L. J. K. Setright

Iconoclastic motoring writer
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The Independent Online

L. J. K. Setright was arguably the world's finest, and certainly its most extraordinary, motoring writer. He was best known as a contributor to Car magazine, and his elegant, iconoclastic copy - which was as likely to include references to Kipling, Hebrew sages and Virgil, as it was steering geometry and tyre compounds - was enjoyed by a generation of car enthusiasts and those who simply enjoyed learned, quality prose. It didn't matter that Setright frequently reverted to Latin, or to arcane quotes from ancient texts, devices that the majority of his readers couldn't hope to understand; Setright was an icon and his writings had an almost messianic following in Britain and around the world.

He also wrote about music (he was a concert-standard clarinettist), Judaism - a faith that deeply influenced and directed his life - and motorcycles. With his long beard and flowing hair, cane, hat and fine leather gloves, Setright certainly stood out among motoring writers and his prose was similarly differentiated. Among motorcycling journalists, he looked like an Old Testament prophet suddenly arriving at a Hell's Angels meeting.

Apart from Car - for whom he was a columnist for more than 30 years - Setright also wrote for The Independent. He was a contributor to Punch in its heyday and, over a long period, to Car & Driver in America (the world's best-selling motor magazine), and frequently and provocatively commented on BBC radio, in his lovely soft-spoken, book-at-bedtime voice. He wrote many books. His most recent, Drive On!: a social history of the motor car (2002), was well reviewed and, in typical Setright style, included references to Sumerian traffic and Russian constructivism, as well as Einstein, Engels and more obvious motor- related themes (including how motoring has influenced fashion, and initiated the move to lightweight clothing).

Leonard John Kensell Setright was born in London, the son of an Australian engineer, in 1931. His father was best known as the inventor of the Setright ticket machine, widely used on British buses in the 1950s and 1960s.

He trained as a lawyer but quit soon after starting his career - because he hated it. He began professionally to combine two of his main interests: writing and engineering. He found himself editor of Britain's best-selling engineering magazine, Machine Age, in the early 1960s before beginning his long association with the motor car and Car magazine.

In the mid 1960s Car was a small, privately owned magazine famed for its irreverent opinions; Setright fitted in perfectly, and, as the magazine's readership and fame grew, so did Setright's. By the early 1990s, it was Britain's best-selling motoring magazine, and Setright was its star. Before the rise of Jeremy Clarkson, he was undoubtedly Britain's best-known motoring writer.

He prided himself on offering an alternate voice, and once wrote a whole column bemoaning that his opinion of a certain car was similar to that of other journalists. His views were invariably as unconventional as his dress. He detested speed limits, insisting that responsible people should be free to drive at whatever speed they felt safe and comfortable - as with walking. He would argue his case forcefully and eloquently, in print or on air. He insisted there should be one, and only one, motoring offence - dangerous driving - and argued that most speed limits did nothing to promote safety. He also detested what he called "environmental faddism". Yet he championed efficient cars, detested 4x4s for their wastefulness, and regularly argued that cars should be lighter and more intelligently conceived.

Setright was passionate about cars and fascinated by them. Yet he felt most modern cars were samey and boring and were nowhere as technologically advanced as they should be. This, he thought, was to the detriment of society. He blamed the dominance of marketing, over-regulation, and too much time listening to customers rather than leading customers. He wanted engineers "and other thinkers" to take the lead and revolutionise the car. The Japanese were doing this better than any other nationality, argued Setright, partly because Japanese car companies were typically led by engineers. He had especial regard for Honda, and particular respect for its former engineering boss and president Nobuhiko Kawamoto, who became a close friend. Another favourite marque was Bristol; it was perhaps not surprising that such a British motoring eccentric should enjoy such British motoring eccentricity.

Setright also detested diesels (because of their noisome fuel, heavy engines and lack of refinement) and felt that no car needed wind-up (or electric) windows. Good air conditioning made them redundant.

His level of knowledge was enormous; his intellect formidable; his keenness to debate and question legendary. Yet he was a man of supreme gentleness and grace and was enormously popular, even with those whose products he criticised.

He died, peacefully, from cancer - claiming the end of his life was "promotion not death". His Creator, said Setright, takes back what belongs to Him.

Gavin Green

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