Matters Of Moment, February 1957



The Great Petrol Muddle

No excuse is needed for referring again to petrol rationing, because it is the subject foremost in the minds of motorists.

Without debating whether or not rationing is necessary, there is no doubt about the muddled manner in which it is being applied. The Government announced the basic ration as a “generous allowance, double that of war-time rationing,” overlooking the fact that 200 miles’ driving per month is anathema to the average motorist, who used to cover that distance most weekends, and an insult, when labelled “generous,” to the enthusiast, who frequently put double this mileage into a single day’s motoring. And the basic allowance is of little help to business-people who are being forced to shut down until they are provided with a reasonable supplementary petrol ration.

When petrol rationing was discussed in the B.B.C.’s “Any Questions? ” programme, a feature in which members of the panel are usually hotly divided, every single one of them thought rationing to have been badly applied. One speaker emphasised that there is no excuse, considering how much time the Ministry of Fuel and Power has had to prepare for petrol rationing—if we recollect correctly, she said the Suez situation was foreseen last March—but if she looks at her petrol-book she will see that the rationing was contemplated not months, but years ago. On the cover is the remarkable statement: “This book is the property of His Majesty’s Government . . .”!

Yet, this long-term anticipation notwithstanding, the Prime Minister had to intervene twice in the matter of supplementary petrol allocations; and where was Mr. Aubrey Jones the second time, when much essential goods transport was almost at a standstill for lack of coupons? Why, on a holiday, from which be had to fly home to see Sir Anthony Eden . . .

Prolonged petrol rationing, acceptable during a World War but extremely unpalatable in time of peace, will have a very adverse effect on this country. Sales of new and secondhand cars will slump. We are already a nation of tiny motor cars and now, and for a long time to come, the petrol-famine and the savage 3s. 6d. tax on every gallon that is available, will tend to restrict sales to cars of under a litre in engine capacity. Moreover, secondhand sales seem likely to predominate at the expense of the New-Car Industry, because of the ratio of purchase tax to permissible mileage. Business concerns are unlikely to invest in new fleets with a low-mileage year ahead of their existing vehicles, and the private buyer is not likely to fall for a new vehicle when to buy it involves handing over a considerable sum of hard-earned money to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

In times of plentiful petrol the new car scored over the used vehicle by reason of its trouble-free-mileage-potential, for it came to its owner with unworn cylinder bores, tight bearings and new tyres. Moreover, it usually carried a six-months’ guarantee. Today, with a “basic” mileage of only 1,200 possible within the compass of that guarantee, this “piece of paper” (and the brand new tyres and mechanical parts) seem exorbitantly costly when purchase tax on the lowest-priced normal saloon car on the market, in the form of the Ford Popular, represents a matter of more than £138—and when a reasonable used Popular can be obtained with a saving of approximately the same amount of money.

To assist the Motor Trade, and particularly the New-Car Industry, through these difficult times the Government should have reduced purchase tax for the duration of petrol rationing, thereby providing an incentive to buy, in the same way that their lottery provides the Nation with an incentive to purchase Premium Bonds. In this way an Industry which willingly set up shadow factories before the war, which supplied the fighting forces unfailingly throughout hostilities, and which, after the war, achieved record export sales, would have been assisted. But no, purchase tax remains unchanged and the great automobile plants at Dagenham and elsewhere go on to short-time working.

All the Government has done is to amend hire-purchase laws. It is now possible to acquire a motor vehicle by depositing 20 per cent. instead of 50 per cent. of its price, but while this will probably facilitate sales at used-car dealers where low-mileage small cars are in stock, it is not likely appreciably to ease the burden of the Motor Industry as such, which is being thrust down under the combined load of 60 per cent. purchase tax, petrol rationing and foreign competition—and with a European “free-trade” threat just round the corner.

Another point which motorists must watch is the Government statement that the additional 1s.-a-gallon tax on petrol will be removed “within one month of the end of rationing.” Removed it must be—but why “within one month” when it was applied by the Chancellor overnight?

So far as the rise in petrol prices is concerned, it is clearly apparent that while the great Petrol Companies serve the motorist, they are not his friend. For what friend would impose that additional 5d.-a-gallon after declaring record profits running into many millions on the last trading year? It would seem that however scarce petrol becomes the companies intend to extract their “pound of flesh” from the motorist in order to make quite certain they do not lose a penny on account of reduced sales. Indeed, it remains to be seen whether the increased prices will not come out as further profit at the close of the rationing period.

The argument sometimes heard, that petrol prices in Britain have merely come into line with those prevailing on the Continent is scarcely valid unless vehicle-taxation and cost-of-living in the countries instanced are taken into account. In France, for example, cars over 25 years old go tax free, very small-engined runabouts do not call even for purchase of a driving licence, and the prevailing annual tax on a Renault Dauphine is the equivalent of £9, while a car of similar size over five years old, but under 20 years old, pays the equivalent of £4 10s.

There are people who delight in calling this country “the 49th State of the U.S.A.” Even if this were so, we hardly imagine that the great American Union would wish to see motor transport at a standstill and grass sprouting from the highways of any of its States, so perhaps aid will be forthcoming in supplying us with oil, and at not too exorbitant a profit! After all, during the early years of World War II, when the Suez Canal was denied to us, our fighting forces obtained satisfactorily the enormous quantities of petrol they needed!

In fact, we do not for one moment subscribe to this nonsense about the 49th State. Britain, whose export-drive in the years immediately following the war was so masterful, and which is a country well advanced in atomic-power research and, in a mechanical age, is able to claim the absolute Speed Records in the air, on land and on water, does not need to lean on any other nation, and never will— providing she is not mis-governed, and if “the sloppy, disinterested, lackadaisical type of working, both in manufacture and design, which has ruined our passenger-car industry,”to which the Continental Correspondent of Motor Sport referred last month, can be rectified in time to combat the growing menace of foreign competition.

The fact is that the Government seems to have turned its back on both the motorist and the Motor Industry. About the only manufacturers who look like benefiting substantially from curtailed motoring are those who make batteries, for the average mileage now possible is not conducive, to the good health of such electric storage containers! Scooter manufacturers should also survive.

Britain will never prosper until she is governed by people who appreciate the crippling effects that high-cost transport and inadequate roads have upon all sections of her community. This time it is essential that motorists, who have contributed hundreds of millions of pounds to their country in taxation, take steps to ensure that reasonable freedom is granted to them when petrol is again unrationed. Not only must we fight for a square deal over major matters affecting issues such as petrol and vehicle tax, better roads and free parking—but must watch also for minor wrongs, such as insurance invested in private companies which can keep a man off the road because they dislike his age (even when he has passed the M.o.T. driving test) or the age of his car. And let us see that those “learners” who are now permitted to drive without supervision will not be made to take a test after six months of accident-free motoring!

If rationing of petrol is not soon removed motor racing will be seriously affected this year and the British Grand Prix may have to be abandoned. If the country was genuinely seriously short of fuel there would be no cause to complain—but while coaches containing pleasure parties roll out the miles, petrol for foreign tourists is plentiful and the horse-boxes continue to roll into Kempton Park, Sandown Park etc., private motorists and the Motor Industry should fight for a fair deal.

A Glimmer of Activity

Since petrol has been rationed a few trials have been run, including one confined to pedal-cycles by the Guildford M.C.! On February 17th the V.S.C.C. will hold driving tests at Heston and the 750 M.C. its Walsingham Trial, limited to a distance of two miles(!), and on April 6th, if sufficient support is forthcoming, the V.S.C.C. will run its usual Race Meeting at Silverstone. The M.C.C. hopes to hold a substitute for its Land’s End Trial at Easter, presumably on April 20th, and the B.A.R.C. fully intends to have its Easter Goodwood Race Meeting on April 22nd. So we are not entirely Nasserised!


Castellotti has been declared 1956 Champion of Italy and Jean Behra is 1956 Champion of France.