"The Motor Car and Politics 1896-1970"

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By William Plowden. 469 pp. 8 3/4 in. x 5 1/4 in. (The Bodley Head, 9, Bow Street, London, WC2. £6.)

These excellent books have appeared recently on what could have been dull subjects—Lord Montagu’s and Anthony Bird’s discourse on the history of the steam car reviewed last month, and Leonard Setright’s coverage of the evolution of the piston aero-engine, and now this book about an aspect of the motor car long neglected but of vital importance to students of social history and government grappling with the mechanically-propelled road vehicle, by William Plowden, with whom I appeared on BBC TV soon after its publication, to discuss the vexed question of the motor car’s future.

Plowden’s painstaking study of how the Government of this country has coped with the horseless-carriage since 1896 goes much further than sorting out the legalities and technicalities of the “Red Flag Act” which started motor legislation flowing. It covers all aspects of the matter—speed limits, taxation, penalties, lighting, the allocation of the Road Fund, etc. The reader should find this fascinating, although heavy going, and will have a number of surprises.

For instance, in the early days of the motor-car the Government wasn’t very concerned about imposing a speed limit, was greatly impressed by the social status of the AA, which by 1910 included amongst its membership several Secretaries of State and even Lloyd George himself, and had first to regard the dust nuisance as of primary importance. It was troubled when respectable, often titled citizens, normally regarded as setting an example to the lower orders, appeared in Court, and even gave false evidence, because they had been caught in speed traps.

Apart from the purely governmental and legal interest in this book, which is a fine tribute to its author’s industry, there are some significant motoring asides. I find it very interesting that although permission was easily obtained to run the 1903 Gordon Bennett race in Ireland, the King made it very plain that he was against it and felt that it should not have been allowed; indeed, the King had Balfour’s attention drawn to the Paris-Madrid disasters and his private secretary wrote to the Home Secretary stating that His Majesty “hoped that no racing of motors would be allowed on British roads”. He eventually withdrew his opposition but expressed the hope that the race would not be repeated—certainly not in England. This is the only reference to motor racing, apart from a footnote about Lord Curzon, MP, saying “he took up motor racing at the suggestion of a Magistrate, and thereafter for several years successfully raced Bugattis at Brooklands”. The author could have added “and other makes” but Howe and Bugatti seem to be inseparable in his mind.

It is astonishing for how long a review of the outdated Motor Car Act of 1903 was postponed and how reluctantly a 20 m.p.h. speed limit was introduced. It is significant how materially the Government wishing to tax cars had to rely on the industry and particularly the RAC to advise them. Taxation is dealt with in much detail but I am disappointed there is no explanation of the odd concessions made to 6 h.p. and 7 h.p. cars, although this has been dealt with in Motor Sport in the past. The horse-power tax did what the McKenna duties failed to do—stopped reports of big American cars and killed off the Model-T Ford, which had to pay, initially, £23 a year, whereas a Morris-Cowley paid £12, although this was refuted in official circles. It is interesting, in view of Henry Ford II’s recent threats, that Ford spokesmen said that as the h.p. tax weighed unfairly against the Model-T the Company might be forced to give up its plans to concentrate in England all production for the European market—that in 1923! The concessions for old cars are discussed but not in the context of the early rebates for pre-war engines.

The hysterical outburst of William Morris, against the removal of the McKenna duties is nicely dealt with (Morris said a million men would lose their jobs but it was estimated that the Industry only employed, directly and indirectly, at most 250,000, at that time, 1924). But I find Plowden’s comment that the Model-A was “a commercial failure”, implying that it had to be replaced in the autumn of 1932 by the 8 h.p. £120 baby Ford, rather remarkable. He says of Model-A: “Against the advice of the British Company, Ford Head Office in 1931 tried to launch the new Model-A from the newly-opened Dagenham factory. It was a commercial failure…” The original 24-h.p. Model-B may have been, in this country, but not the subsequent 14.9-h.p. Model-A, and what of the success of the 30-h.p. V8 under the h.p. tax?

“The Motor Car and Politics” is packed with interesting, significant and startling pieces of history, however. We see how Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, the present Lord Montagu’s father, fought for the rights of pioneer motorists but was turned upon as soon as the Government of the day discarded his views, the sure proof of how genuine friendships are! We find many railway celebrities in charge of later Ministry of Transport affairs, the RAC early displaying its well-known apathy to the motoring cause, the Police fed up with speed limits, although it wasn’t until 1930 that the old 20 m.p.h. restriction was abolished and limits were later reintroduced.

We are made to remember that in early recommendations of motor legislation to the Government motorists had a pre-1914 champion in F. L. D. Elliott, “a Home Office who was himself an enthusiastic motorist”. Mainly, however, the message of this book is that the arrival and rapidly expanding use of motor vehicles perplexed successive Governments, who at first were influenced in imposing controls by the social status of car owners and later troubled by the political (vote-losing) aspect of adverse legislation. The problems of taxing cars to extract revenue for road-improvement and how the Road Fund has been raided almost ever since Churchill’s pick from it, are fully covered and we see the private motorist frequently the scapegoat for matters in which road vehicles of all kinds should have been implemented.

In a 1918 report by the Select Committee on Luxury Duty the private car was linked to precious stones, leather boas, fans, perfume, yachts and pleasure boats, autograph letters, billiard tables and cocktails, and that the present enthusiasm for vintage and veteran cars was far off in 1929 is seen when a tax rebate on old cars was mooted, to which the MoT replied that it might keep on the road “decrepit, noisy and slow motor vehicles, which ought to be replaced by modern ones”!

The pollution angle, however, had reared its ugly head as early as the mid-1920s, when the Commissioner of Metropolitan Police complained to the Home Office that motorists who left their engines running not only polluted the air, to the detriment of the health of point-duty constables, but made it easy for criminals to jump in and drive off. He had to be gently told about self-starters, an instance of the sorry lack of expertise on the part of most of those in authority over the motor-car.

Incidentally, when manufacturers were asked their views about the horse-power tax, Ford fought for their Model-T (but by 1924 it was thought not to have affected sales of Fords, but rather the British motorists dislike of this type of car), but Swift, Vauxhall and AC were confident it had no adverse effect on engine design. Singer thought it had, but wouldn’t alter their own designs, and Standard were against it.

It was Lord Cecil of Chelwood, later President of the Pedestrians’ Association, who forced the Government’s hand in 1928 and at last caused the 1903 Act to be revised. It is the full impact of these and other political bearings on motoring which make William Plowden’s book of much interest and such a valuable study of a neglected subject.

We are disappointed to find only an anonymous reference to the Motor Sport/Motoring News petition for abolition of the 70 m.p.h. speed-limit on Motorways, which was signed by 280,000 motorists and presented to the Ministry of Transport in 1969 by Graham Hill, Denny Hulme and Earl Howe, but otherwise it seems to be mostly all there, from small but intriguing items like the defence of exhaust cut-outs in 1911 (the senior LGB official responsible for regulations affecting motor vehicles admitting he wouldn’t recognise a cut-out if he saw one!) to the major issues which have along the years shaped motoring legislation as it is today.

This excellent book is highly recommended to those with the head and the inclination to absorb its contents.—W. B.

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