Matters of moment, December 1974

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Short Staffed

Motor Sport will be a bit understaffed on the road-test front for the next few weeks. Not because we are cutting down on employees or cannot afford the salaries, but on account of the quirks of British Justice. Some of those who drive cars for us, which is what motoring journalism is mostly all about, have had their driving licences temporarily suspended. Why ? For exceeding the speed limit on roads which they considered safe for experienced drivers under the prevailing conditions at higher speeds than the Law allows.

The Law may be an ass, you could retort, but if it isn’t obeyed there should be no moans about the consequences. There are no moans so far as we are concerned; only rank disgust at the iniquities Magistrates impose on the motoring public. We can see that a big majority of car owners is considered incompetent to exceed 70 m.p.h. on narrow, twisting country lanes (although we hold the view that under the prevailing conditions of horse-age highways, they do remarkably well). We know the arguments about the sadness and cost of accidents, whether on the road or in the home. Which does not for a moment mean that we condone the 70-limit on fine new Motorways, particularly in daylight and dry weather.

What we take the utmost exception to is the variations in the penalties inflicted on those who dare to take motoring rules into their own hands, if only for a few moments or for a mile or two. For example ? Well, our chaps were deprived of their licences for the offence of going too quickly in the opinion of the Police who had to go even faster to fix the label on them. Fair enough, perhaps. Although the old school adage that the offence is not doing wrong but being caught no longer applies, with hidden radar traps, Police Big Brother helicopters and 130-m.p.h. Police cars. But it is entirely unfair that those who have caused no injury, had no accident, should be deprived of a licence which ensures a livelihood when others with blacker records go scot-free. We have all heard of the Brigadier who drove his Bentley the wrong way along the M4 Motorway, a piece of rank carelessness which could easily have killed someone, being granted a complete pardon by the Courts. We seem to recall a well-known Show-jumper and wrestler with three endorsements who failed to stop after being involved in an accident, but was allowed to keep his licence, although it might be supposed that his need to drive was somewhat less than that of technical writers with a direct everyday concern in the motor car. We remember the Policewoman who was proved to be driving while drunk but who was forgiven after she had flooded her face with timely tears. Our desk is littered with newspaper cuttings, sent in by irate readers, about Police drivers who have hit other cars, overturned their vehicles, gone through fences, and so on, not during a brave 100-m.p.h. chase of criminals (all Police pursuits take place at 100 m.p.h.), but under mysterious cruising circumstances. Sheer incompetence or outright carelessness you would say. But they avoid conviction or sentence. There was also the astonishing case of the commercial-vehicle driver convicted of exceeding a speed-limit, who was able to prove that he had not done so, because his vehicle was fitted with a speed-recorder which proved that the Police statement of his alleged speed through a radar-trap was widely optimistic. In other words, either the radar equipment was seriously inaccurate or the operators had committed perjury. Justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done, and on such dubious evidence how can electronic speed traps continue to be used with a clear conscience as evidence against drivers ?

So as an end-of-year message for those in charge of this overburdened country, we say revise out-dated and panic-ridden legislation as it applies to road vehicles, and particularly make sure that Magistrates standardise fines for non-criminal driving (or parking) offences. Motoring has long ceased to be a privilege of the wealthy. All kinds of tasks call for the right to drive. To suspend licences for trivial offences will tend to disrupt business, cause bitterness, and increase unemployment—by a very small margin perhaps. But remember the tip of that iceberg about which Motor Sport warned you last month….

The Brighton Run

The Veteran Car Run from Hyde Park to Brighton, organised by the VCC/RAC and this year sponsored by Castrol, is a great cavalcade of early motoring history and provides high adventure for many veteran car owners, even though the vehicles are now better understood and tamed than was once the case. Almost since its inception Motor Sport has been a firm advocate of this unique event, which dates back to 1927. We reported most of the pre-war Runs in considerable detail and had contributors among the runners; Kent Karslake, for instance, who built up from boxes of bits a 1902 De Dion Bouton especially for the purpose.

The present Editor described what it was like to ride as a passenger in the Runs of 1936, 1937, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1951, 1954. 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1967 and 1972. His respective mounts were a 1900 Peugeot, 1898 Hurtu, 1902 De Dion Bouton, 1902 Lanchester, 1902 Panhard-Levassor, 1902 De Dietrich, 1901 Mors, 1904 Tony Huber, 1902 Wolseley, 1903 Mercedes, the Mercedes again, 1903 Fiat, and 1904 Darracq. In the Runs of 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966 and 1970 W.B. drove, or co-drove, the following veterans: 1904 Brushmobile, 1903 Humberette, the Brushmobile again, 1903 De Dion Bouton, 1898 Decauville, 1903 Panhard Levassor, the Brushmobile for the third time, 1903 Cadillac, the Panhard again, and 1899 Benz. Some of these were provided for us by Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his famous Museum but a restriction on entries put paid to such generosity.

Each of these experiences resulted in long accounts being published in the December issues of Motor Sport. But this year, when we telephoned the VCC to ask for a seat on the Run we were told that this was impossible, on account of the numbers of celebrities to whom they were allocated. Had such persons been pioneer engineers, great historians, mechanics and officials from the golden age of motoring and so on, we would have understood. But from the publicity material received from the RAC it was apparent that they were mostly disc-jockeys, radio and television personalities, a retired F1 driver, fashion models and the like. Their number also included a lifeboat coxswain, but at least he was hoping to collect for a good cause. It seemed apparent that the organising body was more concerned with the “funny ha-ha” aspect of the Run than with its instructional and automotive value. Last year’s Run saw the first entry from the Metropolitan Police of two constables on a 1902 Beaumont. We have every sympathy with policemen who are prepared to take part on this great sporting occasion and perhaps compare a veteran with the Police cars they normally drive (although this crew admitted to knowing next to nothing about the historic motor car they had borrowed). But how did the RAC report on the successful arrival of this Police entry ? As follows: “Police Constables ‘Chalky’ White and Ted Clements . . . were greeted by Mrs. Clements with a glass of light ale for her husband, kisses from a number of ladies, and a request from an official to see their driving licences. Both Police drivers were suitably attired in Sherlock Holmes hats.” You see what we mean! And why Motor Sport wasn’t on the Brighton Run this year.

While we hold the view that old-car motoring should not be taken too seriously, there is a limit to the light-heartedness devoted to it which, if encouraged at the expense of the technicalities and histories of the vehicles themselves, could reduce this great British institution to a mere glee-outing for those whose addiction to the wearing of funny headgear far outweighs their interest in, or knowledge of, veteran cars. We have seen the Brighton Run emerge from a newspaper stunt to an event properly organised by Britain’s pioneer motoring weekly and then by the VCC. But after RAC intervention those Certificates of Performance with which drivers who arrived at the finish used to be rewarded were abolished, anxiety was expressed that the larger-engined veterans might go too fast, and to appease the Police the entry-list was restricted. Nevertheless, the event continues to appeal to the public, which is now encouraged to wave to non-motoring celebrities rather than to appreciate the adventure of the occasion, applaud the skill of the drivers, and regard the competing cars as priceless heirlooms (in the historical rather than the financial sense) re-enacting the motoring of long ago. We know that many genuine motoring enthusiasts take part in this long established event and we are sure that they will share our dislike of the publicity trends from which it now suffers. But you will understand why Motor Sport gave the Run a miss this year.—W.B.