Cars of the 1930s

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Book review

“Cars of the 1930s”, by Michael Sedgwick. 384 pp. 9 in. x 5 1/2 in. (B. T. Batsford Ltd., 4 Fitzhardinge Street, London, W1. 70s.)

Batsford have to a large extent dropped out of the motor book field of publishing but this is a sequel to T. R. Nicholson’s similar discourse about the World’s motor cars at a period we now call “vintage”.

Vintage cars, by reason of remoteness, individuality, historic prowess or because they need different driving techniques from present-day wheeled products, hold the interest of many people, whereas those of the 1930s are, in general, better remembered, are all too often less technically and structurally inviting, offer scarcely less of a challenge to driving skill than modern everyday transport, and can even be downright dull. There may be a valid argument that one of every car ever made should be preserved and some cars of 1931-1939 are extremely covetable, but the existing elevated values of such vehicles seem to this reviewer often quite ridiculous, when much the same interior styling, character and purpose, coupled to far less test-certificate anxiety and considerably more performance, can be found in cars of the 1940s, 1950s, and even the 1960s.

Consequently, many of the 1930s cars mainly offer a better image on paper and in picture than in the metal, on which basis Sedgwick’s book is acceptable, although unlikely, I think, to attract the big readership devoted to earlier eras of motoring history. This is a work to which Sedgwick has been able to put his name, not one “ghosted” for someone else, although he presumably made good use of the Beaulieu archives, and as he is a thoroughly capable and painstaking historian it is a comprehensive work, even if it repeats much that is already known; inevitably with so much one-make and other material already published. It gets much between two covers and provides a consecutive commentary on the Motor Industry during the depression years (when workers were glad to work, for less than the wage increases some of them are currently demanding), comparing contemporary models and the backgrounds against which they emerged and sometimes struggled. Michael Sedgwick is especially gifted in sorting out the story of family cars and contrives to make dull ones sound intriguing. He is not afraid to say which he considers bad and displays a droll sense of humour, for example, in describing the low bottom gear of the four-speed Austin 7s as their “underdrive”. The index is exasperating in referring to famous personalities who are dismissed in a word or two when the pages concerned are consulted, and it underrates the engine size of the Siddeley Special, a car about which the author has been previously confused.

Few other authors could have written so authoritatively not only about British, American, French, Italian and German cars and companies but those in Spain, Belgium, Austria and Hungary, Australia, Sweden and even Czechoslovakia, Russia and Japan, two decades back.

Better perhaps as a “browsing” book than to read at a sitting, which might well induce mental constipation and a sore seat, it is fascinating to read Sedgwick to see how he rates your favourite make and model against the prevailing background of its showroom debut. He contrives to include some little-known data in this all-embracing historical narrative, as he takes the reader from Abbott coachwork and AC to Züst and Zwickau. And in a Sedgwick book one does not expect mistakes, for he is a painstaking and erudite historian; but Buttens used reconditioned not new Ford V8 engines and not all Altards had Columbia two-speed axles.

In his Introduction Sedgwick does his best to explain, even excuse, the lesser breeds of the 1930s (but I am distressed to note that he encouraged speculation by investing £550 in a Fiat eighteen years ago which was already 14 years and a six-figure mileage gone, and had cost new £198). Even if you think you know most of the 1930’s cars you will surely learn about the companies which made them, in chapters with such happy headings as “Transport for Tycoons”, “Transport for the Herrenvolk”, “Place de l’Hangover” and “Transport in Betjeman-Land”, should you toss yourself for this tome or ten gallons of petrol and win. . .-W.B.