In the excellent February article “The Talbot Lago-America” you asked for readers’ comments on the origin of rh steering in better pre-1939 French cars. None of the three theories mentioned in your article fully explains why, and to find the reason you have to go back to the very beginnings of conscious travel, ie deliberate movement between two localities as opposed to aimless wanderings.
When meeting someone unknown on a path, coming in the opposite direction, it was prudent for most people (being righthanded) to pass on the left side of the path and to have your weapon (club, mace, or sword) ready in your right hand.
As traffic between European cities grew more dense, Pope Boniface VIII decreed, in 1300, that all Christendom should henceforth drive their carriages and ride to the left. The Pontiff was, however, less concerned with traffic safety than with the ability of his messengers to defend themselves — and the cash they carried.
This Papal decree really just ratified the existing state of affairs, as most drivers already kept to the left while placing themselves at the rh side of their carriages in order better to defend themselves against on-coming riders, and better to gauge if vehicles met might be safely passed on the narrow road.
If you cast back to Motor Sport of January 1947 you will find, on page 9, an entertaining “Sideslip” by “Baladeur” [Kent Karslake — Ed] who explains how the Revolution in France 1789 rejected the ancient Papal lh rule of the road and instituted right-hand traffic as the proper revolutionary mode of travel. This was later spread to most of Europe by Napoleon Bonaparte during the post-revolutionary French expansion.
Unfortunately “Baladeur”s explanation is a little too glib. For already on October 30th, 1758 — some 30 years before the upheaval in France — it was decreed in Copenhagen, Denmark, that “carriages must always be driven on the right-hand side as near to the gutter as possible”. In Sweden it had been ordinated even earlier, in 1718, that carriages should keep to their right. But that regulation was so soon forgotten that the exact opposite was enacted in 1734 with the result that Sweden drove to the left until 1967.
In Europe it was thus for centuries much a matter of local preference on which side of the road one had to drive. 18th century illustrations confirm this, but such etchings etc also confirm that most drivers kept their by now traditional rh seat irrespective of the prevailing rule of the road.
And that ancient tradition was carried over to motor cars when they appeared in the 1880s. Motor racing had, in all probability, no direct influence on the position of the steering. In the classic road races that constructional detail would not have mattered. And in circuit racing it may, indeed, have been the other way round, that the circuits were laid out clockwise because the driver of a (two-seater) racing car traditionally sat to the right. The predecessors, the Roman chariot races, were run with one corner only — to the left.
The less sporting argument that kerbside steering had practical advantages with rh rule of the road may have more merit. As cars grew more luxurious it was convenient to have your chauffeur positioned to nip out smartly and open the rh door to the rear seat, letting you step out on the sidewalk. In the USA different considerations seem to have persuaded Henry Ford sen to put the steering of the Model T (1909-27) on the left despite rh rule of the road. He wanted the driver nearer the middle of the road in order better to survey the morass of contemporary dirt-roads. Most American manufacturers followed suit, but formal cars like Packards, Pierce-Arrows etc continued for many years with rh steering to keep the chauffeur in his proper place.
Ford’s admirer Andre Citroen initiated European mass production in 1919 and used lh steering which was quickly copied by other makers aiming at the mass market.
But makers of luxury, sports, and racing cars, especially in France, clung to the traditional chauffeur’s or driver’s seat on the right.
Green Valley, Ontario,
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