The Editor of Motor Sport is an indulgent man. That much is obvious from the fact that he is prepared, month after month, to provide this skid-patch whereon his contributor “Baladeur” may perform his evolutions. At the same time he has been known to remind me that not all his readers live in that world of the past which I appear continually to inhabit. And, completely undeterred, I propose on the present occasion to revert, not to the nineteenth century, but to the Middle Ages.
The reason for this curious behaviour is not an attempt to discover a designer of automobiles anterior to Leonardo da Vinci, but simply a desire to open an enquiry into the origins and effects of the rule of the road. And the necessity for this lengthy historical journey arises front the fact that it was apparently a mediaeval Pope who decreed that all vehicles throughout Christendom must keep to the left. (I believe that I have once known which mediaeval Pope; but the fact that I have subsequently forgotten is perhaps of no great significance.) At any rate, supposing that he considered it desirable to achieve uniformity in the matter, there was, in my opinion, a good deal to he said for His Holiness’s choice of the left, rather than the right.. Although I have never driven a four-in-hand and, indeed, my hippomobile experience is confined to sundry farm waggons and a two-wheeled dog-cart drawn by a superannuated polo pony, it seems clear to me that, for a right-handed driver, it is definitely the most convenient arrangement to hold the reins, which are operated by movements mainly of the shoulder and elbow, in the left. hand, and the whip, which relies primarily on movements of the wrist, in the right. This being the case, it seems equally clear to me that it must be more convenient for a coachman to keep to the left, so that his whip does not get entangled in the hedge and is, moreover, on the right side for him to flick oncoming Jehus in the face, if, in his opinion, they do not draw far enough over.
Such, then, were, I suppose, the arguments which appealed to His Holiness when drafting his Bull; and its provisions, more or less strictly (I suspect less rather than more) were quite happily observed for centuries by the western world. Then, in 1789, there burst upon civilisation a cataclysm, of which, perhaps. we have not yet seen the last in the shape of the French Revolution. Now to the revolutionaries, anything that smacked of the church and the old régime, however inherently right, was necessarily wrong. In this case the left was necessarily wrong also; and just because Louis XVI and the Pope kept to that side of the road. the men of the New Era decided that they must keep to the other. Obediently the tumbrils rumbled their way to the guillotine with their wheels in the right-hand gutter.
Now there was this to be said for the revolutionaries, that while the change must in some respects have been most inconvenient to coachmen, it made them drive on what is, in my opinion, unquestionably the natural side of the road. Right-handed travellers when lost in the desert, or so I have always understood, perform endless gyratioris in a clockwise direction before they finally lay them down to die of thirst and it is possible that if only the drivers of small saloon motor cars were encouraged to gravitate towards the right-hand ditch, they would not so persistently proceed at 30 m.p.h. in the very middle of the road. This much at least is certain, that strenuous efforts on the part of the London Underground to induce pedestrians to keep to the left had to be abandoned as a dismal failure, add personally I have always found it easier to change from the left to the right-hand rule of the road than to change back again.
At any rate Napoleon, as a true son of the Revolution, was an enthusiast for the right-hand rule, and wherever his armies went there the rule went with them. By 1812 France had swallowed up the Low Countries and the western side of Italy as far south nearly as Naples; Spain, the rest of Italy and all Germany except Prussia and Austria, shorn of the Tyrol and her territories round the head of the Adriatic, were dependent states; and Denmark, which at this epoch included Norway, was in close alliance with the conqueror. I apologise for the history lecture, but we are at last getting near to a motor car; for examination of the 1934 edition of that invaluable guide called “Europa Touring,” which used to be published in Switzerland, reveals that at that epoch the right-hand rule of the road prevailed throughout western Europe, with the exception of Sweden and Hungary, which had never been subdued by Napoleon, and Czechoslovakia which had formed part of the Austrian Empire; while, most remarkable of all, in Austria itself there were two rules of the road, traffic keeping to the right in the Tyrol and Vorarlberg, which were the provinces that had been lost in the Napoleonic wars, and to the left in the rest of the country. Historically, nothing could have been neater; in practice, as I know from personal experience, no arrangement could have been more inconvenient except perhaps that ruling in Italy thirty years earlier, where, in spite of Garibaldi, some flicker of the Papal enactment lingered on in municipal regulations, with the result that, in the early days of motoring, it was necessary for the chauffeur before entering an Italian town, to assure himself as to whether the mayor favoured the church or the revolution.
Napoleon, however, unlike those national heroes Julius Caesar and William the Conqueror, was no more successful at invading England than was Hitler. Of course, if anyone had remembered in 1605, when Guy Fawkes tried his largescale experiment in internal combustion, that to keep to the left smacked of “Popery,” I have no doubt but that Protestant enthusiasm would have anticipated the revolutionary change to the right by nearly a couple of centuries. But apparently nobody did, and in any case the rule of the road in this country seems to have been exceedingly vague until quite modern times. Thus at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Sir Roger de Coverley, not content, apparently, with inventing his dance which was my peculiar bane at children’s parties, was writing in The Spectator of “the right we had of taking place, as going to London, of all vehicles coming from thence”; which, if it. means anything at all, presumalily indicates that traffic bound for the metropolis could blind down the middle of the road and that anything coming in the opposite direction had to get into the ditch as best it could. A state of affairs which was not long in proving its inconvenience, as witness an Act of Parliament of 1756 concerning the Widening of London Bridge (29 Geo. II, cap. 40) which, after clearly setting out a “No Parking” regulation in the words” . . . and that no Coachman or Driver shall stand or ply for hire with any Coach or other Carriage whatsoever upon the said Bridge, or leave any empty Coach or Carriage there; and that no Carman, Carter, Drayman or Driver of any Carriage whatsoever, shall wilfully remain with any Cart, Carr (sic), Dray, Waggon or other Carriage whatsoever on the said Bridge, longer than shall be necessary for going over the same “proceeds to clarify the rule of the road in the words, ” Be it further enacted . . . that all Carriages passing over the said Bridge from London shall go on the East Side thereof as near as may be, and that all Carriages passing over the said Bridge to London shall go on the West Side thereof as near as may be . . .” [Fine not to exceed 20s. or be less than 2s. 6d.].
But London Bridge was evidently one thing and all other roads quite another. Even as late as the epoch of motor fire engines, the “Manual for the Use of Fire Brigades” is still complaining that “the law governing the rule of the road is very scant”; adding that, “the Statute law governing traffic generally is the Highway Act, 1835, C50, Section 78, whereby it is enacted that if the driver of any waggon, cart, or other carriage whatsoever [including, presumably, a motor fire-engine], or of any horses, mules or other beast of draught or beasts of burthen shall not keep his waggon, cart, or carriage, or horses, mules, or other beasts of burthen on the left or near side of the road, he shall, in addition to any civil action to which he may make himself liable, forfeit a sum not exceeding £5, and in case the offender be the owner of such waggon, cart, etc., a sum not exceeding £10.”
Which pronouncement may or may not be “scant,” but at least seems to me to be about as lucid on the subject as the Highway Code is — and shows that the value of money was falling even then! In the meantime the French enactment to the contrary had presumably been phrased in the correct Gallic idiom and, no doubt, incorporated in the Code Napoleon, with the result that all but left-handed or ambidextrous continental coachmen were forced for a century to sit on the side of the box next the gutter. Such a driving position was not altogether satisfactory, for reasons which have already been mentioned and which must have appealed to Carl Benz, who accordingly designed his first 3-wheeler of 1885 so that the driver should sit on the left, and continued this practice for a number of years.
The idea, however, found no favour in France. I have before me as I write a delightful photograph of one of the first, if not, indeed, the very first, Panhard et Levassors, date about 1890 or 1891. It is an elegant, if somewhat lofty, back to-back dog-cart, and on the after seat the genial Panhard, smoking a cigar, is turning round, supported on walkingstick, to talk to Madame Levassor, who had previously been married to Gottlieb Daimler’s friend Sarazin, and had brought her second husband an option on the Daimler patents as her dowry. On the right-hand side of the front seat, with his faithful foreman Mayade beside him, sits Emile Levassor himself, wearing a bowler hat, a beard and buttoned boots, grasping the tiller in his left hand and the brake or gear lever in his right. In fact this photograph seemed at first to solve the whole problem as to why, in a country such as France which is not noted for conservatism, the early chauffeurs clung so persistently to the driving position of their coachmen predecessors. An early Benz, as is well known to anyone who has tried to drive one, needs six pairs of hands for its control whatever the position of the driver, who can therefore be placed on the left or the right as the fancy of the designer chooses. In a nineteenth century Panhard, on the other hand, the action required to operate the tiller, or later the steering-wheel for that matter, is very similar to that performed by the hand when holding reins; while the lever of a sliding-pinion gearbox demands for its successful manipulation just those deft flicks of the wrist which are used when cracking a whip.
Strict regard for historical truth, however, forbids unqualified acceptance of this theory. Amédeé Bollée’s steam coach l’Obeissante of 1873 seems, it is true, to have been steered from the centre of the front seat, but in la Mancelle (1878), Marie-Anne (1879), la Nouvelle (1880) and Ia Rapide (1881), which followed it, all seem to have been driven from the right, although they had no need of gear-levers. The same goes for the steam dog-carts, brakes and phaetons produced in the ’80’s and ’90’s by de Dion and Bouton, as well as for Serpollet’s steam tricycle of 1889. But then one would expect a tendency towards locomotive practice from the builders of steamers, and I still adhere in the main to my theory that it was the dexterity of the human hand that fixed the drivers of Panhard-type petrol cars so firmly in the seat in which their forefathers had sat.
In the meantime across the Atlantic there had arisen a mighty republic, deeply imbued with the spirit of the Revolution, and even less conservative than post-revolutionary France. Small wonder, therefore, that the United States, which was eventually to produce more motor cars than the whole of the rest of the world put together, decreed that its traffic should keep to the right. By the end of the nineteenth century its industrial progress had clearly reached a point where it felt that it should be able to compete successfully with the old world in the production of automobiles. Unfortunately just one thing was lacking — adequate roads for them to run on; and, the sturdy European type of petrol car being clearly unsuited for tackling the prairie, early American makers developed a strong penchant for light steam buggies. In 1894 The Engineer gave an illustration of one built by a Mr. Simmond, in which, as one would, perhaps, expect, the driver was seated on the left. But, when an attempt was made the next year to run a race from Chicago to Waukegan and back, only one car succeeded in covering the course of just over 90 miles, and then it took more than ten hours to do so. For the moment, clearly, American cars were hardly to be regarded as serious competitors by their European contemporaries, wherever the driver might sit.
Indeed, well after the turn of the century commentators in the Old World were still inclined to be patronising when describing trans-Atlantic automobiles. Thus in 1902 The Autocar published a photograph of “An American Petrol Car” (make not specified), and remarked, “This machine is interesting as it shows the tendency among the builders of petrol cars in the United States to copy the European outline of car.” One might indeed mistake the vehicle for a Charron or something of the kind, were it not for the fact, to which, incidentally, our contemporary did not see fit to call attention, that it had left-hand steering; but this feature in no way contends with our general theory, as it is stated that, “an epicyclic train is used for speed variation.” Indeed, where the sliding-pinion type of gearbox was used, the driver seems to have been as firmly relegated to the right-hand side of the car in America as in Europe. A recent issue of the Gazette of the Horseless Carriage Club of California, which has found its way into my possession, includes among its features a reprint of the finely illustrated report of the 1906 New York Motor Show which appeared in The Horseless Age. Here we have the American car of the day comprehensively portrayed, from the luxurious Model K 6-cylinder Ford (recognisable only by its steering-wheel as the forerunner of Model T) to a range of makes whose names to me are not, most of them, even a memory — Crawford, Jackson, Acme, Compound, Marion, Dragon, Lambert, Dolson, Harrison, Conover, Moore, Cartercar, De Luxe (described as having “valves in the heads, those for each cylinder being operated from a single cam by a walking beam on top”); and all of them, without exception, have got right-hand drive.
Unfortunately I can draw no contrasting conclusion from the left-hand drive Frayer-Millers which had run in that same year’s eliminating trials for the Vanderbilt Cup Race, because, frankly, my only information on the subject of them is derived from Gerald Rose, who remarks, “The three 110-h.p. Frayer-Millers were odd-looking cars with huge air-cooled cylinders, a centrifugal fan in front forcing the air over the engine on the usual Frayer-Miller principle. The driver sat on the near side, and was close to the ground, the wheel being nearly horizontal”; and because this incomparable authority on early motor races says nothing about the transmission system of these somewhat freakish machines.
However, by 1909 Henry Ford had designed and marketed Model T, “with nothing but pedals to push,” and it was not long before he realised that this feature of his most famous design had finally emancipated the driver from his seat on the right. Well, pictures of left-hand drive Fords merely heightened their comical character in European eyes, and nobody worried much about it. Then, in 1921, Jimmy Murphy won the French Grand Prix on a left-band-drive Duesenberg, and I can remember to this day the sensation of shame and horror which swept over me when I realised that this “glorified flivver” had fallen heir to the laurels of Szisz’s Renault, Nazzaro’s Fiat, Lautenschlager’s Mercédès and Boillot’s Peugeot. What was worse, the next year there was Rolland-Pilain, the respectable French house of Rolland-Pilain, committing the very same abomination, which now seemed, by comparison, to have been positively excusable in what was only a Yank motor car anyhow; in the Touring Grand Prix, the very house of Peugeot was guilty of the same hideous crime. And what was more, once the rot had started, there seemed to be no stopping it. It spread to all the very best French marques; it was not content to be confined to France, by 1928 it had captured even Caracciola’s famous “SS” Mercédès-Benz. There was no salvation from it, except in the single-seater racing car. But, of course, all my prejudices of the 1920s were utterly illogical. Once manufacturers had taken to mounting gear-levers on the top of the gearbox instead of on a cross-shaft, it was as sensible to seat the driver on the left-hand side of the car as it had previously been to seat him on the right. And since in England I do not particularly want either to sit in the gutter, or to change speed with my left band, they can move the gear-lever to the steering-column as soon as they like, as far as I am concerned, and I shall just pretend that I am driving an early Darracq!