Matters of Moment, March 1981
In last month’s Editorial we expressed the hope that there will not be an increase in car-tax fees with the April Budget, to compensate for the loss of revenue to the Government from car-licence evasion, which the Transport Minister Mr. Norman Fowler is obviously so concerned about. Yet optimism under this heading is curbed by the recent increase in American fuel-prices and the ever-present threat from the great beast Inflation. If petrol prices rise again, the car-owner will be penalised automatically, and there is little need to remind those who motor for business or pleasure that much of the cost of doing this stems from the high tax on petrol.
It may not be evident to the present generation of road-vehicle users how these savage levies on them have been diverted continually from the original laudable aim of the Road Fund, which was that of providing adequate roads on which motor vehicles could run. In the present climate of taxation and the narrow escape we have had recently from Mr. Fowler’s ridiculous idea of taxing every known motor vehicle whether or not it possessed wheels, it will not come amiss to recap.
When the first autocars emerged from experimental workshops to provide a new toy for the fanatic, and later the more wealthy members of society, they had to use crude roads, suited only to slow-moving horse transport, which caused the slightly-quicker moving petroleum-driven vehicles to send up great clouds of dust in their wake. To curb this nuisance, reconstruction of road surfaces became an urgent necessity, if the new-fangled carriages — without horses (or oxen) — were to override public criticism. Dust-suppressing trials were held, of course — they even set aside ideas of sheer speed and organised these at Brooklands Track — but it soon became obvious that this way there was no effective solution to this main obstacle in overcoming prejudice against the motor car.
So roads had to be improved, from the already sound foundations provided by Macadam’s method, to tar-binding the road surface to overcome the dust menace. But tarmac roads cost money, which, with maintaining them under the more widespread use of horseless-carriages, could not be financed effectively by the old turnpike, or toll, system of the Stage-Coach era. Obviously, owners of motors could not object to a form of taxation which would pay for the building of better roads, properly suited to their vehicles, and to the maintenance of such roads, whereas any other taxes, such as those on beer, spirits, or cigarettes, were taxes on luxury, a minor wealth-tax, as remains the case today.
Motor cars had become more or less practical substitutes for the horse by about 1904, and thereafter their numbers multiplied, until by 1909 there were more than 48,000 private cars in use in Britain, or an increase of nearly 40,000 over the 1904 figure (allowing for evaders, Mr. Fowler!). It was then that Lloyd George set up his new Road Improvement Fund. He increased the former “luxury” tax on mechanically-propelled road vehicles, on a sliding-scale of duties augmented by a 3d. per gallon tax on petrol, but effectively cushioned the blow by guaranteeing that all the finance thus collected would be spent on the roads, none of it going to the Exchequer. Having made quite sure of his proposals, and that even the tax on petrol would go to the Road Fund, the Conservatives backed him. All then looked lovely, in the motoring garden of England. . . .
Or it did until 1915 when, on account of the war, Road-Fund finance was diverted to the National Exchequer, the petrol-tax also being raised to 6d. a gallon. However, amends were made in 1919/20, when just under £6-million of the £14 1/2-million extracted was repaid to the Road Board, the body which allocated monies from the Road Fund to local authorities for road building and repair. However, it is well known that all Governments possess itchy fingers where your money is concerned, and that what you possess they will soon find means of taking away! So it was with the growing finance of Lloyd George’s Road Fund.
In 1926 Winston Churchill made his first notorious raid on it, taking out £7-million and also diverting a third of private-vehicle tax-revenue to the general Exchequer. In 1927 Churchill did it again, raiding the luckless Road Fund of £12-million. (That is a fact of history, although it is to be hoped that the present generation will not overlook how ably Sir Winston made amends to the country, during the dark days of WW2.) The rot continued, for in 1935 Neville Chamberlain took nearly £4 1/2-million from the Road Fund’s balance and repeated the robbery in 1936, disguised as being done to benefit the taxpayer. Although at that time local authorities were being asked to submit schemes under a Five-Year Road Plan involving £100-million, the Road Fund had now to rely on finance allocated to it from general funds, and vehicle-users no longer contributed directly to it. The Road Fund was finally abolished in 1955.
What has this bit of history got to do with today? Simply that the situation it portrays has worsened, along the way. The British Road Federation states that of £7,071-million contributed in motor-vehicle taxation in the year ending this month, only £2,223-million will be spent on road works. This in spite of the much bigger commercial vehicles soon to be let loose on British roads and the fact that we have one of the most crowded road-systems in Europe, with 45 vehicles per kilometre, against an average of 38 per kilometre in EEC countries.
It means that for the £60 a year you now pay to tax a car, only £14 was used last year to improve and maintain roads. Mr. Fowler has abolished the quarterly licence, and we have heard no more of the “week-end” taxation promised us as soon as Swansea got its multi-million-pound Computer Centre ticking. So, if there is to be any increase on £60, watch that more of it goes on road building and repair. . . .
A Long Journey
From time to time unusually long marathons are undertaken in early cars. The late F. S. Bennett used to take his veteran Cadillac on re-enactments of the 1,000-mile trial of 1900, and the same was once done by the late St. John Nixon, with an 1899 Wolseley; to our great delight, because this very gentleman had previously taken severely to task anyone who had dared to use the earlier primitives for any sort of road-journey, saying the place for these frail and valuable heirlooms was in museums . . .
The 750 MC had an Austin Seven expedition last year as far as Monte Carlo and there have been other instances of the older cars doing notably lengthy runs. Which brings as to the case of Richard Smith, who next month, appropriately on April Fool’s Day, will commence a drive from Land’s End to John O’Groats on his 1899 Benz vis-a-vis. Many vehicles have in their day made the End-to-End run but, for the 1980s, Mr. Smith has certainly chosen about the most improbable car imaginable. We do not think the use of a veteran 3 1/2 h.p. Benz represents any historical re-enactment, for it was a Daimler that captured the pioneer limelight over this particular route. Nor is there much point in setting out to prove that Carl Benz made a terribly pedestrian but very long-lived petrol-carriage, because these Benz Ideals were so slow that they took a long time to wear out, examples surviving certainly up to the outbreak of WW1 and one of them being in regular use in the mid-1920s, we believe. They were slow, but suitable for strictly local journeys, and one of them sparked-off Sammy Davis’ (whose obituary appears on page 296) subsequent great love of cars, when as a small boy he accompanied his doctor — uncle at the turn of the century on his rounds in Suffolk, on one of these crude petrol — carriages.
It cannot even be said that this kind of Benz pointed any son of way to automotive development. With a kind of gas-engine with exposed big-end under its piano-lid at the back, and belt-drive to its back wheels, it was up a sort of unnavigable creek, technically, and although it can be said that rear-engined cars are still to be seen on the road, in the guise of the ubiquitous VW Beetle, and that even belt-driven ones are sometimes encountered, in the form of early DAFs, both factors together, no! The Benz was anyway soon ousted in design by the Panhard-Levassor, with its engine in front and its rear vvheels driven through a gearbox, and that is how most of the World’s motor manufacturers would have left it, if Sir Alec lssigonis hadn’t brilliantly intervened. These Panhards were reliable, too; one circa 1891 example still serving a French priest in the late twenties.
So Richard Smith’s embarkation on a personal End-to-End Marathon, the 1,218 miles of which are expected to occupy 33 days, taking in such towns at Plymouth, Torquay, Oxford, Birmingham, Manchester, Carlisle, Glasgow, Edinburgh and so on, would seem the epitome of senseless veteranism, especially as Tom Lightfoot did the V.C.C. End-to-End Run in 7-days on his 1902 Mercedes-Simplex not long ago, if he wasn’t doing the run for charity. It is a sponsored drive on behalf of the British Heart Foundation and it has the blessing of the VCC and the VSCC, etc. If you would care to sponsor the effort, say at anything from 1/4p to 1p or more per mile, B.K. Goodman, 8 Pilgrims Way, Reigate, Surrey RH2 9LG has the forms.
The ravages of inflation affect us, at Standard House, as much as anybody else. We regret very much having to increase our cover price to 60 pence in these hard time, but the costs in both materials and labour involved in producing the magazine have risen enormously since the last increase in July 1979. The new price will apply from the April issue onwards and we hope you believe, as we do, that Motor Sport is still the best value in motoring journalism.