Sideslips by "Baladeur"

“It’s like abroad,” says Mr Prendergast in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Decline and Fall, “no one would want to go there if they hadn’t been told it existed.” I have always thought this a particularly profound remark, and about half the motorists I know entirely agree with Mr Prendergast. The other half, however—and I must admit that it is the half among which I myself am numbered—spend one part of the year motoring on the Continent and the other part thinking how long it will be till they get back there again. Some of them, indeed, even tend to agree with a famous correspondent in one of our contemporaries who once shattered the complacency of his stay-at-home adversaries by blandly remarking that he had “never regarded England as a motoring country.”

This motoring wanderlust is, moreover, no new thing, and as long ago as 1907 The Car Illustrated, a beautifully produced journal which, alas ! can no longer be described as a contemporary, thought it worth while to publish what it described as “a detailed guide to those intending to tour or travel with motor cars on the Continent.” A copy of this publication has recently come into my possession, and I must say that I have found it a mine of delightful information. In order to convey some impression of its contents, I propose to try to pick out some of the richer nuggets. In the first place, of course, the intending tourist must decide on his car, and in this connection the guide seems to suggest that to hire one was at that time by no means an unusual proceeding. “In selecting a make,” we are advised, “two considerations are vital—finish and simplicity of the mechanism, and comfort in the tonneau both as regards its seating capacity and the care with which it is hung on its springs.” Students of language may note in passing that “make” is still a jargon word, worthy of inverted commas, while tonneau is not as belonging, presumably, to standard English. “Be sure the brakes are in perfect order, and have every nut and bolt tested. Also the steering gear should be overhauled. A week’s examination of the car in advance is not too much.” I wished I could get “every nut and bolt tested” in a week nowadays.

“As to horse-power,” continues the guide, “20 to 30 is ample. Cars of 20-hp will go over the Stelivo Pass—on the first speed, perhaps, but nevertheless with relative ease.” This almost casual reference to the Stelivo is interesting, if only because in his High-Roads of the Alps, published three years later, Mr CL Freeston seems to take the attitude that the Alps were still something of an undiscovered country to the motorist and were to be be regarded with a fair measure of awe. Perhaps, indeed, the author of the guide had slight qualms about sending unsuspecting tourists to the mountains with entirely unsuitable cars, for he adds, apparently rather irreverantly, that “the average weight of a 20/25-hp tourist car with five up (including the chauffeur) and the necessary amount of luggage is about 11 to 12 tons. This assumes that only a Cape cart hood is employed.

The employment of a chauffeur is, of course, also assumed, and some good advice is given in this connection. You should “never take a chauffeur who is not an expert engineer as well as a clever driver ” ; and, in spite of this latter quality you should, with the emphasis of italics, “prevent him scorching:” Again, “a chauffeur with a knowledge of French is always of very great assistance,” because, among other things, “he amuses himself more easily when off duty” ; although this last point seems to be almost negatived by the injunction that you should “if possible (!) avoid taking a chauffeur whose manners are bad and natural instincts low.” Finally, you should “ensure that he fits himself out neatly and tidily, and that his clothing is appropriate. Otherwise he may get sunstroke in Italy and pneumonia on the Swiss passes.” For one horrible moment one suspects that even the Edwardian Age is getting soft about servants—until one reads on to the next sentence. “This,” concludes the author triumphantly, “is awkward for his master.”

Moreover, once on the Continent, it is not only the chauffeur who must mind his manners. “The publie are generally frankly hostile to motorists as a class,” says the author cheerfully, “but courteous and well-disposed to individuals. As a rule missiles are thrown only at fast drivers, or at cars which have the ill-luck to follow fast drivers.” Unless you run into this sort of misfortune, there are a few simple rules for keeping out of trouble. For instance, it is advised that one should “never kill live stock on the road wantonly,” but should “do one’s best to scare animals or poultry away from the course of the car . . Some motorists use a little stick wherewith to pat the bonnet and produce a metallic sound.” My word, French chickens have learnt a thing or two since 1907 : they clear off quick enough now, and I never pat the bonnet with a little stick. So, alas I have the humans. ” If you break down in a town or village and have to repair, for instance, a tyre, do not assume hostile attitude towards the crowd of curiosity mongers . Some of them will help, often for the honour, and it is not unpleasant to get someone else to do the pumping up.” It certainly would not be. “Extreme politeness to all officials is vital,” we are warned, “particularly to the police and Customs authorities.” It must certainly have been easy to get into trouble with the former, if only over the speed limit. Unlimited speed; even on the open road, was legally permitted only, rather curiously, in Germany and Holland, the regulations in the former country stating, in the best Teutonic style, that “if there is a clear view, speed may be increased so long as the driver remains capable of carrying out his obligations satisfactorily under all circumstances.”

“Within enclosed spaces,” however, the speed of a motor vehicle must never exceed the pace of a horse trotting ; and presumably one of the driver’s obligations was to know how fast a horse trots. In France the speed limit in open country was 181/2 miles an hour—and presumably was such in 1903 when the Paris-Madrid race was run and Gabriel averaged over a mile a minute from Paris to Bordeaux. “The speed limits,” remarks the guide complacently, “are continually exceeded.” At this time in France only cars capable of exceeding 30 kilometres, or 181/2 miles an hour were required to carry number plates, and, very reasonably, “motorists consider this recognition of their possible speed as a permission to travel at it.”

Belgium, Portugal, Switzerland and Denmark agreed with France in imposing a limit of 30 kilometres an hour. In Sweden this was evidently considered a bit fast; and the limit was set at “25 kilometres in the day and 10 kilometres at night” ; while of Norway we are merely told that “motoring in Norway is practically unknown, and regulations are drastic.” So they were—on paper—in Spain “the maximum speed in the open country is 10 kilometres or about 61/4 miles an hour ; in inhabited places it is 5 kilometres or 31/2. miles.” But, adds the guide reassuringly, “these regulations are in practice, absolutely disregarded.” I imagine that King Alfonso XIII was already seeing to that !

On the other hand Italy, although only a few years before it had been said to be too deeply riddled with autophobia to allow town-to-town races to be run there, was now more liberal than France, at least in the matter of the speed limit. “In the open country a speed limit or 25 miles (40 kilometres) an hour is laid down,” says the guide, and as a result, no doubt, “the speed limits are said to be generally observed, though,” adds the guide, remembering that there are always black sheep in every family, “in the country the rate is sometimes brought up to 38 miles (60 kilometres) an hour. Shepherds and peasants, however, complain that sheep and cattle are run over by motor-cars driven at a furious speed.” I should think it must have been pretty furious if they ran over much in the way of cattle. Austria, like Germany and Holland, was even more liberal than Italy, the regulations contenting themselves with saying that, in the open country, “the driver must always be master of his speed.” To redress the balance, however, it was added that “the timely use of the horn is stringently prescribed.” Wise Austria !

As a matter of fact, of course, a good deal of emphasis was laid on the motorist’s horn in other countries besides Austria. In Belgium it had to be audible sixty yards off, in Holland a hundred. In Switzerland “every car must carry one deep-toned horn only . . . which must be frequently used” : and in Spain, in spite of a speed limit of 61/4 miles an hour, “the frequent use of the horn is strongly counselled”—although, as an alternative, you were still allowed to use a bell. On the other hand, in Holland “excessive horn-blowing is forbidden,” and in “Paris, by a recent police regulation, defective silencers, blinding light, and abusive use of horns are forbidden.” As far as horns are concerned, I think that this regulation was enforced, about thirty years later.

In any case the author of the guide is in no doubt as to where he stands in this matter. “Motor horns ought to be sounded far oftener abroad than is customary,” he states quite categorically. “The motor horn can hardly be too powerful. The ideal outfit is to carry two horns, one of which can be sounded by the driver and the other by some occupant of the car … There need be no fear that this suggestion of double noise will create a nuisance. Far from it . .  It is, of course, notorious there is nothing like the human voice for effectiveness— a Hi, hi !  on an emergency is worth all the motor horns in existence. A shrill toy trumpet is not to be despised.” I must remember to try that one some time.

Lamps, as provided for in the regulations, have illumined a dark spot of my ignorance. In all the countries mentioned it was necessary, as one might expect, to have two lamps at the front of the car and one at the back, except in Belgium, where one front lamp and one at the back was apparently sufficient. (In this country, incidentally, motorists had only recently succumbed to the efforts of authority to induce them to carry more than one lamp in all. In Cars and How to Drive Them, published, also by The Car illustrated, in 1903, a writer had strenuously contended that this was all that was required of them. In this contention he based himself on Section 2 of the .Locomotives on Highways Act of 1896 and the regulations made in pursuance thereof by the Local Government Board. In these regulations, as far as lamps are concerned, as he pointed out, “the singular number is carefully retained”, and he goes on to quote “the lamp shall be so constructed and placed as to exhibit a white light visible within a reasonable distance in the direction towards which the light locomotive is proceeding, or is intended to proceed”‘—there is nasty sarcastic tinge in this phrase !—”and to exhibit a red light, so visible, in the reverse direction. The lamp”–singular again—”shall be placed on the extreme right or off side of the light locomotive in such a position as to be free from all obstruction to the light”. And nowadays they say it is illegal even to park a “light locomotive” with a single light arranged like this !

But to return to the Continent and 1907, it was only necessary for the tail lamp to be red, as far as I can see, in Switzerland and Spain, and indeed, a tail lamp of any sort seems to have been regarded as hardly worth fussing over. “As to the lighting of the rear lamp.” says the author of the guide, “it is desirable to do this, but every tourist has found that it is often not vital.” But what did surprise me and, as I have said, illuminate my ignorance, was to discover that in France, Italy, Spain and Switzerland the left-hand front lamp had to be green, although in Switzerland, as a concession, “the green lamp can have a white band in the centre or the centre itself white.” Has anyone recently found a veteran car, I wonder, equipped for foreign touring with a green front lamp-glass ?

There was no such thing, evidently, as an International Driving Licence in 1907, although in-many countries the motorist’s national licence was accepted. In others, however, a local licence was necessary, and its aquisition usually involved taking some sort of a test. In France this was “supposed to last about fifteen minutes and to include a drive round streets with a vivo voce examination as to construction, working and repairs.” If these took place simultaneously, I can imagine that it was fairly easy to distract the examiner’s attention from your rabbit-like performance in Paris traffic with a spirited discussion on the working of a differential or the best way to replace the spring of an automatic inlet valve. In Austria also the official examination involved “a knowledge of the mechanism a of the vehicle,” while in Germany “motor vehicles may only be driven by persons who thoroughly understand their mechanism . . . and can show a certificate to that effect from an officially recognised expert.” I wonder how many of us nowadays could extract such a certificate from some recalcitrant Professor Doctor Engineer !

The reputation of Germans, incidentally, stood extraordinarily high with English people in 1907, and it would be a melancholy exercise for any present day German reader of this guide to reflect on how this reputation has suffered as a result of two wars. For instance, according. to the author, “One can always be quite sure that a hotel which, obviously makes a special appeal to Germans is more than passable.” With regard to hotels in general, you should “always go to the best hotel in any place,” but “many motorists never take off their luggage until terms are settled—it is wiser.” On meals, too, he has some very sound advice. “Some motorists prefer taking a luncheon basket to obtaining lunch en route . . . this is a mistake. Occasional luncheon by the way has the charm of a picnic, but too much of it bores and becomes unsatisfying. It is so easy to obtain excellent lunches abroad ; never judge a restaurant by it appearance.”

Petrol, observes the guide, is usually sold by the litre but sometimes by weight and this observation stirs the deepest recesses of may memory. The first time I ever undertook a Continental motor tour without parental protection my companion was eighteen and I was really seventeen, but I had said I was eighteen too, because otherwise I should not have got an International Driving Licence. We passed through France and we got very good at calculating how much petrol was costing, at so many: francs for a litre. Then we got into Italy, and did the same sums with lire. Finally we crossed into Austria, and at our first fill-up asked the price of petrol. “So many krone for a kilogram,” replied the garagiste. We looked at each other. I remember, in horror, “there are x krone to the £,” we said, “there are 4.54 litres to a gallon, one cubic centimetre of water weighs a gramme, and, oh ! Lord, what is the specific gravity of the petrol at a wayside Austrian garage ?”

It seems that triptyques existed in 1907, if not carnets de passage en douanes, but the guide by no means assumes that touring motorists will necessarily avail themselves of this facility. The alternative was to pay the duty, sometimes calculated ad valorem but more often, apparently, by weight, when you went into a country, and to recover it when you came out again against the receipt for the payment. This system was not so intolerable as it sounds, for the simple reason that there was real money in those days. Then, unlike nowadays, when the Chief Cashier Of the Bank of England said “I promise to pay the Bearer on Demand the Sum of Five Pounds”—he did not concern himself, of course, with smaller amounts–he really meant it, and would hand you, on demand, five golden sovereigns whtich were perfectly good money anywhere from Calais to Constantinople. Those who believe in the inevitability of progress, and consequently claim, for example, that modern cars are superior to those of the vintage era, might like to chasten themselves a little by comparing these internatienal monetary arrangentents of 1907 with those ruling in 1952.