Matters of Moment, May 1981

Budget Blues

Car-users always pay very dearly in taxation and the last “blue” Budget ran to form, with 20p a gallon on petrol-tax and the licence rate up from £60 to £70. This at a time of recession, when it is imperative not to increase the cost of transporting manufactured goods and foodstuffs and when we are something like half-a-century away from the valid idea of the private car being in any way a luxury, for the majority of owners.

When the Government first got hold of the idea that all motor cars should cars should carry number plates, there was an outcry. But this was inevitable, nor could much objection be raised when a tax on cars was introduced, because this was to pay for the better, dustless roads this new form of faster transport required. From that, however, it was but a short step to extracting an ever-increasing, unfair, levy on motor-vehicle owners, made far, far worse when the Road Fund was raided, before being deflected entirely to general Government revenue.

Apart from that, no very clear idea of how best to tax mechanically-propelled vehicles, to extract the maximum from their operators, emerged. In the early days of petrol-carriages authority devised a sliding-scale of taxation, at a not unduly vicious rate. This was changed to one based on horse-power in 1909-10. This also had a sliding-scale basis, ranging from £3 levied on cars of 6 1/2 h.p.- 12 h.p., up to £42 for those of over 60 h.p., in six increments, a total of seven horse-power classes in all. In 1920 the later RAC horse-power formula was adopted as the taxation basis, this working out at £1 per h.p. It was a disaster for British car design, because it took into account the diameter of the cylinders and their number, and thus encouraged low-speed, long-stroke engines. It bore small relation to developed horse-power; a Model-T Ford paid £23 a year (from the former six guineas!), a 3-litre Bentley £16. It was seen to be unfair to the big-engined but comparatively inefficient [I have to be careful here, for so many VSCC members are readers! — Ed.] older cars, and for a time those with engines made prior to 1913 were given a rebate. Admittedly there was a reduction to 15/- (75p) per rated horse-power in 1934, but the aged-engines concession had long been abolished and with petrol tax ever increasing, not much of a concession was gained. Anyway, it was increased to 25/- per h.p. in 1940.

The Government of the day thought again in 1948, and introduced a flat-rate taxation system, but muddled thinking prevailed, because cars registered before that year were still taxed on the horse-power-rating method. (Which must have been nasty for legislative civil-servants and motor-tax offices but nice for those who printed the bumph.)

Finally, an overall flat-rate tax was introduced, and it only remained to increase this from £10 per year to £50, £60 and now to £70, while always retaining a savage tax on petrol, a tax dating back more than 70 years. In his “blue Budget”, giving vehicle-users the blues, Sir Geoffrey Howe increased both, to a surprising degree. He is justifiably being criticised up and down the land, by those with goods to transport and those who will now pay more dearly for them, by those living in rural areas who depend almost entirely on the private car for daily transport, by those workers who go to and from business by car and who may not have had a pay-increase to compensate, and by those who use their cars for much-needed relaxation, in the country, or conversely, in the towns.

What do vehicle-users get in return for paying so much into the National Exchequer? An inadequate amount of this money allocated for repairing roads or building much-needed new roads. Speed-traps that can do almost nothing at all to promote road safety, applied in numerous cases to unrealistic speed limits which have not been updated for years in spite of vehicle improvements and inflicted in some areas with disgustingly-inaccurate radar-guns which were not exposed until one wrongly convicted person took time and money to fight their use; no increase in general parking-space, but wardens to pounce if a vehicle pauses for a few minutes in village or city street; closure of local motor-taxation offices, resulting in cost, delay, and frustration to chose from whom these astronomical levies are extracted; compulsion to pay purchase-tax and fit safety-belts which are not compulsary to wear, and now the feeble introduction of new seat-harness legislation relating only to young children and not even to be endorseable if disobeyed! [Please strap yourself to your “lethal weapon” if you feel safer that way, unless, like the writer, you are claustrophobic, but do fight compulsion, legislation that it would be almost impossible to enforce — Ed.]. If Sir Geoffrey Howe was so anxious to hit the motorist yet again, and harder than before, he might when doing so at least have introduced a clause that would have encouraged the use of smaller-engined, less-petrol-thirsty cars. It would not have been difficult, surely, to have allowed the former £60 tax-rate to have remained, say for cars with engines of less than 1.500 c.c. This wouldn’t have made tax forms or collection much more complicated than the prevailing system that has divisions innumerable for commercial-vehicles and which still contains those historic reductions for 6 h.p. and 7 h.p. cars first registered before 1947 (which pay £50 a year), for over-250 c.c. motorcycles first taxed before 1933 which weigh less than 101.6 kg. (£14 a year), and for three-wheelers weighing 425 kg. or under (£28, or £7 if of less than 150 c.c.!). [All ridiculously complicated, although we hope sincerely that people using older vehicles that comply will make sure they obtain these concessions — Ed.].

The country’s motor transport is far too highly taxed, Sir Geoffrey, which can only harm Britain in this time of recession.

The No. 1 Driver

All the bickering that is at present dulling the greatness of Formula One racing will, no doubt, be discussed elsewhere, by those who were present at the races concerned or who know about Grand Prix motor racing as it is run today — the major rows, which race counts as a Championship event, why the new Lotus cars are banned, and so on. There will also be much interminable discussion about Carlos Reutemann refusing to let Alan Jones win the Brazilian Grand Prix.

There is nothing much that hasn’t happened before in racing, however. Segrave once gave Lee Guinness the slip and won the 1921 JCC 200-Mile Race against Talbot-Darracq team orders, after Rene Thomas had disobeyed Coatalen’s instructions and beaten Guinness at Le Mans earlier that year. Then there was the classic case of von Brauchitsch ignoring Neubauer’s signals at Monaco in 1937 and beating the number one Mercedes driver Rudolf Caracciola who had been intended to win, and we remember how Fangio only let Moss win by a whisker, again for Mercedes-Benz, at Aintree in 1955 and, moreover, made it very obvious. On the other hand, there has been very thorough co-operation between drivers in the past, when often a slower driver has been called in and his No. 1 put in his place — Collins would stop and hand over to Fangio in the Ferrari team, for instance, and if space permitted we could quote a great many more examples. But in those days, there was not the intense pressure of Big Business, High Finance and TV to inflate such items of motor racing interest into major episodes surrounded by drama and gloom.