project.

Rudi Volti Pitzer College, Claremont CA

Address for correspondence

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