The Motoring Age: the automobile and Britain 1896-1939 by Peter Thorold

Motoring down the road to nowhere
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The Independent Culture

You are planning to write a book. Your editor is eager, you've got a great subject. But when you look into it, you find that 25 other books on approximately similar lines have appeared over the past 10 years. Do you a) bow to the inevitable, and look around for a fresh topic; or b) plough on regardless in the hope you'll find something fresh to say?

In most cases, the sensible choice would be a. But as every author knows, this is easier said than done. Working up a theme, you get proprietorial. You've done all that work and those other books aren't so great. There may be an infinity of ideas out there, but they're not your ideas. This is the book you want to write, and write it you damn well will.

Now more choices confront you. Will you a) take a line that will differentiate your book from all previous works; or b) read everything and present a general overview, trusting that no one else will have delved so deep and all will be grateful for your clarity and wit?

If your subject is the motor car, choice a) is clearly the preferred option. There have been so many histories of British motoring; and there are so many fascinating side avenues. If you're a petrol-head, you might pick styling, or recent innovations, or great collectors. There's the social option, with its planning and psychological subsections, or the political, particularly juicy given the fast-approaching end of oil and the inability of anyone to say where the hydrogen for the "hydrogen economy" is going to come from.

Peter Thorold, however, has plumped for choice b. That this book is a canter through the literature rather than a personal view is made disarmingly clear. His technique is to move from one previous book to another (including, I noticed, one of mine) while quoting relevant bits.

His time-frame, too, seems a little strange: 1896 is an obvious starting date for Britain, since that was the year of the first London to Brighton run. However, the really interesting early automobile development took place in France, which thanks to Napoleon had the world's best roads. And why stop in 1939? Plenty of Brits did drive by then, but the real explosion in car ownership didn't happen until the 1960s.

Thorold does recognise this: he's constantly darting into the post-war years. But those forays are half-hearted, because structurally illegal. Indeed, the whole book lacks unifying thought, a deficiency exemplified by a chapter devoted to road against rail that never mentions the two overwhelmingly important aspects of the contest: that road transport is flexible where trains are not, and that rail operators must bear (and pass on) the cost of building and maintaining the permanent way, while general taxation pays for the roads.

Thorold is at his best on the motoring extravaganzas of the rich: a subject he enjoys, and about which he has written a previous book. For the rest, consult his bibliography. There are some jolly good books in there.

The reviewer's books include 'Automobile: how the car changed life' (Macmillan)