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

There was no golden age of motoring - John Morrish is surprised to discover how quickly our roads got clogged up

Sunday 26 October 2003 00:00
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It takes a considerable effort of will to see the rotting tin box parked outside our houses as a liberator, a personal tonic or a transport of delight. And yet the dream continues to bowl along, despite everything that dreary speed-bumped reality can do to hold it back. Observe the tons of newsprint and the hours of television time devoted to new cars. And yet, as this interesting history of the early part of Britain's motoring experience demonstrates, the Golden Age of motoring, like all Golden Ages, has always been in the past.

The early adopters, as we would call them now, rushed into their expensive and dangerous hobby with proselytising zeal. Here is J J Hissey, a man of the horse-and-cart age, getting his first taste of motor travel in 1906: "There is joy in speed, and poetry in it, and danger too. But a rush at full speed in a motor car over a lonely road, and through a deserted country, wide and open, is an experience to be ever afterwards remembered. Truly, for such a moment life is worth living."

In their tweedy way, such commentators are Britain's answer to Marinetti, whose futurist manifesto of 1909 declared: "We want to hymn the man at the wheel, who hurls the lance of his spirit across the Earth, along the circle of its orbit." The speed-freaks were a wealthy and well-connected market for the automobile, but they were a short-lived market - sometimes literally.

At the start, the development of cars ran neck and neck with the development of the aeroplane, and determined thrill-seekers quickly turned their attentions to the skies if they could afford it. It is no coincidence that several of the early motoring pioneers - notably Charles Rolls - ended their days not on the Kingston by-pass but in the wreckage of a shattered aircraft.

It took a while for the car to make its real social impact. Indeed, it is arguable that the bicycle was a more socially significant invention than the private car. For most people on even average incomes, the private car was an impossible dream in the years covered by this book (that may be one reason why Thorold devotes a lot of space to motor-coach and bus travel). Meanwhile, the two-wheeled steed was getting them out of their homes, away from prying parents and domestic chores, and into education, urban jobs and unsupervised attachments. Feminism and sexual liberation arrived by pedal power.

The car at first required a chauffeur or a travelling engineer. Even once it had become reliable, it remained an expensive item, affordable only to the seriously rich or those for whom it would be a business tool. Thorold pinpoints the cost advantages to the professional, for instance, a family doctor, who could do now many more calls in a working day. Small wonder that for many brought up before the war, the doctor was the only car-owner they ever encountered.

For the leisure driver, the pleasures of the open road were astonishingly short-lived. Until 1896, cars were required to be preceded by a person on foot (the famed red flag was abolished 18 years earlier) and were limited to 4mph. But after "liberation", the first complaints of heavy traffic and parking problems took only 10 years to arrive, along with driving licences, registration and number plates. By modern standards, cars were still rare, but the increase had been rapid, from 8,000 in 1905 to 132,000 at the outbreak of World War One, not to mention 51,000 charabancs and motor buses.

The war represented only a brief hiatus in the automobile's progress, so that by 1921, there were attempts to deal with the impending chaos with what would now be called an integrated transport policy, balancing road and rail. Then, as now, this was an illusion. Road transport, for freight as well as people, had it all its own way. And soon the automobile was rebuilding Britain in its own image. Social life, sex, domestic finances, architecture, work, cities and the countryside were all powerfully affected.

Peter Thorold's book is a well-researched anecdotal account of most areas of the motor car's influence in the period leading up to the Second World War. His sources tend towards the literary - he gives us quite a lot on J B Priestley's charabanc-bound English Journey, on Orwell, Laurie Lee and Mr Toad - but there is a solid underpinning of statistics. It's difficult to know where else you'd look for the number of blacksmiths to be found along the London-Brighton road in 1903: one every second mile.

Thorold's cut-off date seems slightly odd, given that for most ordinary Britons the motor car was still unknown in 1939. It was the 1950s and 1960s that saw the real motor-car boom. He also has surprisingly little to say about the British motor car industry and about the design of the cars themselves. At the start of the book, motor cars tended to be steered with tillers, and some were even driven by steam. By the end, they were not very far from what we know today. Thorold has nothing much to say about how that happened: his focus is motoring, not motors.

A clue to this neglect comes in his final chapter, which ambitiously wraps up the entire post-war story of the motor vehicle in Britain, not forgetting the British Leyland debacle. Here he quotes an American historian who considers that the motor car's technical development came to an end in 1925. Thorold, edging back from this extreme position, adds that others set the cut-off at 1950. Either way, you can see that the metal box in the drive today does not impress him much.

Perhaps he's right. The car may indeed be in a kind of technological afterlife, perhaps awaiting some eco-friendly resurrection. Nonetheless, it seems likely we will all be living with it - and its consequences - for many years yet.

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