Books: My love affair with motors began with Ladybird

For Martin Buckley, these lovingly illustrated books were a vital part of a Sixties childhood
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The Ladybird Book of Motor Cars was my literary introduction to cars. In the early 1970s, there wasn't much child-orientated information available for kids with a thirst for automotive knowledge.

These slim, hard-backed volumes acknowledged an innocent enthusiasm for the world of cars. Thanks to my Ladybird books, I felt I could name almost everything from the latest Vauxhall Viva to a rare Silver Shadow. I went from Ladybird books to CAR magazine, via The Daily Mail Motorshow Review.

The format of the books was comfortingly familiar: 72 of the world's most interesting cars arranged in size order, usually starting with a Reliant Regal. The first book was 1960 (a rare edition), revised in 1961 and 1963 and thereafter refreshed every two or three years. The last of the six books was published in 1972, always priced at 2/6; the final volume was 15p.

They would sometimes feature cars no longer in production – the Lancia Aurelia B20 featured in 1960 but had not been sold new for two years – and a handful of oddballs; the chances of spotting an Allard or Frazer Nash Continental on the road were pretty slim, but they spiced up the choice of saloons, sports cars and exotica.

The charm of the books, which you can still find in second-hand shops or on the web ( ) was and remains the beautiful pictures. The descriptions of the cars were written to appeal to kids but didn't talk down. They pointed out the rarities, gave you some basic facts (top speed, length, number of seats) and a depiction of the car's badge.

There was no bias towards British cars. The books weren't even rude about American cars, which were described in terms of their luxury and "effortless travel". In fact, American cars featured quite heavily, showing how they were a much more prominent part of the British motoring landscape 30 or 40 years ago, where there was a thirst for glamour in a country still a bit austere. I got my first bit of anorak info out of a Ladybird; the Volga diesel, I learnt, had a Land Rover engine.

There was also Ladybird's The Story of the Motor Car, a general automotive history taking readers through a happy world of Mini Coopers, E-Types and Silver Clouds. Even though I no longer have the books (I liked "redesigning" the cars in felt tip), the depictions are for ever imprinted, the E-Type shown passing through the gates of a grand house with a Daimler Dart going the other way, the cheerful drivers greeting each other. Other Ladybirds included the How It Works series and Tootles the Taxi, which seemed dated even then.

The books – there seemed to be hundreds of them – covered noble subjects like The Public Services (whatever happened to that idea?). They seemed designed to make us kids think we were living in a lovely world.

I learnt to read on Ladybird's Peter and Jane series. They were a brother and sister whose dad drove a two-tone Zephyr Six, a car you never saw on the road. Perhaps mindful of such things, the publishers gave the books a Seventies makeover and made Peter look like Donny Osmond. One high-street scene featured an orange NSU Ro80.

After 1972, Ladybird books changed somehow in format and feel; a bit like when Dinky and Corgi models lost their rubber tyres and went on to those cheap-looking (and no doubt cheaper) whizz wheels. It was as if everybody had got lazy and didn't care any more about what things looked like.

Ladybird books were a sort of kids' guide to the world, fairly serious but not dry. They exuded optimism and decency, but seemed to come from a passing era. The men wore baggy Fifties clothes and short hair; the women were sensibly bouffant and mumsy.

Ladybirds were aimed at the middle classes and portrayed them in a favourable light. I liked their world, without ever quite feeling part of it.

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