I never met LJK (Leonard) Setright, but I'm sure I wasn't the only person who knew him only by his work to have been saddened by the news of his death.
Over the course of a career spanning several decades he wrote a number books on motoring subjects, including Drive On!, his fascinating social history of the motor car. He contributed to many magazines and newspapers, including this one. But he was best known as perhaps the most talented of the outstanding motoring writers who made Car required reading for discerning enthusiasts for a quarter of a century or so after its birth as Small Car in 1962.
Many of Car's early features didn't carry by-lines, so from the reader's perspective, it is difficult to establish the precise date of Setright's first contribution, although his Sport Report column was an established fixture from 1966. This enjoyed a prominent position in the magazine, although at first there was little indication of the enormous range of his later work.
In the June 1966 issue, an early photograph of Setright accompanied an interview with Colin Chapman, the founder of Lotus. The picture shows a distinguished looking gentleman with an extravagant moustache, although at this early stage, there was no evidence of the monocles, hats, capes, cigarette holders or other accessories in later photos.
For the reader, these props contributed to the air of exotic mystery that surrounded Setright to the end. Considering the extent of his output, he disclosed surprisingly little in print about his personal background or circumstances.
One wonders what those who encountered him on the road made of him. He sometimes gave a clue, as here during his 1967 account of the Lamborghini Miura: "The man at the Swiss customs smiled indulgently when I told him that the Miura was simply a Mini Cooper turned back to front."
In December 1966, a piece appeared that set the pattern for much of Setright's later work for Car. In it, he records his impressions of the Jensen FF, a remarkable car that scored two notable firsts: the use of four-wheel drive for improved traction on a fast road car, years before the Audi Quattro, and Maxaret anti-lock brakes. It is the only car test where the words "Jupiter Pluvius" may be read.
His precise, elegant prose conveys the purpose and possibilities of these then-unfamiliar technical features with superb clarity, and, while he could be a stern critic of the motor industry's more half-hearted products, Setright was generous in his praise of genuine innovations.
Car-makers were bolder then, and like Jensen, they often bet their companies on untried technologies. Daring, advanced models of the late Sixties and early Seventies, such as NSU's rotary-engined Ro80 and Citroën's GS and SM, didn't always live up to their promise, but they brought out the best in Setright's writing, which often combined with the outstanding artwork and photography for which Car was justly famous to brilliant effect. Here he is on the GS, in 1971: "According to Voltaire, 'the secret of art is to improve on nature'. It is a peculiarly French attitude, one that is manifested as much in their engineering as in their graphic, plastic or musical artefacts. In their automotive engineering it is especially apparent..."
Setright didn't just write about cars; his long-running Handlebars column provided a platform for his views on motorcycles, and he often analysed and explained the finer points of in-car entertainment. But whatever his subject, his extensive knowledge of art, music, history and a dozen other fields shone through.
Another distinctive feature of Setright's writing was that it often contained intriguing references to unusual advanced driving techniques. His long-term tests for Car of the Peugeot 305 in the late Seventies, for example, praised the ease with which it was possible to execute something called a clutchless gear-change.
I'm not sure I ever entirely understood what this involved, but as far as I could tell, he had discovered that given a particular combination of road speed, engine speed and - this was probably the vital bit - Setright-ian skill, it was possible to ease the lever between gears without operating the clutch. My parents owned one of the then-new 305s, and I did much of my early driving in it; I was tempted to copy Setright's technique, but never quite summoned up the courage to try.
There was an assumption on Setright's part that you, the reader, would be as well read as he: "You will remember from reading your Suetonius that the proudest boast of the Roman Emperor Augustus was that he had found the city brick and left it marble. In the same vein, Citroën may claim to have found the automobile a motorised cart and made of it a magic carpet."
He wrote warmly about other models he ran for long periods, such as the Volkswagen Scirocco Storm and, more recently, the Honda Prelude. Most famously, he was a long-standing Bristol enthusiast.
Setright contributed to Car well into the Nineties, and he was recalled at least once to contribute to commemorative issues when the magazine celebrated milestones in its history. But if you want to read Setright in his prime, it's well worth tracking down old copies of Car from the Sixties and Seventies via eBay or dealers in second-hand car magazines and brochures. For a mere £5 or so - not much more than the cover price of today's glossy mags - you can experience the master at his best.Reuse content