IF we Englishmen do pride ourselves on anything it is upon our reputation as sportsmen. We take pains to register approval whenever we see a citizen armed with a tennis racket or a bag of golf clubs, and we get positively delirious when a man appears carrying a cricket bag. Look at the sudden hush which falls upon Victoria Station when people are seen returning from the winter sports, staggering under skis and other weird apparatus! Every rule has its exception; you mustn’t let your spotting fancy turn towards motor cars.
Our great and good governments, which are supposed to voice the sentiments of The People, make no secret of their view that people who drive cars are a dangerous gang of homicidal maniacs; they can’t quite be immured in dungeons, but they can be loaded with abuse instead of chains, taxed in the manner the late King John taxed the Jews of his time, and generally dragooned in the interests of some quite mythical body called The Public. This is the more strange, as every Englishman, and ipso facto sportsman, known to us drives or is driven in some kind of I.C. vehicle, and takes the greatest interest in the subject whenever it is discussed.
Musing over these things, some light seemed to be shed on the problem by a report of a meeting apparently convened by the Minister of Transport, at which he respectfully heard a suggestion by a representative of the Pedestrians Association to the effect that drivers involved in accidents should be hung, whether in fault or not. Is it possible that, forgetful of the precedent of the Ten Tailors of Tooley Street, the Powers-that-be have been hynotised by the incessant claim that the Pedestrians Association is the People of England? That would account for conduct towards motorists which, if only it took place in another country, would be –denounced quite roundly as Hitlerism. The latest effort has been the imposition of a twenty-mile speed limit, though how it is going to be enforced in these days of black-outs Government only knoweth.
Talking about those Tailors of Tooley Street—I beg your pardon, I mean the Pedestrians Association—it seems to me that it is quite time they came, or were dragged, into the open so that we might know just what they stand for, and decide for ourselves how far the general Press and the Government are justified in their subservient attitude towards them. Will the Association tell us–I’m sure the Editor will give them space for their replies—how many members it has, and what its membership income might be? Will it say just who the people are who are its chief supporters who dictates its policy, and whether they own cars or not? Will it tell us whether it encourages forms of pedestrianism, such as rambling and the Stock Exchange walk to Brighton, and whether it discourages cycling, roller skates and scooters, and other forms of transport?
It will certainly hear with regret that there is more than a suspicion that it is only an anti-motoring society masquerading under a misleading title, and this is a heaven-sent opportunity for it to clear itself of the stigma, if stigma it is.
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The lamented little Audrey used to laugh, and laugh and laugh in a cynical manner for one of tender years, and we can imagine the Clerk of the Weather copying her not too courteous example, for he must have laughed when he heard our discussions about laying the car up at the end of last year, knowing exactly what he had in store for us in January and February. So far, at any rate, the few licences which have been taken out— and supplied with the maximum delay, they say –might just as well have been left alone, whether the money saved was invested in War Loan or in Football Pools.
It is difficult nowadays to get an idea of circumstances all over the country, but in my own district they were quite nasty, reducing my motoring to an occasional trip through the snow to the garage, to see if the car was still there. A man using a car for business purposes told me that setting out to visit customers in the North Midlands, he drove for some distance through veritable trenches dug through snowdrifts, until at last he decided to turn tail, lest he should have to quarter himself upon said customer for the duration …. of the winter. Certain tradesmen in my village had to leave their vans in their garages, resorting to home-made sledges dragged by rebellions and disgruntled boys.
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Since I paid my humble tribute to drivers of public service vehicles last month, I have received some correspondence which represents that nerve and eye strain suffered by these good fellows in the black-out has had quite serious effects, and that the companies are concerned at the number of absentees through this trouble. It does not surprise me at all, but how can it be remedied? We might, of course, pass a self-denying ordinance and not go out at all after sunset, though this would be hard on some members of the community, such as burglars, for instance.
It must be admitted that I was always one of those who regarded this black-out business as slightly ridiculous, but we have got used to it, and ought not to swap horses while crossing streams. Though it would pass the ability of a logician to say why, if the lights in railway goods yards and on docks can be extinguished at once if there is an air raid warning, it is impossible for the driver of a bus to do the same thing. Quaint, isn’t it ?
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It appears that the authorities, having done their best to destroy the garage business, built up since the last war, have now repented to the extent that they intend to employ garages in repairing Army and Air Force vehicles. This is quite a good idea, particularly as it will certainly prove a less costly and more efficient way of getting the work done, but the record of said authorities leads one to fear that all the work will go to the big concerns, and very little, if any, to the innumerable small ones. One case I know locally is quite a good medium sized undertaking, which, at the end of last August, employed five competent men and eight or nine apprentices; it now employs one man and one boy. Whether it will get any Government work, and whether that work will be placed with it soon enough to save the situation, is quite on the lap of the gods. But the garages I know—and I know a few—deserve better things than those that have been meted out to them.
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Garages, however, do not get all the sympathy from some motorists which is their due. Charges are thought high, and the garage man is blamed, though in the case of some of the large undertakings he has only himself to blame, because of the ridiculous mystery with which he surrounds his operations. A customer incarcerated in a waiting room furnished with an aspidistra and an ancient copy of MOTOR SPORT does not learn very much, whereas he would soon get to know why a job costs what it does if he could see the work in progress. The question of accessibility looms large; the more time it takes to get down to the seat of the trouble, the larger the bill is going to be. Factories, which rarely see a car after it leaves the assembly line might take serious thought about this as well as about the performance question, and their representatives might join the owner of the car in watching some unhappy engineer stretched painfully over a huge front wing which he is afraid of scratching, fishing with the aid of a bit of looking glass for an invisible nut which, when found, won’t allow any known spanner to get near it.
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While we are considering garage men, there is one reform I should like to introduce among them, and that is a good deal more reticence in their bills. The conscientious man spends painful hours at night, when he ought to be filling tip coupons or going to the movies, detailing with meticulous care every movement he has made over a repair job. He will not credit his customer with common sense, so he begins with some such opening as :— “To removing carpets, withdrawing eight coach screws, taking out floor boards, and exposing clutch withdrawal device . . . ” ending up by the same story in reverse order. I treasure one bill which covers three closely written sheets; on receiving it I hurriedly turned to the end to see whether bankruptcy or imprisonment was to be my fate, only to find a very moderate charge for a very good piece of work.
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One curious thing in connection with garage bills is the quite inordinate cost of spare parts. This is not the fault of the garage man, far from it! But on one occasion, having laid unlawful hands on the spare parts list of a famous mass production concern, I amused myself by building an imaginary car on paper, putting down the price of each spare part as I thought of it. The total came to more than twice the cost of the finished article, and I had allowed nothing for labour and the requisite small oddments!