Magazine article The Spectator

Drive on! A Social History of the Motor Car/The Motoring Age: The Automobile and Britain 1896-1939

Magazine article The Spectator

Drive on! A Social History of the Motor Car/The Motoring Age: The Automobile and Britain 1896-1939

Article excerpt

Musts for the glove compartment DRIVE ON! A SOCIAL HISTORY OF THE MOTOR CAR by L. J. K. Setright Granta, L25, pp. 400, ISBN 1862076286

THE MOTORING AGE: THE AUTOMOBILE AND BRITAIN 1896-1939 by Peter Thorold Profile, L20, pp. 294, ISBN 1861973780

I once saw L. J. K. Setright at a Mercedes launch, tall and rabbinical, an engineer by background and a man of wide and eclectic learning, fond of paradox and unlikely comparison. He judges not as others judge and is proud of his one-time record as most quoted author in Private Eye's Pseuds' Corner. He is prouder still, I trust, of his comprehensive and definitive book on Bristols, published in gorgeous and costly editions by the Palawan Press. As was this book, first time round; now, it's good to see it in more popular format.

The title gives little hint of the deeply informed, quixotically discursive pages to follow, packed with surprising detail and eccentric good sense. Raindrops, we learn, have a maximum rate of descent (unaided by wind) of 18 mph. The electric starter was introduced as early as 1912, fuel injection and hydraulic dampers earlier still. A consideration of the pneumatic self-starter fitted to Czar Nicholas II's enormous 11.65-litre Delaunay-Belleville in 1908/9 (designed to facilitate quick getaways from would-be assassins) leads to the conclusion that it was self-starters that got women into cars other than as fur-wrapped passengers. Anyone old enough to have risked knuckles and wrists cranking ancient engines will find this wholly plausible. I vividly recall a reluctant and surly Daimler with a weak battery and a vicious dislike of being disturbed on cold mornings. You approached it much as our ancestors might have a sleeping mammoth; if we still had to start our cars like that Sainsburys car-parks would be empty.

The notion that small cars will reduce overcrowding is a delusion, Setright argues. Stopping distances on the open road arc about the same as for larger cars, while town centre parking bays are a standard size designed to take virtually all non-commercial vehicles, and you can't fit two small ones in. Nor can the Smart park at right angles to the pavement without protruding too far into the road. Furthermore, the legal and other restrictions we've imposed on cars make it impossible to produce really small cars (such as bubble-cars) any more. Today's small cars are designed 'for some special fiscal or other social effect', while the 'plague of absolute product liability' increasingly emphasises crashworthiness at the expense of roadworthiness. True minimalism is no longer possible and even when something revolutionary is produced, such as Issigonis' Mini, the extra safety offered (70 per cent better road-holding) vanished immediately because of our tendency to drive up to the limit.

Most of the perceived problems with cars, reckons Setright, arise either from their being political scapegoats - car pollution is actually a small fraction of total man-made pollution, but cars are an easy target - or from our own tendency to turn them into icons: 'The industry never forced cars upon us . …

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